A Magic Deeper than Tales

By

One of the great benefits of reading fiction is the experience we often have of deep empathy for a character. Like a charm, we don’t even realize we have become immersed in someone else’s perspective, loving what they love, hating what they hate, riding shotgun in their hearts. This is dangerous, of course, because we lay our hearts open to things in stories we never would if we were acting with our mind in charge. But it is also a wonder. It’s fantastic to experience someone else, to love and be united to some one so closely in spirit. Perhaps more wonderful is the miracle, if only for a moment, of not being consumed with ourselves. “Sir, you forget yourself.” Thank God. Keep it coming.

Maybe it’s not a big deal that the people in stories are often not people in the sense that you and I are. I would argue that they are real. As Chesterton said, “Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.” It must be admitted they are not real in the primary creation the way we are, but still, we forget ourselves and see through new eyes. Perhaps a million eyes.

It’s easy when we’re kids. The ecstatic transport of being another someone in imaginative play is as easy as one-two-three–easier even (math is hard). I have been many other someones, mostly to my advantage. I take on their courage, their generosity, their gentleness, and heroic mercy. When we are children, we can imagine ourselves as pure characters and not betray our hearts. But “we have sinned and grown old,” as Chesterton (once again) said. We are grown, and long for the magic of childhood. We long for an old self that was more of a self, because it was perhaps less self-centered. We long, as Rich Mullins sang, to “grow young.”

In great stories we may be children again. We are vulnerable, happy, selfless. One of the sadnesses of the teenage phenomenon is the tragic joy of self-awareness. It is as if, as we grow, we recapitulate the Fall. We realize what we are, and we set about sewing those fig leaves. I do not intend to advocate the Pelagian view that we are born sinless–it’s St. Augustine for me–only that, as we age, the sin at work in us seems to deepen, entrench, and in our minds there grows a terrible awareness of who we are and what we are becoming. Stories can be an escape from this. But they can do more than just remind us of who we were. Great stories whisper to us about who we truly, deeply are. Or may become.

It’s hard as adults to rediscover the joys of self-forgetting, and fiction is an avenue back.

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” –C.S. Lewis

The irony is that our deepest, truest self will awaken when we have stopped being so obsessed with ourselves. To find your life, you must lose it. So we travel in tales, but in the best ones we arrive home.

There will be the inevitable charge of escapism. Tolkien had a characteristically insightful reaction to people who dismissed fairy stories, or “fantasy,” as escapism.

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailors and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course the worst prison we are faced with is our terrible self-obsession, which is the idolatry at the heart of all idolatry.

So, stories give us a heart of empathy. Or, they can. They let us outside ourselves, if only for a little while, to see with new eyes. This cannot help but change us. And if they are the right sort of stories, we shall not be changed into dragons (as Eustace Scrubb was), but into–or along the way to–our very best selves.

Fiction does help us with this. We do develop deep empathy for the characters we read of and, for a while, whose hearts we inhabit. But I find it’s easy to love theoretical people. It’s the real people I have the hardest time with.

And so, though I love it and stand by its virtues, I am forced to admit literature is not the miracle we need. It is a beautiful, mystical wonder. But what I need to love my neighbor as myself is more than a literate empathy. I need the Holy Spirit of God giving me a new heart. I need to be fully awake to the Kingdom coming in terrible beauty and power. I need to become a Kingdom person, that herald of a new creation that I am myself an exemplar of. I want to honor and celebrate all human flourishing. But corpses cannot finally flourish. I need new life.

I find I cannot be like Jesus without saying Yes to Jesus. I can imitate on my own, but I cannot be recreated by my own hand. The new birth is, like creation, an act of God. Like all acts of God, insurance will not save us. And reading even the very best literature can be a little like lousy insurance. It’s great to have, but it will not save you from the tornado. It will not cause you to live again.

God is in the storm, breathing on the face of the new creation. His story is reanimating heaven and earth. We are invited to do more than read and learn, but to step inside the tale and become fully alive.

