Narrative and the Christian reader
Dr. Deborah Bowen's inauguration lecture
57 min. read
October 1, 2010

Twenty years ago this month, in October 1990, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation at Ottawa U. on the ways photography is incorporated into contemporary fiction. That December I was convocated (and photographed) – and though I participated somewhat unwillingly in the long convocation ceremony, I was grateful for the opportunity for my children, especially, to see that their mom’s seemingly endless unavailability over the previous five years of study and writing really had developed into some sort of publicly recognizable picture. Today, in a different ceremony, perhaps I will be able to develop the picture more to my own satisfaction, since I’m going to talk about narrative, and one of the photographic gurus I referred to in my dissertation, John Berger, argues that photographs need narrative to complete their “half-language of appearances”.[i] But I’d like to start by publicly honouring my husband and my kids: being a mom and an academic at the same time is a pretty demanding double career, even when you know you are called to both vocations, and I couldn’t have even begun to do it without a very supportive family. So, a big thank you goes out today to John, Ben, and Anna.

Nine months before that convocation, in March 1990, my colleague Hugh Cook, now emeritus, had given his address on the occasion of his promotion to full professor at what was then Redeemer College. Hugh talked about “faithful fiction” being the kind that “find[s] just the right words,” so that what is written is upright and true (Eccl. 12.10).[ii] That talk was one of the first things I read when I got to Redeemer; it’s still available as a booklet through the Redeemer bookstore. But today I want to think about not so much the writing of stories as the reading of them. Which is, by some accounts, in any case the story of their development into fully-focused pictures.[iii] And which also needs to be faithful.

The question

First, let me explain my title. And to do that I need to tell you a bit about Salman Rushdie. He is probably best-known for The Satanic Verses, the book for which in February 1989 he was put under a death warrant in a fatwa decreed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the political and religious leader of Iran. The novel was said to be a blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, and the Islamic faithful were called to exterminate its writer and any others who were actively engaged in its promotion: “Anyone who dies in the cause of ridding the world of Rushdie will be a martyr”.[iv] However strongly we may feel about blasphemy, or even about the inadvisability of scandalizing the religious beliefs of other people, it is not the Christian way to murder the writer, except perhaps in reviews. But in Rushdie’s case, in the first four years of the fatwa, the Japanese translator of the book was murdered and its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were both nearly killed; an assassin accidentally blew himself up in an English hotel with a bomb intended for Rushdie; fifty-six people were killed and a further hundred and sixty wounded in riots and associated troubles sparked by the book in India, Pakistan, and Turkey. The fatwa was apparently negotiated to an end by the British Government in 1998, but in February of 2006, a government-run foundation in Iran declared that, after all, “the fatwa will be in effect forever”.[v] Salman Rushdie now lives in New York, but he spent nine years of his life in hiding under British government protection, unable to stay in one place more than a few weeks, and separated from his family. In 1990 he published a book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories for his young son Zafar, who was eleven when Rushdie went into hiding, and whom he couldn’t be with during that time. On one level this book is a children’s fantasy. On another level it is a plea for freedom of speech, and the vital necessity of stories.

The story is about Haroun and his father Rashid, who is the city’s storyteller. When his father loses the gift of the gab, Haroun sets off on a quest to find the Ocean of the Streams of Story. Eventually he has to fight against Khattam-Shud, a despotic leader in a silent land whose followers all have zipped lips and who is building a vast plug to dam up the Sea of Stories forever, because stories are the one thing he can’t control. (Rushdie provides a glossary of Hindustani names at the back of the book: ‘Khattam-Shud’ means ‘completely finished, over and done with.’) Rushdie himself has said of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, “It’s a grown-up novel of ideas masquerading as a children’s book”.[vi] A bit like Gulliver’s Travels, maybe. Or even C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The taunt that initially drives Rashid to despair, and therefore to the loss of his storytelling skills, is a sarcastic comment by his totally unimaginative neighbour Mr Sengupta, who seduces Rashid’s wife with the “serious business” of facts. It’s a taunt which Haroun throws at his father in a moment of anger when his mother has left: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” In response, “Rashid hid his face in his hands and wept”.[vii]

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” This is a question that haunts many English students, perhaps particularly English students with a social conscience and, perhaps most of all, English students who are Christian. The English Department is one of the biggest at Redeemer: about 1/8 of the student body here is studying English as a major, an honours major, or a minor. In my third-year Contemporary Fiction class we regularly read Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I try to show the students that stories can actually be a matter of life and death in the real world outside the story, as they have been for Rushdie. And I ask the students to consider Haroun’s question, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” A lively discussion regularly ensues. Many of these students seem to feel that their peers in Business and in Environmental Science and in Social Work and in Education are often, in effect, asking them this question. What use is it to study English? Why don’t you do some seriously useful work, and look at inner-city ministry, or saving the environment, or running an honest business, or teaching Bible to kids? What’s all this about reading stories for your homework? What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? Moreover, a number of students regularly comment that their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings also give them either overt or covert hassle about studying English, when they’re home. What are you going to do with an English major, if you don’t want to be a teacher? Isn’t it a bit self-indulgent? How will it advance the Kingdom of God? Will it even feed your family?

I’m not going to talk today about the practical value of an English degree for getting you a job – though I could. Being able to read intelligently and write fluently are skills that almost any managerial job requires, for instance. But I want, rather, to address a bit more philosophically the question of “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Perhaps this is even a question for some in the audience today. Now, of course, as a Christian teaching in a school which takes a Reformed biblical perspective, I am always conscious that in teaching literature I am teaching a rich creaturely expression of God’s creativity under God’s sovereign care, and I am trying to be a good steward of God’s varied gifts. I want my students to understand literature as an extension of God’s imagining and ordering of the world. I want them to recognize how God has given them literature as a beautiful and life-enhancing gift to enjoy – aesthetic appreciation, enjoying a good book because it’s beautifully put together, beautifully crafted, is in and of itself a valid thing to do. I want my students to understand that God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and fill the earth relates to all the world’s potential, including its literary potential, and not just its families and its gardens. As Calvin Seerveld puts it, “Culture is not optional. . . . To fight cultural amplification of creation is to be disobedient to the will of the Lord revealed in the Scriptures”.[viii][ix] Well, okay, but, my students might still want to ask, how does cultural amplification actually work? What’s the use of stories?

