A Little Something from the Vaults (Volume 15.6)
Modern Christians have forgotten the art of storytelling, and this is a significant loss. C.S. Lewis described the problem well in The Horse and His Boy: “Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one. For in Calormen, storytelling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you are taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
Stories are powerful, even the false ones. And for those who are not steeped in the story of Scripture, we have to say the false ones are especially powerful. When it comes to having a need to orient all beliefs within a story, mankind is incorrigible. And we do this for the same reason that we stick to the ground when we walk—this is how our Creator decided to do it. This is how God created our minds, and we cannot really think in other ways. Initially, this approach may seem odd or confusing. But learning to think of the gospel as a story is a central part of recovering a right understanding of the gospel.
Not that we haven’t tried to do it the other way. There have been many attempts by philosophers and (unfortunately) theologians to get away from story by means of staunch adherence to “timeless truths.” The Enlightenment project represents one such major attempt, saying that ultimate and disembodied truths have an abstracted pride of place. But when we say our enemy is “timeless truths,” we have to be careful because we are not drifting toward any postmodern nonsense which rejects timeless truths because they are true. Rather, we complain about timeless truths because they are not true enough. We are seeking to be incarnational Christians; who believe that truth is not a collection of dead abstractions—truth lives.
But we do have to give those who embrace abstractions credit. The success of secular modernity has largely been due to how they have told their story. The story about how there is no ultimate story can make a fascinating . . . story. Lewis made this point when talking about the appeal of the theory of evolution. The charm does not come from us seeing scientists with furrowed browspuzzling away in a laboratory somewhere. The charm comes from the bard, the spinner of tales from long ago and far away. Evolution “gives us almost everything the imagination craves—irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except my reason.”1
Every child who has been through a dinosaur fascination stage, or has seen a wooly mammoth in a museum of natural history, or has poured over a story in National Geographic about life in a prehistoric town on the ancient coast of Belgium knows the force of this particular story. The compelling force of evolution for moderns does not come from the scientific “facts,” which almost no one knows, but rather from the story, which almost everyone does.
But not all tastes are the same, and so for other unbelievers the story they might want to hear is one of economic determinism, class struggle, and the rise of the proles. The power that Marxism had, for as long as it did, certainly did not come from careful economic analysis (!) and still less from the amazing results seen on the shelves of grocery stores in commie lands everywhere. The power of Marxism was in the story it told and in the way it fired the revolutionary imagination.
And so we have to come to grips with the world as God created it. The Christian faith is not to counter these and other lying stories about the world by means of “the gospel.” We must to do so by means of “the gospel story.” We do not fight with abstracted truth, but rather with incarnate truth. The Apostles’ Creed is notable in this: the content of what is confessed is theological,
biographical, and historical. The Apostles’ Creed is not a guide to spiritual enlightenment, but rather a brief guide to what happened. One of the glories of our faith is that the name of a provincial Roman governor has found its way into this most basic of Christian confessions, where it will remain to the end of the world.
We have to fight the temptation to get to “the bottom line.” In the grip of this temptation, we want the “essence of gospel.” What does the gospel look like after you have boiled all the meat off the bones? Well, in scriptural terms, it is not much of a gospel anymore. This story happened in history. The Apostles’ Creed contains many glorious truths—true stories—but one of the more neglected is this one, that Christ suffered “under Pontius Pilate.” Whenever the story of the gospel is declared, one thing should be completely, astonishingly clear. This is a story that is filled with proper and particular names. A scriptural presentation of the gospel therefore includes Adam and Eve and Abraham and Isaac and Moses and David and Jesus.
This storied gospel contains a host of details, but the details are not painted on a backdrop the way a poor writer might do. The details are there in the story because they were there when it happened. The details are part of the essential glory, and they are arranged in the narrative to accentuate that glory. And the essential glory here is that there is no essence that can be abstracted from it. The essential glory of the gospel cannot be taken off to heaven, leaving various historical and biographical details scattered on the ground. When Jesus rose from the dead, He left His burial clothes behind Him, but when the story of the resurrection is told, that detail about the burial clothes is still being talked about two thousand years later. That detail has not been left behind. In short, the details of the story are not the burial clothes of the gospel.