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Featured image from the Hubble Telescope


30 Comments

  1. mike

    I could be wrong about this because I’ve been so wrong about so much but I’ve come to understand God’s glory as His manifestation to us. Paul said that Christ is us was the hope of Glory. That would mean that Christ in us is the way God has chosen to manifest Himself to us. Could it be that our love, one for another is Christ in this world.

    Thanks again Sam, Great stuff to ponder.

  2. David

    Outstanding, Sam. I don’t think I’ve read an essay that quite so neatly extols the virtues of good literature, and so pointedly notes its limits.

  3. Lindsey

    “His story is reanimating heaven and earth. We are invited to do more than read and learn, but to step inside the tale and become fully alive.”

    I love this. It was when I finally stepped back and looked at the Gospel as the story of a large Kingdom, rather than a personal, individualist remedy, I found Jesus more beautiful and the story more wonderful than I ever imagined. Keep writing, Sam. You speak truth in the most magical ways.

  4. April Pickle

    Thank you, Mr. S. This is pure joy to chew on. I like to think of John 1 with the “right sort of stories” being like John the Baptist..

    And, just this morning, I was reading The Tale of Despereaux to my 7-year-old, Levi:
    “He cleared his throat. He let go of his tail. He stood up straighter. ‘Once upon a time,’ he said out loud to the darkness. He said those words because they were the best, most powerful words that he knew and just the saying of them comforted him.”

  5. James Witmer

    What David said.

    And what Tolkien said. Wow. Where did you find that awesome quote?

    My only gripe with this essay is that it feels like the final word. Clear. Pointed. Balanced, with the paradoxical Good News its necessary and central place.

    So… what are we going to talk about now?

  6. Madeline

    Marvelous!
    At seventeen and on the cusp of adulthood, I’m in the grip of that metamorphosis you described so well, and feeling it strongly. And one of the strongest themes in my coming-of-age story is making the shift that you make from focusing on the people in stories to loving the people in the real world. I’ve always loved stories, and it used to be that I resented reality, even though I was told over and over, and was obliged to acknowledge intellectually, that God was what I was really yearning for in the Lord of the Rings. “You can have Heaven; I’ll take Middle Earth to the last,” was still my heartcry. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve been experiencing a wondrous disenchantment. Somehow, I’ve seen. Through moments of story-like wonder, by gripping my heart with the ultimate drama of the cross and empty tomb, by allowing me to catch glimpses of my role as a character, God’s showing me this story we’re living in, and that the others really are shadows. It’s like C.S. Lewis says (I can’t find the quote, exactly)–that we make stories about rivers running with wine to try to capture the exhilaration we experienced when as children we first found that they ran with water. I’m beginning to recapture those eyes for my own story, and it’s marvelous.

  7. PaulH

    (I am going ahead andposting what came to mind first while reading this good article.Thanks – PH)

    “Read dozens of books about heroes and crooks,
    And I’ve learned much from both of their styles.”
    ~J.Buffett

  8. Sarah J

    It is a relief, somehow, to hear someone else speak of the “terrible awareness” of growing up. Like so many others, I have a tendency to sew fig leaves to cover my shame, and usually must then undertake a slow un-learning process, remembering how to let go of my old ways of coping and let the light in.

    I think you’ve said it well: all the self-reflection, the endless self-examination and self-probing and journaling, can end up feeling selfish and draining rather than enlightening. I do believe there is great value in taking the time to know ourselves, to allow time for reflection in a culture crazed with activity and crammed schedules. But sometimes what I need most of all is to stop thinking about myself for one blessed moment.

    Thank you for the reminder that stories can do this, even while they’re teaching us about ourselves and God in a more subtle and indirect way. There are days when I need poetry and metaphor more than I need to anaylyze my motives and personality type. What a relief to give myself permission to do so.

  9. Goodgame

    This is great, Sam. And James, I know what you mean about the final word phenomenon. But there are hundreds of ways that books do open our minds to the Spirit, and that conversation can go on forever. Sometimes through all that “forgetting yourself” my guard is let down and the Spirit will bring to mind a conviction or a conflict or a way to redemption in my real life that I hadn’t ever seen before.

