Stories are so much more than spoonfuls of sugar which help the moral medicine go down. Because all of God’s activity has the structure of narrative, stories are the habitat in which ethical realities exist. As water is to fish, so is narrative to ethics. For this reason, stories play an integral role in our moral education, and they often do so without moralizing.
A child who touches a hot stove is burned and learns an important lesson: Don’t touch hot stoves! But unlike stoves, sin is not such a good teacher. It numbs and darkens the conscience, it infects us with a desire for more, and it stimulates a system of pretexts and justifications. This is one reason we depend upon stories to help us develop a capacity for deep moral judgement. Good stories help us form a conception of beauty and an appreciation for virtue; they bring to life the realities of righteousness and sin.
A Different Way of Knowing Righteousness and Sin
We need more than just rules to follow. We need an education which situates life in a meaningful narrative. This is because we are made, not only to do righteous deeds, but to love righteousness. We are created in the framework of personhood and can only appreciate the Law and ethics in the context of relationships and story. It is no accident that the Ten Commandments themselves begin by declaring that the Lord our God is a God who brought us out of the land of Egypt. God makes himself known to us through the narrative of creation and redemption.
It is crucial to provide our children with stories, compellingly told, which present good and evil in all their (age appropriate) complexity and significance. Well wrought stories help them to evaluate the stories they explicitly and implicitly use to navigate life. Whether true or false, beneficial or injurious, we all use stories to interpret everything we experience. They shape the way we relate to God, to others, and to ourselves. Good stories prepare us for meaningful and rich relationships, while fragmentary, inward narratives alienate our affections and energies.
God’s Word is the preeminent story of truth, hope, and light. It has the power to enlighten our minds, and by its light we can examine our thoughts and experiences. God’s Word allows us to critically investigate our operating narratives. These narratives, in turn, shape our attitudes, choices, and ideas. For instance, do we see ourselves as victims or behave as if we were? Do we believe we have been abandoned or have received the short end of the stick? Are we guided by narratives of disappointment, bitterness, or selfish expectation? The Word of God enables us to challenge these misleading narratives. God can lead us in a process of narrative healing in which we learn to speak the truth in love to ourselves and to one another.This is not just a process we engage in privately, but with parents, children, pastors, counselors, and friends as we help each other bring all things captive to Christ.
Profitable reading and other forms of narrative engagement provides practice, often delightful practice, in the appreciation and evaluation of stories. Such an education teaches us to grasp not simply the content of a story, but to evaluate the quality and fullness of its vision. This is crucial because many of the most damaging narratives are not so obviously false, but rather incomplete. They present an aspect or appearance of truth, but without providing the whole truth. This is what makes bad stories so dangerous.
As readers we can learn to distinguish the stamp of truth from its counterfeits. In doing so, we develop an ability to recognize those visions of reality which fall short, in which there is no real hope or beauty, but only its distortions. Some narratives present us with worlds which are hardly worlds at all, but merely the dim reflections of the creation turned in on itself. A good education will foster an ability to discern whether a tale speaks of our “Father’s world,” or of some poor imitation, inhabited by shadows and ghosts.
Dragons and Crayons
From early nursery rhymes to fairy tales and picture books, we are presented with stories. Many children’s books are full of the mystery of creation and redemption, but there are stories which have hardly a brushing acquaintance with truth, goodness, or beauty.
For instance, children’s books often deal with the problem of appearances: the Ugly Duckling, Green Eggs and Ham, Miss Nelson is Missing. In one of my favorite books, Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like, by Mercer Mayer and Jay Williams, a small town prays for a dragon to rescue it from attack. Each character assumes the dragon will look like himself. Only the little gatekeeper is willing to show hospitality to an old man who shows up and claims to be their savior. The books reminds readers not only of the importance of kindness, but of the fallibility of our judgment and expectations. At the end, because of his faith and hospitality, the little gatekeeper is afforded a vision of the great dragon. In such a world, there is injustice, danger, and self-centered egoism. But in Mayer and Williams’s universe, children also discover humility and trust, as well as great beauty and power.