Stories Jesus told

So, in good Reformed and Evangelical tradition, let’s start with the Bible. First off, we might ask why Jesus himself told so many stories – after all, He is the Word incarnate.[x] And often and often, when someone would ask him a question, he’d respond with a story. Peter asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus tells him the story about the unforgiving servant (Matt.18.21-35). Peter asks again, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus tells him the story of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt.19.27-20.16). A lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37). Or people have unspoken questions that Jesus responds to with stories. A big crowd of all kinds of people gathers curiously around Jesus: he tells them the story about the sower and the seed (Mark 4.1-20). Simon the Pharisee has Jesus to dinner and silently judges him for being accepting of a prostitute: Jesus tells him the story of cancelled debts (Luke 7.36-47). Why does Jesus tell stories? Why doesn’t he just tell the questioners and the curious and the cynics the truth?

(i) The first suggestion I would make is that stories offer a wider kind of response than abstract propositional statements do. Stories give you an environment to explore. They enlarge your head. They extend beyond your rational faculties to include your imagination and your feelings. They put you into a narrative. And this means that any simplified, headliner statements are blown up like balloons and become three-dimensional. Who is my neighbour? Well, the person I meet who needs my care, right? Only partly right. My neighbour may be a person quite unlike me, in fact someone I don’t even expect to trust, who comes into my life at the right time and gives me a hand when I badly need it. Jesus asks at the end of that story, “Who was neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?” He wants us to see that we are called to love not only the person in obvious need, but also the foreigner who is stronger and better-off than ourselves, our neighbour who helps us in our need. Stories offer a bigger, more multi-faceted response.

(ii) A second suggestion I’d make as to why Jesus tells stories is that they engage our imaginations, even in spite of ourselves. Stories can get to us when we resist the affront of propositional truth, either intellectually or emotionally. In that story about the creditor and the two debtors, Simon the Pharisee could see that the debtor who was forgiven the bigger debt would be likely to love the creditor more, before he could see that this applied analogically to himself. So the judgment that he pronounces is on himself. Stories get under our skin. Earlier in the scriptural narrative, think of King David and Nathan’s story of the ewe lamb. David has presumably long since rationalized his many transgressions against Bathsheba and Uriah, until he is shocked into repentance by Nathan’s story, which moves him and engages him before he realizes he has passed judgment on himself (2 Sam.12.1-15). The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem which begins, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” This is how both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets tell their stories.

(iii) Third, stories can have this kind of power because they reflect back our everyday lives. Rather than presenting us with a list of facts to learn, a set of theories or propositions to memorize, or a structure of information to retain, they come right to where we are, and sit down with us among the coffee-cups and the need to do the dishes; or out in the summer-job on the farm with the worker who gets hired later than I do but, by some quirk of the employer’s, gets paid the same as I do. Stories show me things about myself and my world and my reactions to it. They open my eyes to where I’m sitting. They say, Yes, every detail matters. Put yourself into the narrative. Watch how things unfold in time. Put your own propositions in context. Read the situation carefully. The classical critics well knew this power of literary language to reflect the world in eloquent ways: Horace, writing his Art of Poetry a few years before the birth of Christ, said, “He wins every vote who combines the sweet and the useful”;[xi] Sir Philip Sidney, recapitulating classical learning for the sixteenth century, described creative literature as “a speaking picture; with this end, to teach and delight”. [xii] And so “reading” these pictures is not only enjoyable; it can also be a key to living well.

(iv) Fourth: what’s more, stories can help me to see through someone else’s eyes, rather than just through my own – stories foster empathy in their readers. How does this kind of summer job, and this sort of attitude to my job, look to a person from another culture? How did it look to someone a hundred years ago? How would it look to an elderly person? Or to someone from a different religion? Last winter in my first-year poetry class we were reading an essay by C.S. Lewis called “Learning in War-Time.” It’s actually a sermon he delivered at the university church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in the fall of 1939, just after World War II broke out in Europe. C.S. Lewis was a professor of English Literature at Oxford, and in this essay he’s dealing with the question of how it can be legitimate for students to keep on studying in a time of national crisis, while their colleagues are dying in battle. Lewis starts by pushing this envelope: he says that war simply aggravates a permanent situation, i.e. that we are all always in a time of crisis, en route to either heaven or hell – how then can it be justifiable for a Christian ever to spend time on literature or art, mathematics or biology, rather than the saving of souls? And one of his answers is that it’s precisely in reading literature and in studying that our experience of life is expanded to the extent that we can live wisely and well in the present. He says we need to know about other times and places: “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” and in a similar way, says Lewis, “the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age”.[xiii] Because literature can give us a particularly vivid surrogate experience of “living in many times and places,” it is particularly able to cultivate in us the capacity to see from someone else’s point of view.

But let’s go back to Jesus’ stories. Because it may be useful to ask, what kinds of stories does Jesus tell, and what exactly is their truth-content?

Jesus and true stories

Are Jesus’ stories “true stories” of someone or something he’s experienced? Or are they “made-up stories” that illustrate what he wants to say? And does it matter?