But when we fight against this reality, when we shake all the essential doctrinal bits out of the story and arrange them in a systematic fashion, we are tempted to recite them as though they had power in our artificial arrangement. But the answer we usually get back is “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” And then we get beat up by the modernists again. Propositions extracted from the story are not the truth; they are dehydrated truth. And we need to add story.
The word analysis means to “take apart.” For many centuries, the Christian mind has been fighting (with various degrees of success) the tendency of the Enlightenment mind to take things apart in an attempt to get down to bare essences. But failure to fight this tendency successfully
is what lies behind the twelve steps to a fulfilled whatever, the three keys to a happy other thing, and so on. The “key,” the “essence,” the “secret” are all things we have a tendency to seek out because we want a stripped down version that still works anyway. We want the essence of gospel. To be fair, there are a few places in Scripture where the word is used in a way that is consistent with this, but all this means is that Scripture allows for this to happen occasionally. “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand” (1 Cor. 15:1).
But the gospel is to be preached, and the various sermons in Scripture in which we read that preaching are not very much like what we say or do. In Scripture, the word gospel has a very broad meaning, as broad as the story. For example:
There are the four gospels—“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). But think about this for a moment. This means that part of the gospel is “and wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not” (Mk. 9:18).
Another use for the word gospel is the body of truth promised in the Old Testament—“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures)” (Rom. 1:1-2).
Still another is a great promise of the Old Testament—“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).
And then the words are spoken to Israel in the wilderness—“Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:1-2).
So when the gospel is preached, or when the story of the gospel is told, one thing should be completely, astonishingly clear. As said before, this is a long story, jammed full with proper names.
When we separate the propositions from the story, it does not matter which of the two we intend to keep. The conservatives want to keep the truth of the propositions, unencumbered with story. Liberals want to keep the story, unencumbered by any troublesome questions about whether it actually happened or not. But when we separate them like this, they both die. Liberals love story, but they cannot tell it any more because they have gutted it. Conservatives love abstracted truths, but they can’t defend them anymore because truth without a body has no immune system.
We must meditate on the example given to us in the book God gave to us. There we learn to honor the power of narrative, throughout the course of much of both the Old and New Testaments. And the preeminent preacher and teacher was, of course, our Lord Jesus. And how did He teach? The answer is that He taught overwhelmingly by means of parables—short stories. Why is this so rarely imitated?
We therefore have a responsibility (as Christians seeking to be faithful to God and His holy Word) to learn how to tell stories. We must do this so that we can repeat the story, for those who have not yet heard it. And we must also do this so that we can tell lesser stories, stories that revolve around the great story, and which derive their glory from it.
In order to do this well, one of the most important things we have to do is get out more. One of the besetting sins of aspiring story-tellers is that of becoming provincial, bound to the fads and fashions of creative writing classes at the local community college. But this is like trying to learn to appreciate “foods of the world” by going to Arby’s every day. In order to develop a true love for story, our tastes must be much more catholic and eclectic. Can we truly appreciate stories which come to us dressed out in the spices of another time? One of the best ways to identify a fad is by whether or not it sniffs proudly at the demise of the previous fad. Fads preen themselves on
stage throughout their entire fifteen minutes of fame. Then it is their turn to be passé.
But a good story-teller can enjoy (really enjoy) stories from other times, stories that follow different conventions, stories of staggering genius that could not get published today, great stories that shine through a completely different set of conventions. Those in the grip of current convention are extremely provincial in their tastes. They don’t like anything that couldn’t get published earlier this year in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Virtually every English department in the country has classes devoted to studying books (well worth the study) that would not be given a passing grade if submitted as a composition for a class down the hall in the same department. I can easily
imagine a sea of red ink in the margins of the fables of Aesop, the parables of Jesus, the folk tales of Joel Chandler Harris, the allegory of Bunyan, the whimsy of Booth Tarkington, the ribald grotesqueries of Rabeleis, the poetic genius of Milton.
For example, one of the structuring devices for numerous scriptural narratives is that of a chiasm
(abcdefedcba). Who writes like that anymore? Who would recognize and appreciate it if they did? Not only this, but modern students might be made to outline an ancient chiastic story with our modern outlining forms, which is more than a little like tracing the outlines of a turtle’s skeleton on top of a picture of dog.
Now of course it must be acknowledged that some things are studied in the history of lit because they were influential, not because they were any good. But most literature from down the years that is still being read today is being read because it is in some striking sense, good.
