The Power of Story


Lost in a Good BookI thought I'd have my novel completed in January.

Sickness hit and January slid into February. February saw me finally completing the first draft. YEAH! It's been rough going ever since.

Even now, I'm ogling a foot-high-plus stack of drafts that I ran past my writers group, The Write Brothers. Smart them, they edited their own works as other Brothers commented. Me? I saved it all till I was ready to edit. Again, for a four-hundred-page novel, that becomes a stack of edits as tall as my size thirteen foot.

So I'm slowly making my way through it all. Emphasis on the slowly.

In the meantime, I'm reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my son. We'll finish it today. If I could capture a third the magic that Roald Dahl imbues in his fiction, I'd be happy.

But to an aspiring novelist, the joy of great fiction is not in the publishing, but in the power of story and its ability to make us better people.

My son will be six in August, but even he can see the sins of the four brats who met ignoble ends in Mr. Wonka's mind-bending factory. Not more than a couple hours ago, we read the song the Oompa-Loompas sang over Mike Teavee, the boy addicted to television.  Through their song, Dahl spares no expense criticizing the brain-numbing aspect of TV and the counterpoint fascination of storytelling found in a good book.

When I write the words that comprise my novel, Fade into Blue, I pray that every word carries in it the strength of a redeemed imagination. There exists in a book a wonder that can be found nowhere else. Television supplies all the answers, but a book asks something from those who read it. As C.S. Lewis writes in his Experiment in Criticism:

What then is the good of … occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? … The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own. … In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.

Many times in this blog, I've noted a failing of some believers to step out of themselves for even one second and be another person, to see with different eyes, to better understand through another person's perspective the failures, joys, sins, and redemption each of us experiences uniquely. The power of story, as Lewis notes, allows us to be a thousand men, a thousand women, and yet still be ourselves. I would contend that story allows God's grace to flow in a way we sometimes stymie when faced with reality. A gifted writer fashions characters who allow us to understand another in the pages of fiction that we might otherwise avoid entirely in everyday life.

If we are told a man is a thief, our judgments flow. But what if the grace of God can transform a robber into something more? We may not have any experience with thieves, but we may know of Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Having just passed nineteen years in a French jail for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is released. Destitute, he is taken in by a kindly bishop and the man's sister. In return, Valjean steals the bishop's silverware and hightails it out of town. The story picks up below:

As the brother and sister were about to rise from the table, there came a knock at the door.

"Come in," said the Bishop.

The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.

A brigadier of gendarmes, who seemed to be in command of the group, was standing near the door. He entered and advanced to the Bishop, making a military salute.

"Monseigneur—" said he.

At this word, Jean Valjean, who was dejected and seemed overwhelmed, raised his head with an air of stupefaction.

"Monseigneur!" he murmured. "So he is not the cure?"

"Silence!" said the gendarme. "He is Monseigneur the Bishop."

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.

"Ah! here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

"Monseigneur," said the brigadier of gendarmes, "so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver—"

"And he told you," interposed the Bishop with a smile, "that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake."

"In that case," replied the brigadier, "we can let him go?"

"Certainly," replied the Bishop.

The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled.

"Is it true that I am to be released?" he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep.

"Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?" said one of the gendarmes.

"My friend," resumed the Bishop, "before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them."

He stepped to the chimney-piece, took the two silver candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women looked on without uttering a word, without a gesture, without a look which could disconcert the Bishop.

Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.

"Now," said the Bishop, "go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night."

Then, turning to the gendarmes:—

"You may retire, gentlemen."

The gendarmes retired.

Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:—

"Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man."

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:—

"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

Jean Valjean, broken by this act of gracious forgiveness, indeed becomes a changed man who goes on to right great wrongs in the world because of his encounter with a man of God who showed him grace. 

The power of story allows us the grace to be both the forgiving bishop and the forgiven thief. Their story enlarges us as people, distilling Gospel truth into the ordinariness of our own lives. Story grants us the chance to live what we have heard, to be changed by what we read.

Many Christian novelists have noted that there is only one archetypal story and all works that we write are mere copies of it. As a Christian novelist myself, I believe this to be true. And with that belief comes the one hero, the Lord Jesus, who embodies in Himself all heroes, He being the true image to which we all aspire.

In the end, the power of story is His story. 

If the power of story has enlarged you as a person, leave a comment and let us know which fictional works have touched your own life.

12 thoughts on “The Power of Story

  1. Great post, Dan. I too have been working on a novel – for the last five years! I’ll be happy if I can just get it finished, much less published.

    As for stories that have affected me deeply, The Lord of the Rings would be primary , but that’s a given for just about any Christian who has read it. Believe it or not, I’ve also greatly enjoyed reading through some of the science fiction classics by authors such as Orson Scott Card (a conservative Mormon), Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert. All deal with religious and philosophical themes in some way, even if they don’t quite come out orthodox!

  2. Ron Lusk
    • Lord of the Rings: Ordinary people (OK, elves, dwarves, hobbits…you live in your world, I in mine) doing ordinary deeds with somewhat above ordinary courage and achieving extraordinary good. I also invoke the [approximate] quotation, “Those who have lived in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against Seen and Unseen they have great power,” to encourage believers to open their eyes to the wonder of the epic Story they are called into.
    • Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, read over 30 years ago and never forgotten for its intensity and insight.
    • Ron Lusk

      I read and re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and his many eschatological short stories. His power to create an ending and involve the reader (or at least me) is enthralling.