Stories were clearly very useful to Jesus. He would see situations that needed addressing and address them with a story: those who trusted in themselves and despised others are given the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18.9-14); those who love money are given the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.14, 19-31); those who grumble that Jesus spends time with sinners are given the story of the prodigal son and his brother (Luke 15.2, 11-32). But could Jesus’ listeners go and see that particular Pharisee in the temple? Could they go and visit the brothers of that particular rich man? Could they go and talk with that particular lost sheep of Israel who is found – or his mean-spirited brother? Was Jesus talking about a Good Samaritan he’d met? Had Jesus met the prodigal son? Did these people “really exist”? Well, yes – and no. The truth of stories is not necessarily the kind of truth which has a specific empirical referent, a particular piece of evidence in mind. The truth of stories is something more wide-reaching than that. Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan becomes a story about anyone who sees a person in need and helps them out. Jesus’ story about the unforgiving servant becomes a story about anyone who gives less mercy than he receives. Jesus’ story about the prodigal son becomes a story about anyone who sees the error of his ways and is received back into the family. Does this universalizing from the particulars make the stories less true?

Of course sometimes Jesus does tell stories about things that had really happened, even things that were part of the Jewish scriptures – Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4.24-26), the sign of Jonah (Matt.12.38-41), John the Baptist’s ministry (Matt.11.7-19). And sometimes he tells stories about things that haven’t happened yet, like his own death and resurrection (see Mark 8.31), or the fall of Jerusalem (Matt.24.1-2), or his coming again at the end of the world (Mark 13.24-27). So even the truth of historical stories is not necessarily a truth of relation to past events: it can be a prophecy about the future. And we believe that many of the Old Testament prophets’ stories about the future have already come true – though the way in which the story and the actuality fit together is not all that straightforward: to describe the Messiah as a shepherd (Isa.40.11), or a shoot from dry ground (Isa.11.1-5), or as having no comeliness that we should desire him (Isa.53.2-3), is to use images that have to be interpreted to relate to Jesus. So, it’s not just truth as correct factuality that we are talking about here; it’s the truth of imagination, and faith.

Think about good preachers and teachers you know. Good preachers often tell stories, because they want to both teach and delight.[xiv] They have a lesson to teach, and they find a story to teach it. They want to engage your imagination, sometimes even in spite of yourself. Sometimes the stories are about things that have really happened, but sometimes they are made-up stories. A group of Redeemer students returned a few years back from a program at the Overseas Missions Study Centre at Yale University, where they met pastors and missionaries from all over the world; the students told how they were particularly struck by the way in which, when the African brothers would tell stories to illustrate what they wanted to say, it was irrelevant to them whether these were stories of fact or stories of fiction. All the stories were alive; all of them were used to bring something important into the light. In this sense, all the stories were true.

Taking stories seriously: “What is truth?”

Now, wait a minute, you say. This is getting messy. I mean, a story can’t always be equally valid whether or not it’s actually happened. Think about the big story that we live in – the metanarrative of our faith. It matters that Jesus was a real human being who walked this earth and healed people (and told stories) and died by crucifixion and rose from death in a special kind of body and went back to be with his Father in heaven. The apostle Paul even says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 5.17). Yes, that story matters. That story has to be “true truth,” as Francis Schaeffer used to put it. [xv] It’s not enough to believe in the concept of the story, or the general imaginative truth of the story: we need a real Jesus in a real body and dying a real death, if we are to be born into God’s kingdom. So, yes, it does matter that we know what’s fact and what’s fiction around Jesus.

And it does matter too, surely, when we tell other stories about events from the past. There’s a difference between a fictional story that might be made up about some young soldier who fought and died in Italy in the Second World War, and the story of my uncle, whom I never met because he really did die, aged 21, in the awful mess around Monte Casino, years before I was born, and whose grave is marked on the hillside at that place. My grandfather, his father, was a semi-professional cellist. The story was told in my family that on the day he heard his son had been killed he put away his cello, and didn’t play it again for two whole years. And that was truly true. We have to be careful not to take away the dignity and significance of real people and real death and real grief, by turning everything into the kind of story that doesn’t seem to need a specific real referent.[xvi]

And yet. I also want to argue that we need to take our fictional stories seriously: we need to realize that stories can open our eyes and our minds, can convict our hearts, can lead us into empathy and compassion for people very different from ourselves. And if we remember that the telling of stories can be a matter of life and death in many parts of our world, even today, then perhaps we will be less dismissive than Mr Sengupta in Rushdie’s story, and than many conservative Christians, of stories that “aren’t even true.” Remember that Mr Sengupta seduces Rashid’s wife not with story, but with facts. “A proper man would know that life is a serious business,” Soraya says in her farewell note; “Mr Sengupta has no imagination at all. This is okay by me”.[xvii] What a wonderful rebuttal of those who are concerned that it is fiction that can lure us from the straight and narrow, while facts somehow correlate with ethical living!

But I’d like to go back for a minute to the notion of truth in scripture. I am always struck by Jesus’ statement at his trial before Pilate, “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” And Pilate says to him, “What is truth?” (John 18.37-8). What irony, when Jesus, who is the Truth, is standing right there.[xviii] Pilate doesn’t understand that the Truth might be a “Who,” as well as a “what.” What difference might it make to our understanding of truth, and of true stories, to start from this insight? – In order to think further about this question, I decided to investigate the word “truth” in the Bible, with help from some concordances and one of the biblical scholars at Redeemer.[xix] Here’s what I discovered:

In the Old Testament: the Hebrew word for truth is `emet, which suggests truth as reliability, permanence, continuance, fidelity (related as “truth” is to “troth” – “I pledge you my troth, my fidelity, my reliability”). My esteemed colleague Dr. Al Wolters says that this word therefore “refers as much to faithfulness or constancy as to correct factuality. It is a personal characteristic, often joined with chesed, ‘lovingkindness.’”[xx]

