Stories are important.
Those of us who are naturally imaginative may hold this conviction very strongly, even though it may be difficult to express in mere words. We just know that stories affect us deeply—they make us feel so much more alive. For those of us who are the more pragmatic, realist type, we may hold to a more skeptical view. Some pragmatists may even go so far as to say that stories are of no importance whatsoever, merely being sources of mindless entertainment to pass time better served doing something actually "productive."
I disagree with that view (as I'm sure you can tell from the name of this post.)
Good stories can help us see the world in a whole different way. They are light in the darkness, as Kate DiCimallo puts it in The Tale of Despereaux: "Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark." It is only by the stories we experience, fictional or "real-life", that we see the world around us. Whether we realize it or not, stories are indeed the light that illuminate our world. For instance, for those of us who are Christians, the story of Jesus—of how He lived, died for our sins, and rose again is light to us in so many ways. Without it, we wouldn't have reason to hope for anything beyond this life. We would have no reason to have joy in our hearts, because life would be futile and joy meaningless.
The story of Jesus is, of course, a true story—true in the sense that it actually happened. That may be the main reason we draw so much meaning from it.
But stories that we don't consider "true" in the same sense are of unique worth in and of themselves as well, because they reflect "a splintered fragment of the true Light" as J. R. R. Tolkien put it. The stories we may write and read aren't infallible, as the Word of God is. But it is inarguable that they are worthwhile. They are, in fact, in the same vein as relationships—like friendship, a good story "has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival" (C. S. Lewis). Like friendship, a good story can encourage us, and help us see things from a different, enlightened perspective. (I like to think reading a story is really just "striking up a friendship with a book.")
Stories are a gift from God, who has put in each of us a hunger for goodness: for meaning, love, and light in a dark world—the things we all search for. And for many of us, this desire manifests itself by the stories we write and read. Granted, like all good things, this desire can be corrupted. But that does not change where it came from.
So without further ado, here are four ways stories help us see the world in a whole new way:
- Stories give us hope. They encourage us in a way nothing else can. And they have a special effect on children, whose imaginations are so full of life and color. C. S. Lewis once wisely said, “[s]ince it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” Neil Gaiman, consciously echoing the sentiment G. K. Chesterton expressed in his book Tremendous Trifles, said “[f]airy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Indeed, stories are peculiarly helpful in that they show us that there is always hope, even when the darkness is closing in and all seems lost. This is a lesson that will prove crucial in the coming years of a child's life, because this world is so full of sin and pain, and there will be moments in that child's life that they will need to find hope. And that's what stories give them.
- Stories show us the truth. But they do more than that. Christian novelist Andrew Peterson said, "[i]f you want someone to know the truth, you tell them. If you want someone to love the truth, tell them a story." The Green Ember author S. D. Smith also states: "I believe in the power of stories. I believe that when they hint at a rebuke to the darkness, when they whisper to us that a hero may rise to set things right, they tell the truth." Yes, stories do show us "that dragons can be beaten," but they do so much more. They show us the depths of the human heart, what it means to love truly, and why, what, and how we should believe, as well as the reasons we can trust in what we believe. It is in this way that the stories we experience shape our consciousness of what surrounds us and how we view truth.
- Stories teach us empathy. The power of stories—their ability to affect our emotions and make us feel whatever the author desires, is, in my opinion, one of their most magical properties. They give us an opportunity to experience what others have experienced—what others we know may be experiencing now—and make us understand what they're feeling. In this way, stories yield empathy, which is the first step to compassion (actually doing something about it), which is the fulfillment of the second-greatest commandment, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
- Stories show us a glimpse of another world, teaching us to look on to the next. They do this by the "happy ending." We all long for a happy ending—to find meaning in the hurt and darkness of life. And that is because we were "made for another world" (as C. S. Lewis aptly says). We were made to live in absolute bliss and happiness, and stories affirm this fundamental truth when they conclude with a "happily ever after." In the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (based on the book by J. R. R. Tolkien), we are told that "death is just another path: one we all must take." We were all made for "a far green country." Stories rekindle in our hearts the desire for this country when they tell us that someday all wrongs will be made right and life will not end in darkness. (As Victor Hugo says, “[e]ven the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”) Even the subtle idealism woven through a story's plot makes us wish for something more—something beyond this life. And we should. The Bible tells us to set our "minds on things above, not on earthly things," for it is by doing this—looking forward to the reward of Heaven and infinite life beyond—that we are most motivated to truly love our neighbor and endure the trials of this life on earth.
It should be noted that the qualities of stories designated here can't necessarily be applied to all stories—just the good ones. Thus, it's also important to choose good stories, or if you're a writer, to write good ones.
Stories are important—they are what shape our world. May the stories that we write and read enlighten our imagination for God's glory, and may the darkness tremble by the light they shine into our hearts and the world.