Friday, July 23, 2010

Christology of Good Storytelling

My new blog-friend Jenna St. Hilaire, who blogs about writing and other cool stuff at A Light Inside, is in the midst of a discussion via blog posts with another writer-blogger called Mr. Pond at The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, all about, of course, writing. More specifically, their discussion tries to get at what makes good writing exactly that: good. Since I do not write fiction myself (in an alternate version of my life, I might have, but...), I do not feel able to participate in the discussion at the level of detail they are. However, Jenna's most recent post, "Rules and Real," sparked in me a bit of a theological (and geek-tastic) response. I left her a long-winded comment along these lines, and I decided to repost it here, edited a bit for clarity. I encourage you to go read her original post in full, but since I quote the bits that matter to my point in my response (below), you may also simply read on to find out what Christology might have to do with good storytelling, according to lil ol' me:

Ok, here I need to comment on the following quote from Jenna's post, particularly on the quote's the first sentence:
"And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.
That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be."
So, maybe it's because I'm a graduate theology student at the moment and so I'm immersed in early Church writings about the nature of Christ, but this passage, especially its first sentence, immediately brought to mind for me the nature of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Word of God is exactly as Jenna has described a good tale to be: "both within our time and transcendent of it." He is both within the time He lived on earth (2000 years ago) and transcendent of it. (He is of course also present in our current time as well--He is in all times, both before and after His earthly sojourn--but that's another theological discussion separate from this point I wish to make right now.) I included the whole of Jenna's quote above because later on she uses the word "unite" and, again, that is theological, Christological language right there, and it was awesome to see that appear in this dialogue about good storytelling, storytelling that both speaks to us today and also taps into the greatest Story of all.
I wonder if, in a way, the Christological analogy can be taken a step further: if Christ can only save what He has assumed (i.e., our fallen condition, including death itself), I wonder if this means the good writer (in synergy with God and His grace) can take that which is fleeting and nailed down in the here and now (i.e., "Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling") and transfigure it from the inside out (as Christ does with us) by filling it with true Story (i.e., "the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be").
I'm not a fiction writer myself, but as an avid fiction reader I can confidently say I've encountered this kind of transfiguration of our time, our world, and our very selves (as reflected in full, rich characters) in great stories. It is like C.S. Lewis's statement in... one of his essays about this sort of thing (lol I read it years ago, sorry I don't have the citation handy). To paraphrase Lewis, he said something like: When we eat an ordinary piece of meat, it is exactly and only that: a piece of meat. But when we imagine that someone has hunted for this meat, encountered dangers while doing so, emerged triumphant, and because of that struggle and victory this meat is now before us, waiting to be eaten... suddenly the meat tastes so much better than it would have when it was just "ordinary meat." Story makes this transformation happen.
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One follow-up: I just spent about twenty minutes skimming Lewis's essay "Of Other Worlds," from which I am sure I first encountered the idea about story transforming meat to the point where it tastes delicious because of the sense of story that accompanies it... But, I could not find exactly the image I thought was in that essay. I must have extrapolated the above (I guess I was in the mood for meat when I first read that essay years ago, ha) from the following quote of Lewis's, which is the closest I could find:
"The happiness which [a story where the characters are animals who talk and live like us] presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things--food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That 'simple but sustaining meal' of 'bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding' which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual." (pp. 14-15 of the Harcourt edition of Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis)
I think, since his essay begins by addressing the sense of danger often found in good stories, I must have combined the danger-discussion with this little snippet about food tasting better for having passed through story (with a little of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet thrown in). Regardless, both discussions are talking about the same thing: at the beginning of his essay Lewis discusses a sense of danger (think Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans), and in this quote above his discussion has moved to a sense of preposterousness and absurdity, where he uses a story where animals talk and share fellowship as an example. (Since I'm currently reading as my de-stress reading Martin the Warrior, a novel of Redwall by Brian Jacques, I can relate to this about talking animals even now.) Each of these qualities (danger or absurdity) is what the essay's title refers to as, simply, "other." It is this otherness, or as Jenna puts it, this transcendence, which makes the ordinary meat (or Lewis's "real nursery dinner") taste better.

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To conclude, the crux of my above response to Jenna's post is this: a good story has the ability to transfigure, by God's grace, the fallenness of our world and our selves, from the inside out--made possible because of Christ having done this very same thing for us on the cross. I think this, for me, is the measure of a truly "good" story--one that achieves this great feat.

Is this a tall order for the writers and storytellers out there? Perhaps. But, it's what I'm seeking when I devour book after book after book--a reader's quest, if you will. And of course I have found it (Thank God!), time and time again, and these are the books and stories that get at the core of me. They tell my story of brokenness and redemption back to me. A story that can do this, without of course preaching or "teaching a lesson" (none of my above discussion has anything remotely to do with didactic, moralistic writing), is what I would call good storytelling.

5 comments:

  1. Jenna St. HilaireJuly 25, 2010 at 1:05 AM

    Great comments, Donna! I love the last two paragraphs. That's an excellent description of how I read, too. :)

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  2. Very intriguing thoughts, Donna! (I came by way of Mr. Pond, so we'll see if Blogger eats my comment...)

    To take it in another direction, I've just been noticing again in the Gospels (contributing to a book on it, actually) that a surprisingly large portion of Jesus' teachings took the form of parables-- that is, stories. Good stories, too, none of that "Timmy asked his mommy how he could be a good boy" you get too often in Sunday School. For those of us who are conditioned to think of teaching as a list of didactic expositions, I wonder what new approaches this could create?

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  3. Thank you for coming by, Eric, and for your comment.

    I think, for me, one of the big differences between didactic teaching, and teaching that happens to occur as a by-product of story, is the fact that in the latter scenario, the storyteller is learning right along with the listener/reader. There is an equality there, and thus a mutual respect. The moment something becomes didactic, it is inevitable that the "teacher" winds up asserting his position of authority (on the subject matter) over the listener/"student".

    Applying this to Christ as storyteller-teacher, though, makes this even more complex... because, on the one hand, as God He of course has that authority over the "content" of the "lessons" in His parables, in a way we never can, as sinners. AND YET, as man He is one of us, and so, we are able to hear these stories, and learn from them, knowing (now, after the revelation of God in Christ on the Cross) that they come from our God, but open to the hearing of them because our God loved us enough to become one of us.

    This is a really fascinating direction to be taking all of this...

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  4. Fascinating indeed. Of course, even Jesus' didactic teachings on "authority" went quite contrary to the way we usually think of it: "The leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them, but it is not to be so among you; rather, the greatest must be your servant."

    This in turn brings to mind the parable/object lesson/sacrament/ordinance/something of the foot washing. The story is enacted in humility without any words, then once it's had its impact, the lesson (already clear) is spelled out authoritatively for the thick-headed (oh, Peter). "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet."

    I must say you've gotten my mind going in more directions with this than anyone except Dr. McDuffee! (Whom I think you'll appreciate, so there's the link.)

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  5. As a fellow theology student, I have been puzzling about the idea that the Gospell is the "greatest story ever told." It seems that the story has gotten lost along way. If its the greatest story, doesn't it have to be about more than salvation? I think the story of Jesus has to "transcend" the lexicon.

    Do you think that the Gospel can be re-invisioned as the greatest story, without lapsing into moralizing and proselytizing?

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