The first time I was drawn to meaningful stories was in college. Simultaneously, in two separate classes, I was reading James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The former, I “read” in high school, while the latter was not on our reading list, so both stories were new and fresh to me.
The characters and plot of both stories floored me. Their actions, decisions, struggles, etc. pierced through my stale perception of literature and my unrelenting, rigid perception of human nature. Both Stephen Dedalus and the Reverend Dimmesdale profoundly impacted how I viewed the workings of sin and an individual’s struggle to understand truth and God. I noticed their paths were the paths I walked. For the first time in my life, I saw myself in the lives of fictional characters.
I remember sitting quietly in class, keeping my menial thoughts to myself (which is what I always do in class), when my classmates began to trash the actions of Dimmesdale and his cowardice in leaving Hester on an island of shame. I agreed; I wished he would forsake his puritanical pride and stand up for the honor of Hester. But, the tone of the class conversation seemed to elevate their own morality over the reality of Dimmesdale’s situation – in time and in his own soul. There was this air of arrogance, “I would never treat Hester as such! I would never have put her in this situation in the first place!”
For whatever reason, I couldn’t contain myself. I felt as if my own personage was being run through the ringer – as if my soul was at stake if I remained quiet. My one and only comment in the class was to stand up for the adulterer, the fallen and distraught Reverend. I realized, as a sinner myself, how that could easily be me, and how I could easily make the same decision he made to preserve my own reputation.
Robert Alter, an Old Testament scholar and a literary critic claims,
“Very few people will take the trouble to read a novel or story unless they can somehow ‘identify’ with the characters, live with them inwardly as though they were real at least for the duration of the reading.”
A good story, in some way or another, allows us to see our past selves, present selves, or future selves, or even our desirable selves, in the lives of those in a story. These characters represent our very human nature – or, at the very least, our potential positive or negative reflection of our nature.
What seems clear, then, as we look at the nature of story, is that we have an innate desire for stories to be told and to see ourselves in them. Behind every fictional story is a creator, a human storyteller laying bare his/her soul or the soul of culture or the soul of a subset of culture. Whether our souls coalesce with the soul of the storyteller, a good story will fuse us together. What also seems clear is for the innate desire to step into stories. Going all the way back to Aristotle, he speaks to the nature of stories and imitation in is Poetics:
“First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.”
Imitation, manifest through stories, teachers us the lessons of man, life, love, faith. Through this learning, we find an enjoyment in our new knowledge and understanding. This is a core tenet of our human essence: we are imitators and participators in imitation.
So, if these characters in fiction – books, movies, shows, plays, etc. – represent us in a very real way, and we will even fight for their reputation and honor in spite of their most drastic transgressions, what do we make of the characters of our own lives, those who do not breathe life into us from a page within a novel or a screen, but whose life was breathed into it by the Creator?
I think, at the very heart of this reflection, is this: we are more inclined to listen to the story of a fictional character because it requires of us no direct response to another. We soak up; we enjoy; we revel; we gasp; we cry; we laugh, but it stops with our response to our own being. Good stories will transform us, and it will engender change in our material and spiritual lives, yet, the focus tends to be solely on us. On me. Others might reap the benefit or the joy of my transformation, but they are probably unchanged. But…
If a basic foundation of man is imitation and stories, why do we, as Christians and human beings, only focus on the particular stories which shape our own individual faith and consciousness?
Man, not just vocational storytellers, longs for and desires to tell their own stories. We need to be heard – for to be truly heard is to be truly loved. Their imitation and representation of their own life for the ears of another fulfills a basic need of life. Love is not solely the provision of shelter, food, water, and money to those in need. Love extends and is predicated on the perception that one is heard and valued – that their story matters, in its brokenness, shame, and joy. Maybe the listener is transformed by it, maybe he isn’t, but the storyteller is loved nonetheless. His need to be loved is satisfied through the telling of his/her story.
When we look at Jesus, we see someone who listens well. Jesus wasn’t purely a miracle worker. He didn’t walk around Galilee pointing his finger and zapping people back to health and cultural unity. He didn’t just stand up on mountains and solely preach a gospel of love and repentance. He listened and heard the stories of those in need. In Luke 18, we see a blind man cry out to Jesus, longing to tell his story to Jesus. Jesus stops, asks him what he needs, and he is healed.
35 As Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging. 36 Now hearing a crowd going by, he began to inquire what this was. 37 They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. 38 And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet; but he kept crying out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to Him; and when he came near, He questioned him, 41 “What do you want Me to do for you?” And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight!” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him, glorifying God; and when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.
Jesus doesn’t rub dirt in his eyes or wave his magic wand. The blind man’s faith manifest in the mere telling of his brokenness to the one who heals incurred healing. The power and healing of hearing a story is incredible…
I pray we become hearers of stories, that when one cries out to us, we stop and say, “what do you want” and through our gentleness and humility in listening, the lives of those around us are transformed more and more into the image of God. I pray that by listening to the stories of this world, we can stand up for them and not just judge their otherness as less than our own otherness.
For the stories of another represent our very nature as a human being. It mimics nature itself and the potential of our own nature. As Christ showed, merely understanding and listening can bring healing to the story of one’s life.