On the other hand, consider the more recent The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. This text also deals with a conflict between appearances and expectations; yet, it takes a vastly different approach. Each crayon is unhappy with having to play a prescribed role, i.e., blue is tired of being water; beige is jealous of brown, etc,. Appearance is itself treated as an injustice and an imposition. These crayons should be free to express themselves! The book essentially challenges the concept that reality should be dictated in anyway by appearance. In this word there is also injustice, but the solution to injustice is to complain or quit. It is a world in which there is little space for beauty, for kindness or for humility. It is an all too familiar and narrow vision of a life focused on the self, fairness, and one’s own rights.
On the one hand, you have a story in which hospitality and humility triumph. On the other hand, you have a story about grievances and the importance of taking a stand for oneself. I am not suggesting that one has failed as a parent if you or your kids have enjoyed The Day the Crayons Quit, but that narratives of such a limited scope cannot ultimately provide the wholesome nourishment we all need.
Discernment for Adults
This holds true for us grownups as well. We all need good stories. The danger of material intended for mature audiences is that they can more easily assume a facade of truth. Just because a story is risky, bold, forthright, or ‘scientific,’ does not mean that it is true, enriching, or even deep. While there are probably some great guidelines one can use to find appropriate reading material, part of learning to assess narratives as an adult is learning to listen to our conscience and to God’s promptings. Mother Teresa recollects in her writings:
My sister and I used to read the same books. One day my sister read a book and passed it to me. As soon as I read two pages, I felt it would be a sin to read that book. Later I asked my sister whether she had read the book. She replied that she had and had found nothing wrong in it. There was no sin in my sister reading the book, but in conscience I could not read it.*
When reading, we have to be honest about what appeals to us in a given book. Does it delight or is it mere amusement? Does it exalt or does cast down? Are we seeking and finding understanding in it, or only a pretext for anger and self-congratulation. Because grown up books may deal with mature subjects, they can more easily take on an air of depth or sophistication, and it becomes crucial to discern our motives and our disposition to such material.
My recent experience reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina comes to mind.
The Reality of Marriage and What it is Really About
Tolstoy’s novel is a difficult read. This has nothing to do with its lexile score. Anna Karenina takes readers through the fall of a young married woman and the psychological, spiritual consequences of her affair. Anna becomes more and more paranoid, unstable, and lonely. She abandons her son, loses her emotional and mental bearings, and finally throws herself in front of a train.The novel is emotionally taxing, not simply because of its subject matter, but because Tolstoy’s treatment evokes empathy for Anna, even as it recognizes her complicity.
Like many writers, Tolstoy treats marital infidelity as a reality, but more importantly, he reveals what is real about its reality. Just because affairs happen, does not mean that a story which depicts them, shows their full reality. For instance, many popular movies and novels present marital infidelity as a normal feature of marriage or as the right of a partner who is ‘tragically’ trapped in a ‘failed’ or ‘loveless’ marriage. Because Tolstoy recognizes the meaning of marriage in its religious, social, and psychological dimensions, he renders a treatment of infidelity which is faithful.
While many films and books present extra-marital sexuality and romance as full of hope, excitement, and courage, they fails to create a true picture if it. Such stories render a world devoid of consequences, or a world in which conscience and memory can be subdued by passion and choice. In these artificial realities, happiness is ultimately a matter of human will, physical or emotional passion, and what we can get out of this life, and the victims of this hyper-individuality receive short shrift.
The world of Anna Karenina is in ways much darker than such narratives, and yet it is also filled with greater mystery and hope. Discerning christian readers who engage Tolstoy’s novel discover in it the horrors of sin, but also the beauty of righteousness. Such readers discover all this without having to undergo adultery or insanity. Such a novel helps us appreciate the boundaries which God has set forth for us in this life. Such readers have a better chance of rejecting what the world says about infidelity, or what they may find themselves thinking at some point in their lives. They will have an ability to discern which stories are the most true and worthy of their trust.
Ultimately this is not about censorship, though certain works probably do not belong in a home library, or in any library for the matter, but about cultivating a mature and faithful faculty for moral comprehension, so that when we are presented with bad art, we know it; so that when we are presented with a false dilemma, we can broaden our perspective; so that when we face trials and temptation, we might rely upon the robust and all sufficient Word of God.
Faith in God, who is the greatest narrator of all, and who alone is truly enough, is a faith which does not fail.
*Mother Teresa: Quotable Wisdom, Fall River, Ed. Carol Kelly-Gangi, 2014, p.97