    Sam mentioned “becoming children again” through books, and that’s just who we need to be to hear from the Lord. But as a confession, I’m always torn when it happens while I’m reading. I feel the conflict between wanting to stop, listen, and digest what the Spirit is trying to feed me, and wanting to get back to the story. I try to remember that the Spirit is calling me back into THE story — and the book at that point has done its highest work. I can get back to the smaller story later.

    And Paul — dude. Thank you for quoting Jimmy Buffett.

  10. Elizabeth of the Kirk in the Woods

    Ohhhh…

    Can I put this on my wall? And maybe memorize it as a speech? Please? 😛 🙂

  11. Thaine Norris

    Mr. Smith, this is excellent. Of course any essay that quotes Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien is bound to be great!

    I have recently been studying and meditating on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son which embodies the things you describe so well; the everyman in the son who is condemned to death under the Law, the hope of our escape embodied in a Father who exercises the higher Law of Mercy, and the real life challenge to forgive as we have been forgiven.

    Madeline, let us know when you are published. I look forward to reading more of your writing!

  12. EmmaJ

    Thank you Sam. Well said, good sir.

    Why is it so easy to let my schedule and my mind get cluttered up with all kinds of stupid things that are not living, missing my part in the Story that is always calling me in? A shameful thing to confess. Grateful for grace from the Author and the Finisher.

  13. April Pickle

    Mr. Goodgame, thank you for sharing that! The temptation you described can be applied to so many things. Interesting that the very thing that points us to Christ can also be the very thing that distracts us. And what you said about the book’s highest work…yes! Blessed is the art that produces a holy pause, and blessed is the man who puts the book (or the iPhone, laptop, etc.) down when called.

  14. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Thank you all so much. I want to respond to you each, but am not able to at present. But I do appreciate your words and how you have added to the conversation. Peace to you!

  15. Renee

    I have so many amens for what you wrote! Thank you!

    All that you wrote about stepping outside of ourselves and looking to the Author and Finisher of our faith is very inspiring and confirming to how Jesus is leading me these days. If we live fully committed to Him, fully alive in Him, and allow Him to fill us with His Spirit everyday, then we are truly vessels that He can use for His glory. That He can pour out on the thirst of humanity. This is how to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Empty of me and filled with God.

    All Glory to God!

  16. Jen

    “Perhaps more wonderful is the miracle, if only for a moment, of not being consumed with ourselves. “Sir, you forget yourself.” Thank God. Keep it coming.”

    Yes and amen. I’m not sure what else to add other than I know the feeling.

    Thanks Sam. This is wise and beautiful, and (as always) it gives me something to think about. I appreciate your writing!

  17. Tony Heringer

    Well done Sam. This articulates the allure of this cyberpub. It is a place to remember and reimagine. It never hurts to include a Rich Mullins reference either. This idea of the Larger Story and how all other great stories point to it is one that fuels me each day.

    In fact, as I was typing this update, a dear brother rolled up to this Starbucks and we chatted about small and large life issues all the while both knowing we have a part to play in this story. The role we are given is one that is custom made and no one else will fill it. That is pretty cool. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’m so glad our stories have intersected bro. It’s an honor to know you and to be able to share in these thoughts.

    Be God’s,

    Tony

  18. Peter B

    Thank you once again, Sam, for an insightful trip into my own heart. I love that you took this idea of losing oneself in story, recognized it for the gift it is, and then didn’t get stuck worshiping the gift — but rather acknowledging our need for the Giver.

    Also, I didn’t realize Rich was quoting GK; thank you for that reminder as well. That song calls me, much like Jason’s For the First Time Again (which my 5-year-old son sings as “Jesus dot com” with all the sincerity he can muster).

    So glad to be heading for Hutchmoot this year.

  19. Pamela Richards

    Some artists struggle with the dichotomy between life and art. Some plunge in and embrace both at once. I learned from someone who was devoted to embodiment: he opened himself to the story God told with his life. His life became a gift from God. Now it has been my joy to share the living allegory of his friendship in the form of art.

  20. Laura Peterson

    Finally sat down and read this today – Sam, good stuff as always. And Randall, I really like what you said about the book having done its highest work when we get that sense of the Spirit trying to teach us something and feel that conflict between the big STORY and the smaller story…I’m going to be thinking on that for a while. Thanks.