  3. Kazuo Ishiguro is a fantastic modern author whose books (and the characters in them) are fascinating and powerful. I was particularly amazed at The Unconsoled, a book I felt captured our modern ennui and disconnection like no other book I’ve read. Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is also a favorite. Kafka’s The Trial is another one. Its warning about totalitarianism is chilling. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had a powerful effect on me. Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange also hit home. Dystopian works seem to attract me for their warnings.

    I adored Roald Dahl’s books as a child, particularly James and the Giant Peach. As a young teen, I loved Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Incident at Owl Creek” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” also gripped me. Harlan Ellison’s “Jefty Is Five” is also a favorite.

    I once checked out a first printing of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View from a tiny library in Fontana, WI, and it was great fun. And of course, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its follow-ups by Douglas Adams have to be mentioned. And I can’t forget The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.

    But of all those, I think no other book has had the effect on me as has Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. What an extraordinarily powerful, godly, and life-affirming work! I think I wept through most of it, particularly the ending, which was extraordinary. That’s a book I can recommend to every single reader. Won the Pulitzer Prize in its day, too.

    That’s my contribution.

  4. Three really stand out. In middle school reading The Lord of the Rings helped me keep my faith in goodness and justice even as I fell away from the church. At the same time, The Old Man and the Sea taught me that catching the fish is really the beginning, not the ending, of the real story. Of course, writing my own novel had an impact on my life. I came to really love my protagonist, Jason Sain.

    • Milton,

      The Old Man and the Sea is a great one.

      My protagonist in Fade into Blue is Amelia Merritt. She possesses traits from a number of people I’ve known in my life, but she’s not really any one of them, and has a life of her own. I like her, too, because of the way she finds herself by losing herself. Her journey is an extreme one, but she only grows through it all.

  5. Francisco

    Good post. I am written a handful of short stories about some events of my childhood filling in the blanks with some fiction and assigning them to other characters. All being said I like history a lot and specially biographies. “The Life of David Brainerd” that you can find here is one that has impacted me deeply so far.

  6. As a senior and brand new Christian in high school, I got into an AP English class with a teacher that told us she wanted us to have “open minds” and that she would challenge us in our thinking and beliefs we got from “the church.” Of course that put on alert, and actually the opposite happened in her class. I learned that writers and thinkers throughout history had already been asking the questions I had had before I became a believer…about life and death….eternity and reality and sin and guilt and shame. It was an exciting time for me. It also made me think and learn to defend my faith, because the teacher would mock Christianity and I would write papers to counteract what she said in class as well as argue with her class (I probably was not entirely mature on this matter…).

    Moby Dick was a favorite….the part about Ishmael sharing a bed with the Queequeg….he’d rather share a bed with a savage than a Christian hypocrite. And Heart of Darkness and that book about the boys on the island…..who says we are all basically good! I also enjoyed the poems of Anne Bradstreet. It was funny to read this Puritan woman’s thoughts and have a connection as a young 80s gal. Oh, and Shakespeare…

    Newer books I have enjoyed was the Joy Luck Club. It is about these Chinese women, and yet I could relate to them in so many ways. I don’t recommend Amy Tan’s other books because of content, but Joy Luck Club was great. i also liked Generation X and some of douglass Coupland’s other books.

    I liked the Lewis quote. It is interesting how we can read fiction and get engrossed in this person and their thoughts and life. Lately I have been trying to understand that more as I read the Bible in the Old Testament in particular. Trying to see them as real people with real thoughts and feelings.

  7. Douglas Adams is one of my favorites too, but not because of how he inspired me. 🙂 Just plain hilarious. The movie didn’t do it justice, in my opinion. Besides the 5 books in the Hitchhiker trilogy, the Dirk Gently books are very good too. They can be a little slow going at first with several seemingly unconnected stories, but then the pieces start coming together in that Douglas Adams way and you can’t put it down.

    Recently I read an incredible book by F.W. Faller called Lonama’s Map. It’s the second in a series (but not sequential) of ‘visionary fiction’ that, like The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian themed but not really overtly Christian, if you know what I mean. In his first book, A Sword for the Immerland King, Faller states in the first page something like “If everything could be different, what would have to stay the same.” which is a deep and profound question that frames his work. So the world of these books are very different from ours, but spiritual principals like love, honesty, devotion and redemption, as well as evil deeds of dishonesty, hatred, selfishness and violence remain. They also illuminate the unseen spiritual forces at work around us and how we play a part in their world whether we know it or not.

    Lonama’s Map in particular really made me think about the spiritual reality around me as the main character’s own eyes were opened to it in his world. I was also drawn to how he lived his entire life, ending up becoming a spiritual hero, yet was still unsure about his faith on some level and discovering what was really going on. I feel I can relate to that quite a bit. I’m aware that some look up to me and that God has allowed me to make a difference in some lives, yet I feel completely inadequate and unsure of some pretty basic things at times. I very highly recommend it.

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