“When anybody asks what a story is about,
the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”
Stories are the most natural way in which we come to know God’s created world and our place in it. The desire to tell and hear stories is a fundamental part of our human nature—of being made in the image and likeness of God. Good stories reveal God’s beauty and affirm the meaning of life and its purposes. They also give needed recreation and offer refreshment to tired souls. Most assuredly, good stories also help us find our way, especially in navigating those unfamiliar waters we tend to enter reluctantly when there’s simply no alternate route. Stories will not eliminate the hard aspects of life—the laborious work, the confusion, or the pain that living well demands. As a matter of fact, good stories ought to leave us with a greater appreciation for the time commitment and hard work that are required in order to live thoughtful, meaningful, and purposeful lives, as well as provide us with a clearer understanding of the messiness that comes with fostering good relationships and a better awareness of the sacrifices that are imposed by “loving your neighbor as yourself.”
There are no overnight crash courses for learning to live well. Unlike books that lay out ten steps to a better life, you cannot simply read a good story to find a formula to plug into a given situation or problem that will resolve it and thereby restore life to what it once was, what you want it to be, or what it rightly should be. It takes a while—sometimes a very long stretch of time—to unearth truths buried deep inside good literature, and the better the narrative, the deeper you have to go to discover what’s there. This process of discovery calls for patience as you contemplate those truths and form your imagination and vision—your depth of perspective. In addition, it takes time for your thinking and understanding to develop and mature, enabling you to see more clearly until finally you are ready to live out what you have learned.
The plethora of self-help books available these days are no substitute for good literature. They may be easier to read and may give a temporary motivational boost, but, to the degree that they deconstruct and demystify life while claiming false promises, they will be ineffective and potentially detrimental. In contrast, good stories don’t tell you directly what to do or how to do it; they use the structured art of storytelling to instill life with continuity and order, thereby showing the best paths by mirroring God’s created order. Furthermore, trusted authors, philosophers, and theologians are instructive in helping us not only “to know the truth of things” but also “to learn how to go about knowing.” If you commit to the partaking of good literature and the telling and hearing of good stories, you will eventually be rewarded with thought-provoking, purposeful direction; again, however, this involves a lifetime of patient discovery and maturation.
Stories aren’t merely a means of obtaining amusement and enjoyment; they are markers left by earlier travelers to guide us. Similar to the construction of a great cathedral, stories build upon the foundation stones of earlier works. Authors, philosophers, poets, and storytellers throughout history have laid the bricks and straw and mortar of language necessary for imparting wisdom to the generations to come. However, caution must be taken with story selection because not all narratives were built on a solid footing, and not all face the right direction. It’s the good stories that teach you what is worthy of attention—what to look for in life, how to view it once you find it, and what to taste along the way for sustenance. From them you also learn more about what to avoid by the warning signs they place along the trail, alerting you to the dangers lurking up ahead. These aren’t signs that give specific directions, such as detour signs rerouting your life, stop signs keeping you from making bad choices, or caution signs warning you to slow down. These signs are embedded within the story—in the plot and the events and the characters themselves—and conveyed through their choices and consequences, their virtues and vices and ambiguities. In Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up, he said of the family stories shared around the table night after night, “Usually I listened uncritically, for around that table, under the unshaded light bulb, I was receiving an education in the world and how to think about it. What I absorbed most deeply was not information but attitudes, ways of looking at the world that were to stay with me for many years.”
Good narratives stir you from a deep slumber and invite you in; once inside, your sense of reality is enlarged and deepened. Their doors are the passageways to other times and places, as well as to other ways of thinking about and participating in the world. In addition, they have a way of bringing to the surface what has been forgotten, as if awakening you from a stupor—reminding you of moments in life that fueled wrong beliefs and wrong thinking and wrong choices. Through them your beliefs are gradually corrected, your thoughts reshaped, and your choices redirected.
When good books and stories are read and heard and retold, something wonderful happens: you discover that a few good stories have come to be the best. They were thus all the while; you had only to see, and again this kind of seeing takes vision. It’s exciting to discover that over time the best stories have remained true and slowly influenced you for the better. As such, they have come to live with you and have become a part of you. The best stories, like the closest friends, are the ones that stay with you—the ones about which you keep thinking and to which you keep returning. They are the stories you read and continually reread. With well-formed vision, you are better able to discern what narratives offer a depth of perspective on the world’s fullness—the good and bad parts together with all the ordinary parts in between—and thereby set themselves apart from other works of literature.
You will soon discover that the best literature is the most potent for shaping your interior world: forming your imagination, structuring your thinking, ordering your days, and enhancing all areas of your life. As you mature, these stories grow with you, and there are always more discoveries to be made each time you return. They lead the way to other topics worthy of thoughtful attention. Over a lifetime, expanding the subject matter of your study can have a tremendous impact on your thinking, as well as a powerful effect on your emotions and a significant influence on your choices—all for the good. Whether it’s a children’s classic such as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, a masterful fictional narrative like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or simply another adventure in John Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series, your life becomes fuller and richer. In stories like these you hear an echo of Truth—the highest and most profound knowledge regarding what is good, beautiful, and true.
We need signposts directing us to the good stories, including the books and storytellers where those stories can be found, and we also need help discovering the best of these. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the nineteenth century, “There are 850,000 volumes in the Imperial Library at Paris. If a man were to read industriously from dawn to dark for sixty years, he would die in the first alcove. Would that some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books and alighting upon a few true ones, which made him happy and wise, would name those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.” Although I cannot agree wholeheartedly with Emerson on what makes a man happy and wise, here he offers wisdom, and just think how many more books there are today.
The stories that permeate our lives are influential, shaping us into the people we become, so we need to be mindful of those we choose for ourselves and offer to our children. There are relatively few stories worthy of being classified as good, even fewer worthy of being distinguished as the best, and only one Greatest Story Ever Told in which all other stories find their meaning. Here at In Medias Res, I will be naming some of those true books and narratives that have transported not only me but also countless others over centuries of living, in both times of plenty and times of want. I hope that these stories will provide shelter as you weather storms, quench your thirst as you traverse deserts, soothe your soul as you battle pestilence, and lead where a new land awaits…