  21. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Sorry to be so long in responding, guys. Rude! But between a hectic period and intermittent internet, I feel validated in my villainy. Biography idea! Validated In My Villainy by S.D. Smith, villain.

    Mike- Thank you. I think I’m tracking with you, and it sounds good to me.

    Jon Slone- Thanks.

    David- That is very kind of you, sir.

    Lindsey- What you said. That is the ticket. And thank you for the encouragement.

    Loren Eaton- Thanks, my friend.

    April Pickle- Well said. I love that.

    James Witmer- The quote is from On Fairy Stories, a must-read. Let’s talk about football now.

    Madeline- Boy, I love everything you said. I’m excited by what God is doing in your life and what your story will be. I love that Lewis quote, can’t place it. It sounds a lot (but not precisely) like what Chesterton said in Orthodoxy. Wonderful. Thanks for your words.

    PaulH- Woah, man. Nice one.

    Sarah J- I think you say it so well. I am really prone to that sort of self-reflection and sort of revel in moments where I catch myself disengaged from it. Thanks for your words.

    Goodgame- Well said. Of course, that is just the sort of enchantment you are under when you make your S&B music, and it’s a gateway for many of us to go through and be alive that way. Thanks!

    Elizabeth of the Kirk in the Woods- Absolutely not. Never. OK, I give in.

    Thaine Norris- Thanks for the wise words. And I agree about Madeline.

    EmmaJ- Me too and ditto.

    Renee- All glory to God. Yes.

    Jen- Well, thank you so much, my friend.

    Tony- Thank you, my brother. I have long appreciated your encouraging words. Peace to you.

    Zack- Thanks, pal.

    Peter B- I’m so glad you’re coming, dude. Thanks for the kind words. I love your son’s interpretation. That is my favorite kind of humor. I feel like watching my kids is funnier than anything on TV. Jesus dot com! Brilliant. The first I ever heard of GKC was from reading Rich. Two big influences, for sure.

    Pamela Richards- Sounds like a good fellow.

    Laura Peterson- Thanks, my friend.

  22. Eizabeth of the Kirk in the Woods

    @ S.D. Awesome Smith: * grins * Thank you. 😀

    This is exactly the kind of inspiration I need when writing. 🙂

    When I write, it’s often seems like the flip side of the coin. I have to look through the eyes of my character, and I see…me. And I see that I have to rely on Someone besides myself to really come alive.

  23. Loren Warnemuende

    I’ve come up for air after three weeks of exploring 100 Cupboards (would have gone faster, but funny how three young kids help root one in the real world). Of course I came straight back to the Rabbit Room and discovered this timely gem. There were so many great thoughts and themes in 100 Cupboards that I’m hoping will transfer to my own true story and my kids’ lives. For me, books and life are a tapestry of inseparable threads. But this is such a good reminder that I need to step back and study the emerging pattern and not get lost in the strands.

  24. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Elizabeth of the Kirk in the Woods– So true.

    Loren– Well said. I agree. And isn’t ND Wilson a great writer? His new one, The Dragon’s Tooth, is likewise excellent.

  25. Becky

    Any article that references Chesterton, Mullins, Lewis and Tolkien is a win in my book, but this one takes the cake. It’s beautiful, because it’s absolutely true.
    My literature class had to memorize the C.S. Lewis quote this year. I fell in love with it upon first hearing it.

  26. The Stories We Find Ourselves In - The Bridge of Storm Lake

    […] In great stories, we may be children again. We are vulnerable, happy, selfless. One of the sadnesses of the teenage phenomenon is the tragic joy of self-awareness. It is as if, as we grow, we recapitulate the Fall. We realize what we are, and we set about sewing those fig leaves. I do not intend to advocate the Pelagian view that we are born sinless–it’s St. Augustine for me–only that, as we age, the sin at work in us seems to deepen, entrench, and in our minds there grows a terrible awareness of who we are and what we are becoming. Stories can be an escape from this. But they can do more than just remind us of who we were. Great stories whisper to us about who we truly, deeply are. Or may become. (S.D. Smith, A Magic Deeper Than Tales) […]

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