So what is it that makes story-telling good in this sense? What must we learn from them if we would become the tellers of tales that our faith requires? Most of the time when this question is asked, the answers point us to the disciplines of our current conventions or standards of
writing etiquette. This is not a complaint about our conventions (all story-telling cultures have them, including those of Calormen). We cannot dispense with them in such a way as to leave us with none. But we can acknowledge that they are not ultimate, and we can imagine great
story-telling in another place which disregards all our conventions. To refuse to do this is like being an American in Paris refusing a superb dish of cordon bleu at a five-star restaurant because they wouldn’t give you ketchup to put on it.
One of the things we need to make our stories interesting is conflict. The scriptural story is a war story, and so we need to learn to tell war stories. Conflict is interesting, and the conflict of war has been one of the great staples in story-telling over the centuries. This metaphor is one to which Scripture turns again and again. (And this is not even counting the typological warfare throughout the Old Testament.)
The apostle Paul thinks of intellectual conflict in terms of warfare. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).
He thinks of doctrinal controversy within the church in the same way. “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having
put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:18-20).
We are engaged in ethical warfare as well. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light” (Rom. 13:12).
And this all makes sense, because all is in the context of a cosmic war. “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil . . .” (Eph. 6:10-18).
This is warfare, of course, but it is not tug of warfare. Too many Christians think of the story as one of constant, static tension, rather than a war with a beginning, middle and end. In short, they think of earthly history as displaying constant tension between good and evil, or, if anybody
wins, it is the devil. But this is not the mission presented to the Church—at all. Jesus commanded us to win the war, in time and history. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in
the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Mtt. 28:18-20).
But think for a moment how the modern church tells the story of the church’s progress in earthly history— the period of our warfare. Do we win, or lose? And if we tell the story with us losing all the time, is it any wonder that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? The Christian faith
is a religion of world conquest. But we do not use carnal weapons in order to accomplish this. At the same time, it is what we are to accomplish, and the central weapon we have is the story we have to tell.
But there is another aspect to this. Conflict makes a story interesting, but something else—the fantastic— makes stories lively. Unfortunately, this “something else” is written off by sophisticated moderns as mythological, where mythological means false. And evangelicals who
want the Bible to be taken seriously are careful to distance themselves from any “mythical interpretations” of Scripture. But why would we assume that myths are necessarily false?
Enlightenment moderns like to use the word myth dismissively. But simple dismissal is not the same thing as argumentation. Ambrose Bierce put it exquisitely in his Devil’s Dictionary when he defined mythology this way: “Mythology, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it
It is sometimes thought that the task of the apologist is to minimize problem passages in the Bible, not maximize them. But this is based on a misunderstanding. Our problem is not the passages, but our own hearts. If we are embarrassed by any portion of the Bible, such that an urbane modernist can shoo us away from it, then our defense of every other portion of the Bible will be based upon false principles and a false allegiance. And, this being the case, it will not go well with us in the battle, as indeed, it has not gone well. Once the exegesis is done, we should have no problems with whatever the text says.
My point here is to show how the gospel can be presented in scriptural language, and yet sound an awful lot like a fairy tale. Moreover, it is an interesting fairy tale.This does not make Scripture false—rather, it makes traditional fairy stories truer than we have assumed. Consider the devil, and please pardon a string of verses. “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of
every tree of the garden?” (Gen. 3:1).
“But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).
“And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).
“And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20).
“He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil . . . In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother . . . Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:8,10,12).
What is the conclusion? The Devil, or Satan, is identified with the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden. And he is the one who enticed us at the beginning of our rebellion, the sin from which the gospel rescues us. But there is more.
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly” (Is. 6:1-2; cf. 6).
The conclusion here is that the seraphim are glorious beings who worship God continuously in His throne room. But then we encounter flying seraphic snakes. “The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them” (Is. 30:6).
“Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent” (Is. 14:29).
“And the LORD sent fiery serpents [lit. “seraph serpents”] among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent [“seraph serpent”], and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:7-9).
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14)
“Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint” (Dt. 8:15).
And so we come, perhaps rather reluctantly, to another conclusion. Seraphim in the Bible are plainly identified as winged serpents. Incidentally, Herodotus (2:75) gives an interesting testimony here. “I went once to a certain place in Arabia, almost exactly opposite the city
of Buto, to make inquiries concerning the winged serpents. On my arrival I saw the backbones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it is impossible to describe . . .” But the modern wants to say, what did he know?