In the New Testament: the Greek word is aletheia. But Al Wolters told me, “It is commonly emphasized by biblical scholars that the New Testament use of aletheia must be understood in the light of the Hebrew `emet, not the Greek philosophical idea of theoretical truth.” Because here too truth is relational: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).[xxi] And one of the things that interested me and surprised me most is that Truth is also a verb, a behaviour – ‘to truthe’: “Speaking the truth [translated literally, ‘truthing’] in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head” (Eph. 4.15).[xxii]

Truth as relational reliability, fidelity, “troth,” constancy – I checked my big Oxford English Dictionary, the one with historical citations for each word, and it turns out that in English too this is actually a more ancient way of understanding truth than the notion of truth as conformity with fact, accuracy of representation, agreement with a common standard, or correctness of an account of reality. This second set of meanings seems to come into play somewhere around the time of the Reformation and, unsurprisingly, to increase in provenance through the period of the Enlightenment, with its particular emphasis on the powers of reason and on rational argument. Of course the first group of meanings, the ones that revolve around the notions of integrity and fidelity, are particularly helpful in approaching the study of a wide range of literature.

Narrative understanding of ourselves

And then listen for a minute to the French Protestant Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who died five years ago at the great age of 92. Ricoeur has something else really significant to say to us about the importance of stories. Because he talks of what he calls “a narrative quality of experience,” and he describes human life itself as “an incipient story” that needs to be made into a narrative.[xxiii] He actually argues that the serious business of life cannot be understood other than through stories we tell about it.[xxiv] And he goes even further than this. He suggests that it is by using what he calls “narrative intelligence” that we try to gain a hold on our own integrity, “the narrative identity which constitutes us” (436) – in other words, that we need a “narrative understanding of ourselves” to move into full personhood.12 Obviously we aren’t fully developed as individual selves, as mature people, at birth. Ricoeur says our “self” is developed through the “narrative wholeness” it gains in part from the stories we receive through the literary tradition – not just bible stories, but the whole cultural tradition we inherit. He argues that “A life is no more than a biological phenomenon as long as it is not interpreted. And in the interpretation fiction plays a considerable, mediating role”. What he is suggesting here is that reading fiction shows us how plot works, how narrative is shaped, and therefore enables us to do the same kind of work in finding meaning in our own life-stories. In fact, since reading is already, says Ricoeur, “a way of living in the fictitious universe of the work,” one could say that stories are in any case always lived, “in the imaginary mode”.[xxv]

We might suggest, then, that hearing and understanding and interpreting stories is part of the God-given way our “self” is brought to full adulthood. Not just in Jesus’ telling of stories, but also in our telling of stories, real and fictional, to one another, stories have a central part to play in our working out who we are as human beings. The early Puritans knew this when they laid emphasis upon the importance of personal testimony to God’s salvation narrative in the individual life as a vital part of a Christian’s growth into spiritual health and strength. Today there are many Christian traditions that still believe in the importance of “giving your testimony”: it’s a continuation of that Puritan belief that is actualized in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) where Christian is constantly questioned by Evangelist and asked to spell out what he has been learning and experiencing.[xxvi] And in the modern secular world too there has been a rediscovery of the health-giving power of story, especially in counseling and in trauma therapy, where the telling of the story is seen as a vital part of a person’s move to health.

But let’s return to fictional stories, the ones whose cultural symbols Ricoeur assures us can teach us about our lives. And this time I want to talk about a realist novel, rather than a fantasy. In that Contemporary Fiction course another book we sometimes look at is Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1982. It is set in Egypt during World War II, and the central relationship is between the narrator, Claudia, and Tom, a tank commander in the British army, whom she meets and falls in love with when she is working as a newspaper reporter in the Desert Campaign of 1942. Their relationship is short but intense and very real. Not in any obvious sense godly, but within the parameters of the book it’s a breakthrough for Claudia because it is the first relationship in which she is honest, vulnerable, and committed. Out in the desert Tom is killed by a stray shell. Years later, by a series of coincidences, Claudia receives from his sister a journal he kept in the desert where she is referred to as “C.” And one of the things he wants to describe to her is a night before an offensive when he very nearly completely lost it as a commander, and even as a human being. Listen to his experience that night:

“Settled down for a few hours sleep and was seized by something I’ve not known before – sudden paralyzing awareness of where I am, of what is happening, that I may die, so savage that I lay there rigid, as though in shock, but the mind screaming, howling. Fear, yes, but something more than that – something atavistic, primitive, the instinct to run. I told myself to snap out of it, take a grip on things. I tried breathing deeply, counting to a hundred, going over the codes for the day yet again. No bloody good. All that I can think of is that the morning is riding at me full tilt and I am pinned down with no escape and shit-scared as I’ve never been before and I don’t know why. So I try something else. Tell myself I am not really here. That I am moving through this place, this time, must do so, cannot avoid it, but soon I shall come through and out beyond into another part of the story. Thought of the gazelle I saw, flicking its tail carefree amid heaps of rusty metal, that I envied for a moment; but the gazelle has no story, that is the difference. Pinned down and shit-scared, I have a story, which makes me a man, and therefore set apart.

“So I make myself move backwards and forwards, lying there huddled in the sleeping-bag on the cold sand – backwards to other places, to childhood, to a time I climbed a Welsh mountain, walked the streets of New York, was happy, not happy, was by the sea in Cornwall long ago or in Luxor with C. last month. Forwards into obscurity but an obscurity lit by dreams which is another word for hope. I make myself dream, push away the night and the desert and the black shapes all round me, push past the morning and tomorrow and next week and make pictures, dreams. I dream of green fields. I dream of cities. I dream of C. And at last the primitive paralyzing thing loosens its grip and I even sleep, to be shaken awake by my driver. 0500 hours; I am tense but sane.”

(Moon Tiger 201-2)

“I have a story, which makes me a man,” not an animal like the gazelle. And what’s more, telling myself that story can be a matter of life and death. In extreme danger it can restore my sanity. The ability to remember the past and imagine the future, as Tom does in that second paragraph, is what saves him from losing himself in the total paralysis of fear. I find this very interesting. Penelope Lively is quite explicitly not Christian,[xxvii] and her characters are not either. But here what she is showing is precisely the human need that Ricoeur describes, the need for “a narrative understanding of ourselves” in order to move to full personhood. Elsewhere in an interview, Ricoeur says “narration preserves the meaning that is behind us so that we can have meaning before us,” and that “to give people back a memory is also to give them back a future, to put them back in time and thus release them from the ‘instantaneous mind’”.[xxviii] Tom certainly needed to be released from his instantaneous mind, his entrapment in the present. And the way that happens is through his telling himself stories about the past and imagining stories about the future. So, some of the stories are “truly true,” and some of them are “just stories” – but together they have the effect of composing his identity and freeing him from panic. He is “true to himself” again.[xxix]

The biblical story and the story of the church

The bible is full of directives to help God’s people remember the story. Think of the memorial stones that Old Testament heroes place at significant points on their journeys, to remind people in perpetuity of the events that took place there.[xxx] Think of the rituals that mark the remembrance of a story: the Passover (where the ritual itself includes the telling of a story), the processions, the offerings; and in the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ institution of the Communion meal in order that we should remember his death until his coming again. Each of these ways of remembering is not only to recall a central propositional truth – God is merciful, God is just, God is the Redeemer, God is alive; each of them is a way of remembering the story in which this truth is embedded and enacted. God has been active in the story of God’s people, and continues to be, and will be till the end of time, which God alone will initiate.

We are presently nearing what in liturgical traditions is seen as the end of the Church year, and we will soon be moving into the season of Advent, when every year we remember and prepare for the coming of the infant Jesus.[xxxi] But just like Advent and just like Christmas, every memorial of the church, every baptism, every wedding, every Sunday eucharist, every saying of the Lord’s Prayer, every giving of thanks at a meal, has its meaning not merely in that moment alone, but in the story of which it is part. It has a past, a present, and a future significance in the great narrative of Scripture that we are inhabiting.[xxxii] And we fail to see this to our own great detriment. It is when Christians lose sight of the whole story that, in my experience, they are most likely to fall into error, or depression, or doubt, or schism, or apathy, or generally to lose their sense of calling. God doesn’t call us primarily to a set of rules or even to a set of beliefs; he calls us to join a community of faith within a great narrative of faith with a past, a present, and a future. And this is why narrative matters so much to the Christian.

Christians inhabit the story; perhaps one could say that the narrative God has authored is being written around and through them. In The New Testament and the People of God, the British theologian N.T. Wright considers how the power and authority of the biblical narrative are related to its goal. He imagines scripture on the Shakespearean model of a five-act play: Creation, Fall, the History of Israel until Jesus, the Kingdom that Jesus has initiated in his redemptive life and death and rising again, and the History of the Church from A.D. to the Final Consummation at the end of time. And Wright says that the one Act that isn’t fully written is Act 5, because we are in Act 5, improvising.[xxxiii][xxxiv] We have been told the beginning of the story. We have been told the middle of the story. And we have been told the end of the story. We know the key events of the narrative, and we have the overarching shape. But we have to live out Act 5, improvising as we go along. God has given us the responsibility of getting to the end of the Act. This story is not just something we read or hear. It’s something we live inside.

In the post-Christian West, we have been so deeply shaped by stories such as the parable of the Good Samaritan that we can take them for granted – at some level, our culture still lives inside them. But when the stories are heard in a cultural context where they are new, this sense of how they can influence cultural consciousness is much more starkly apparent. For instance, one Catholic missionary to the Maasai in Tanzania tells of a group of Maasai in the 1960s who brought a badly wounded man of another group to the hospital in Wasso. The doctor was able to save the man’s life, but then asked the Maasai: “So why did you bring this man?”—because in Maasai tradition, someone who is that badly hurt will be left outside the village for the hyenas to eat; and this man was not a Maasai, he was a Ndorobo. And the Maasai elder said, “Well, that’s the way the story goes.” The doctor asked, “What do you mean? What story?” And the elder replied, “I’m not sure I remember it right. But it’s something like this: there was this guy who was beaten up by thieves, and people from his own ethnic group kept passing him by. So we had to bring him.” The parable of the Good Samaritan in that context is not “just” a story. As it is told, pondered, and discussed in community, it touches the hearers at a deep level and begins to change the way they behave, even to the extent of subverting long-held cultural patterns—in this case, the old conviction that, while you care for your own ethnic group, outsiders do not need to be treated equally. Here the Maasai are learning from the story how to live out Act 5.[xxxv]

Haroun: story as participation in life

If we look back to the story of Haroun, we find that Rushdie does something surprisingly similar there with stories – something that answers that awful question, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Rashid the storyteller used to tell a favourite story about a Moody Land where things change constantly according to the moods of the inhabitants; after the disaster of Soraya’s leaving and Rashid’s losing “the gift of the gab,” and when he and Haroun are being ferried across Dull Lake on their unwilling way to work for Snooty Buttoo the dishonest politician, Rashid and Haroun experience the weather as alternately gloomy, miserable, harsh, and confused. Suddenly Haroun realizes that they are living inside the land of his father’s story; when he speaks with authority to the lake, “the boiling breeze fell away, the thunder and lightning stopped … and the waves calmed down”.[xxxvi] A student in last year’s Contemporary Fiction class, Mitchell Sikkema, wrote a fine paper on Haroun and the Sea of Stories: this is how he comments there.