But we are not done making this story interesting. “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Rev. 12:7-9).
Conclusion: Satan was one of the fallen seraphim, a celestial being with reptilian characteristics. We have different names for this, but in English the best rendering is probably accomplished with the word dragon. And this means that it is entirely appropriate to tell the story of Christ as a dragon-slayer.
And this changes everything—but not in such a way that evangelists become Dungeons & Dragons types, or mystic trekkies. Rather, they become very effective evangelists, men who can tell a story and who tell the right kind of story.
But our modern ways of making our glorious story into a boring one need to be insulted still further. Nothing could be better calculated to make non-believers think the Scriptures are just a pack of ancient myths than to bring up giants, dragons, and now, unicorns. Yes, unicorns. To begin with, just a few historical and etymological notes. Ctesias (5th century BC), a Greek court physician in the court of Darius II, said this, “There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length . . .” But nobody has heard of Ctesias,
so here is Aristotle, in his Historia Animalium: “There are some animals that have one horn only, for example the Oryx, whose hoof is cloven, and the Indian ass, whose hoof is solid. These creatures have their horn in the middle of their head.” And then there is Julius Caesar, in his Gallic Wars: “There is [in Germany] an ox, shaped like a stag, from the middle of whose forehead, between the ears, stands a single horn, taller and straighter than the horns we know.”
Notice how we dismiss such references, since we are enlightened (and boring) moderns. We are like Eustace Scrubb. The books we read are weak on dragons, not to mention unicorns. But this reflex dismissal remains with us when we come to Scripture, and that is truly a problem. What should matter to us fundamentally is Scripture. Again, please bear with a string of passages.
“God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn” (Num. 23:22; cf. 24:8). “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth . . .” (Dt. 33:17).
“Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring
home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” (Job 39:9-12).
“Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Ps. 22:21). “The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn” (Ps. 29:5-6).
“But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil (Ps. 92:10).
“And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness” (Is. 34:7).
All these passages are translating the word re’em, for which no modern lexicographer knows (directly) the meaning. But the ancient translators of the Septuagint, centuries before Christ, translated them all with the Greek word monoceros. The Latin transliteration of this is unicorn.
So what are we to do with all this? I have not even gotten into the fact that Canaan was filled with giants, and that the people of God were commanded to be giant killers, just like Jack of beanstalk fame. Nor have I touched on the fact that Solomon colonized Central America from the port city of Eziongeber. The point in bringing all this up is not to be embarrassing. But perhaps we should want to enquire into why we are embarrassed. And when we have discovered the answer to that, then perhaps we will also have found out why no one wants to listen to our stories.
One other point, a foundational one, needs still to be made. And this point is one which both conflict and romance (in the older sense) must also serve.
Of course, one of the most important duties a writer has is to make himself clear, and I am afraid that I might fail at just this point in what follows here. The point I am trying to make here can be thought a subtle one, but no less important for all that. We have a perennial temptation to mistake particular conventions of writing for fundamental principles. And many times, our conventions do make very good sense, but not in the way we suppose. They are the manners, the clothes, the sauces. They have to be there—but something else could be in their place. But there is something else in story which is constant.
And this thing that has the capacity to make storytelling glorious is love. Just as great teaching is loving a subject in the presence of students who are also loved, so it is with story. A man who loves the story he is telling, and loves the people he is telling it to, is a formidable bard. Something mysterious happens when story-grip sets in. One man writes a disheveled story, breaks numerous rules, and gets away with it. Another man writes a story with every hair in place, prim hands folded on the lap, and it stinks.Then someone else writes a textbook example of doing everything right, and it works anyway. Failures of story-telling are at some level a failure to love. Successes in
story-telling are examples of love triumphing.
This principle illustrates why story-telling around the dinner table works so well. Everyone there loves everyone else. And one of the daughters saw something while driving home that cracked her up. And everyone wants to hear it for that reason. “Someone we love loves this story.” But love is not a pile of sentimental goo; love is disciplined. The charity that listeners extend for the sake of
love is a charity that is answered by the story-teller, and for the same reason.
And so this is the fundamental theology of story. God so loved the world that He sent His Son. And God so loved the world that He told us the story of what He had done. And so should we.