In the act of participating in and believing in his father’s stories [Haroun] experiences an overt occurrence of magic [and confirms to himself that] ‘the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real’ (50). This is an event that acts as a window into the magical world that Haroun is about to be whisked away to; it is only through this fantastical baptism that Haroun can come to the place where stories can come to life…. In other words, fantasy has an ability – a utility – to see our world in new ways, helping to enchant and deepen our experience of existence….

In the beginning of the narrative Haroun can be seen as a story skeptic, a young man on the verge of discarding the fantastic in exchange for a dry and yeastless factuality, like the clerkish Mr. Sengupta. But in being introduced to a world where magic comes to life, Haroun learns that stories are not merely silly decorations on the peripheries of life but part of the very fabric thereof: “the Ocean of the Streams … of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns … it was not dead but alive” (72).[xxxvii]

There is a book we use in our first-year fiction courses at Redeemer, Susan Van Zanten Gallagher and Roger Lundin’s Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. “When we read,” say Gallagher and Lundin, “we participate in life as we see how books structure, interpret, and communicate experiences and truths”.[xxxviii] One of the things stories do is to teach us about our lives by suggesting various universal aspects of the human condition and various practical, contextualized responses to these things: in this way stories develop in their readers that “narrative intelligence” which Ricoeur describes – not a kind of theory but a kind of practical wisdom and moral judgment.[xxxix] Ricoeur writes, “The meaning or the significance of a story wells up from the intersection of the world of text and the world of the reader”.[xl] So, there is a looking for meaning that relates not just to the world inside the book, but to the world outside of it too. And this begins to help us understand what it means to say literature enables us to “participate in life.” At the end of the story of Haroun, when Rashid, reunited with his story-tap and thus able to be a storyteller again, stands up at the political rally where he has been hired to tell stories, the story he tells is the story of the book we have just been reading. And the effect of the story is that the listeners recognize in it the repressive forces embodied in the politicos around them, refuse to submit to their machinations any more, chant them out of the arena to the accompaniment of much pelting with rubbish, and are freed up to choose rulers they actually want. Two cheers for democracy, in other words. Rashid’s storytelling has enabled the people listening to find themselves. So, stories are useful, in this political sense.

But there’s another factor too, in Haroun. And that is that Soraya comes back. It turns out that Mr Sengupta’s lack of imagination is combined with a lot of other less than pleasant qualities: Soraya says, “’What a skinny, scrawny, sniveling, driveling, mangy, stingy, measly, weaselly clerk! As far as I’m concerned he’s finished with, done for, gone for good.’ ‘Khattam-shud,’ Haroun said quietly”. Rushdie is suggesting that stories are not only useful in an instrumental way, in that they can wake people up to political opportunism and oppression, but that they are also useful in a more inward and personal way: because they are a place where the imagination runs free, because they enable people to see things afresh and from another person’s point of view, they can be a counter-balance to meanness and stinginess and a general lack of humanity. In an essay called “Is Nothing Sacred?” which he wrote while under the fatwa, Rushdie tells a parable about literature providing the one room in the great house of the world where we can go to reflect, to listen to all kinds of voices talking in all kinds of ways about the past, the present and the future, what has happened, what is happening and what should happen. And he sees this room, this space for voices, as absolutely necessary to make life livable, so that the house of the world is not a prison but a community of possibility.[xli]

The Spirit gives life

Christians of course will want to reframe Rushdie’s argument, because his view of the literary imagination as well-nigh salvific suggests a kind of neo-Romanticism that turns the imagination into an idol. We are first and foremost “People of the Book,” the Bible; we live in a grand story that God is authoring through time, and by its light we interpret everything else we read and experience. Far from being Romantic about the imagination, our story reminds us of the darkness of our imagination as well as its light, the tendency in all of us to behave like spoiled children whose imaginations may actually help us find ways to be even more thoroughly “stingy, measly, weaselly.” Our story reminds us of sin, in fact.[xlii] But God in divine wisdom has given us stories of all kinds within this house of the world. And Rushdie is right: we do need stories. Even though they can be dangerous, or blasphemous, or blatantly false advertising (and one of the functions of a literary education is to teach us as readers how to be critical of what stories say and do)[xliii], nevertheless, stories give us environments to explore; they engage and stretch our imaginations; they reflect our lives back to us; they help us to see from other people’s points of view, even in other times and places. Stories help us to write our own narrative identities; they are, you might say, a matter of life and death. And as a result, these second-order texts, written by God’s creatures with or without overt acknowledgement of God, can help in directing us toward that state of peace and harmony between self and other, self and the creation, self and God, that the Bible calls shalom.

But there is a vital qualification here. For this learning through literature of compassion and understanding and identity is in and of itself insufficient to move us to action. We are not all sweetness and light, and literature cannot save us, whatever Rushdie, following the great educationalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, may hope.[xliv] If nothing else, the two World Wars of the twentieth century surely taught us this – that cultural education does not make people good. If it did, the S.S. officers at Buchenwald could not have listened to Mozart with such pleasure.[xlv] Seeing how best to live certainly doesn’t automatically result in our living that way. Thus, not only do we need the metanarrative of the Bible story as the foundation for understanding how to live well in the great house of the world, we also need the Spirit of its Author both to will and to empower us to live like that. Those new Maasai converts in Tanzania were doing a whole lot better than many of us. Gallagher and Lundin say, “Only the working of the Spirit can transform an understanding of literature’s moral issues into action”.[xlvi] Both with the primary scriptural stories and with the second-order stories that God has gifted people to tell, it is only through the working of the Spirit who speaks the truth of the stories into our lives that we can find our humanity enlarged and strengthened. In fact it is ultimately only by God’s grace that, whether stories are fictionally true or truly true, their imaginative value can bring us delight. And it is surely only by God’s grace that the usefulness of these stories as vehicles of “truthing” can be something that, as a teacher of literature and a believer in God’s continuing involvement as the supreme Author, I can daily bet my life on. As Haroun learned, even though we need some serious help to be and do what we should, it truly is a miraculous thing to be alive in the land of stories.


[i] Carroll, Andrew. Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters. 1997. New York: Random House/Broadway, 1999.

[ii] Cook, Hugh. “To Find Just the Right Words”: Faithful Fiction. Redeemer College Inaugural Lecture Series, March 23, 1990.

[iii] Most extravagantly, perhaps, we might consider Roland Barthes’ claim in 1968 that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Image, Music, Text 148). With more circumspection, we might look to reader- response critics such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, who recognized in his magisterial treatise on hermeneutics (Truth and Method [1960]) the dialogical activity of reading, in which meaning is generated when the horizon of the reader and the horizon of the text are brought to a point of fusion (“Hermeneutical Principle” 687-8).

[iv] Carroll, Andrew. Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters. 1997. New York: Random House/Broadway, 1999.

[v] Iran Focus: News and Analysis. 14 Feb. 2006.

[vi] Cowan, James. “A man of letters again.” National Post, 23 Sept., 2002: AL3.

[vii] Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1990. London, U.K.: Granta, 1991.

[viii] Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task. Downsview, ON: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980.

[ix] I should also mention the distinction drawn by Al Wolters in Creation Regained between the “structure” of creation and its “direction” in terms of humankind’s spiritual obedience or disobedience, i.e. between the God-given shaping of the world and its potential, and the human choices of how that potential is to be developed, which may not be in a direction that substantiates the fruitfulness intended by the Creator. Obviously there is literature that, however beautifully written, completely fails to reflect the Creator in its direction. I am more concerned in this talk, however, to suggest some ways in which even literature that doesn’t recognize the Creator may yet express something of the Creator’s character and concerns.

[x] I am not implying here that the Bible should be used in a simplistic way as a guidebook for the study of any and every discipline, nor that Jesus’ behaviour in his cultural context can be uncritically assumed as a model for our own behaviour in our very different contexts. But I am assuming that, since the Bible is a book of literature with an overarching narrative shape, and since Jesus told stories so much, these things have particular relevance to the Christian teacher of literature who takes both the biblical record and the life of Jesus as authoritative.

[xi] Horace, Quintus Flaccus. “The Art of Poetry.” C.20 B.C. In The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. David H. Richter, ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. Trans. Smith Palmer Bovie. 68-78.

[xii] Sidney, Sir Philip. “An Apology for Poetry.” 1583, pub.1595. In The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. David H. Richter, ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 134-59.

[xiii] Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time.” 1939. In The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses. 1949. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 47-63.

[xiv] It should probably be added that preachers use stories for a variety of reasons, some indeed as a heuristic vehicle, but others as a concession to those whom they deem unable to grasp the abstract ideas that they consider to be superior.

[xv] Schaeffer, Francis. Escape from Reason. London, U.K.: InterVarsity P, 1968.

[xvi] For a more theoretically nuanced discussion of this issue, see my Stories of the Middle Space, 51-2.

[xvii] Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1990. London, U.K.: Granta, 1991.

[xviii] Al Wolters mentioned a nice instance of serendipity to me: “It is a striking fact that an anagram of Pilate’s question in Latin, ‘Quid est veritas?’ is ‘Est vir qui adest,’ ‘It is the man standing before you’” (email correspondence, August 3, 2010)

[xix] See “Truth” by Ian W. Scott in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vol.s; Nashville, TN: Abingdon P, 2006- 09), Vol. 5, 681-686; and “aletheia, alethes, alethinos, aletheuo” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (7 vol.s; transl. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-69), Vol. 1, 232-251. The section on aletheia (truth) in the New Testament (241-247) is by Rudolf Bultmann, and has become a standard treatment. I am indebted to Al Wolters for these references. Anthony C. Thiselton also has a fine biblical study of “truth” in his Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works and New Essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 186-90. I am grateful to Ryan O’Dowd for pointing me to this chapter.

[xx] In email correspondence with me, April 14, 2006. Thus, in the Old Testament, truth is related not only to light – “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me” (Ps.43.3), but also to peace – “therefore love truth and peace” (Zech.8.19). Truth is seen as a quality to be desired of the inner life – “You desire truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51.6), and it is a characteristic of those whose call God answers – “The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth” (Ps. 145.18).

[xxi] Truth in the New Testament is not just intellectual but involves the whole person: “If you continue in my word … you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8.32). Truth is also one of the names that Christ gives to himself: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14.6); and it designates the nature of the Spirit: “He will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive” (John 14.16-17).

[xxii] My colleague Benne Faber points out that “another old English word for truth, ‘sooth,’ is also a verb. ‘Troth’ and ‘sooth’ both have the sort of relational dimension that the Hebrew and Greek words for truth also denote. Verily, truth ultimately soothes.”

[xxiii] Ricoeur, Paul. ”Dialogue 1: The Creativity of Language.” 1981. Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Ed. Richard Kearney. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester U P, 1984. 17-36.

[xxiv] “If it is true,” writes Ricoeur, “that fiction cannot be completed other than in life, and that life cannot be understood other than through stories we tell about it, then we are led to say that a life examined, in the sense borrowed from Socrates, is a life narrated” (“Life: A Story” 435).
12 It is worth pointing out here that Ricoeur’s model of human identity as “narrative intelligence” adeptly traces a middle path between an older concept of subjectivity as fixed, “an immutable substance incapable of becoming,” and a postmodern concept of subjectivity as chaotic, “an incoherent succession of occurrences.” Ricoeur argues that a narrative understanding of ourselves is indeed “the only kind of understanding that escapes the pseudo-alternative of pure change and absolute identity” (“Life: A Story” 437).

[xxv] Ricoeur, Paul. ”Dialogue 1: The Creativity of Language.” 1981. Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Ed. Richard Kearney. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester U P, 1984. 17-36.

[xxvi] See, for instance, the early passage in Pilgrim’s Progress where Evangelist asks Christian to explain how he can have turned aside from the way and have been filled with fear by the fire of Mount Sinai. Evangelist’s questions push Christian to review his conduct, and the reasons for his missteps, by retelling the story of the previous few pages. Evangelist then gives Christian a weighty homily on the vital importance of attending to “the words of God” (17-20).

[xxvii] See, for instance, Lively’s unpublished lecture on “Fiction and Religion,” delivered at the University Church in Oxford, U.K., on 31 October 1990. There she declared, “I call myself an agnostic, which implies inability to believe in a deity, rather than outright rejection of the very concept of deity. I know that I can’t believe in a god, and why I can’t, but I accept that others can, respect their reasons for so doing without accepting them, and feel a curious combination of envy and wonder at the solaces available to them which are not available to me.”

[xxviii] Ricoeur expands further on these ideas in his magisterial Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 2004).

[xxix] Further intriguing work on the necessity of narrative imagination has been done by Richard Kearney, a student of Ricoeur’s, a Catholic philosopher and literary scholar who now teaches at Boston College. See in particular the Epilogue to Kearney’s Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern (1991; Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 1998), 241- 57, and Part Four, “Narrative Matters,” of On Stories (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).

[xxx] We might remember the stone of witness that Jacob set up for Laban (Gen.31.45), or the tablets of stone on which Moses was instructed to write the commandments – amid the dramatic story of the disobedience of the children of Israel while Moses was talking with God (Exod.24.12; 31.18; 32.15-20; 34.1, 27-8). Think too of Joshua’s memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan to remind future generations of God’s parting of the waters of the river for the ark of the covenant to cross over (Joshua 4). Or the Ebenezer “stone of help” that Samuel set up after the rout of the Philistines (I Sam.7.12).

[xxxi] Every year as we remember that event, we also realize afresh its relevance for us today – that Jesus entered our world for our sake. And we are reminded of the eschatological significance of those Epiphany beginnings, the arrival of the Magi with their treasures pointing to the glory of all the nations being brought to Jesus at the end of time.

[xxxii] See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s point that “A striking feature of the Christian liturgy is that it is focused not just on God’s nature but on God’s actions; and more specifically, on actions which took place in historical time” (in “The Remembrance of Things (Not) Past: Philosophical Reflections on Christian Liturgy,” in Christian Philosophy [ed. Thomas P. Flint; Notre Dame, IN: U Notre Dame P, 1990], 128). And for a full outworking of the theme of the story of Scripture, see Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story (Baker Academic, 2004).

[xxxiii] Wright, N.T. “The Authority of a Story.” The Laing Lecture, 1989. Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32. —. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

[xxxiv] In a footnote to Chapter 8 of Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton suggest the appropriateness of a sixth Act, i.e. that the fifth Act would then represent the improvisations of the present time, and the sixth would represent the givenness of the final consummation (Truth is Stranger 240 n.30). But if we are to stick with the Shakespearean analogy that N.T. Wright draws, there can be only five Acts, because this is always the structure of Shakespeare’s plays. And since I’m speaking as an English professor, I feel bound not to push this particular analogy beyond what is literarily consistent! It is perhaps worth mentioning here, too, that N.T. Wright’s undergraduate degree at Oxford was in Classics; he has a strong background in literary studies.

[xxxv] This story is told in John P. Bowen, ed., The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan, 1957-1973 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock 2010), 214.

[xxxvi] Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1990. London, U.K.: Granta, 1991.

[xxxvii] Sikkema, Mitchell. “Rushdie, Haroun and I: Concerning ‘Kahani’.” Paper submitted for ENG 357, Contemporary Fiction, 2 December 2009.

[xxxviii] Gallagher, Susan VanZanten., and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

[xxxix] Ricoeur, Paul. ”Dialogue 1: The Creativity of Language.” 1981. Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Ed. Richard Kearney. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester U P, 1984. 17-36.

[xl] Note the congruence here with Gadamer’s notion of a fusion of horizons (see n. 1 in this paper). Though their take on hermeneutical issues was not identical, Gadamer was a major influence on Ricoeur.

[xli] —. “Is Nothing Sacred?” 1990. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta in association with Viking, 1991. 415-29.

[xlii] There is not the time and space here to discuss more fully the limits that we may therefore need to put on the expression of imagination; that would be another paper. But it’s obviously a key concern in both reading and studying creative literature: when might giving free rein to the imagination be dangerous to our health and sanity? When might it cause completely illegitimate distress to others? This issue, and the complexity of how to approach it, comes up constantly in my own teaching, as indeed it should.

[xliii] My thanks to Douglas Loney for reminding me of the importance of recognizing the dangerousness of untruthful stories: “The God who reveals himself to us at least in part by story makes himself vulnerable to misrepresentation by false stories. This is … why criticism is an essential part of human and therefore Christian culture under God” (in email correspondence, August 6, 2010).

[xliv] For instance, in Victorian Britain, Matthew Arnold ascribed a central role to poetry as offering a salutary “criticism of life,” and to the whole tradition of Western literature as providing a civilizing influence through “the best that is known and thought in the world” (“Function” 15). And in the 1920s the formalist critic I.A. Richards represented a whole attitude to aesthetics between the two World Wars when he declared that “poetry is capable of saving us” (Science 82-3).

[xlv] There is a scene in the movie Schindler’s List that makes this point powerfully, when an S.S. officer involved in the brutal clearing of the Warsaw ghetto stops in a ransacked apartment and plays Mozart on the piano.

[xlvi] Gallagher, Susan VanZanten., and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

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