Today We Talked About Stories

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Today we talked about stories. “No literature is truly profound,” you said, “that does not gaze upon death and wrestle with it.”

You come from a culture that looks away, hiding behind white garments and doctors’ hushed tones. When you asked after your friend’s mother-in-law, she said they were observing her 100th birthday. I remember, with a flash of humor, that you nearly sent her well wishes before you realized the woman was cold in the grave. There is no soft synonym for death in our mother tongue—she’s gone, passed away, no longer with us—so we say nothing at all. We cover it in silence and dirt, by the millions.

I grew up in a culture that sugarcoats, inventing euphemisms as if an exchange of words can temper our ruthless fate. We listen to a society spin convenient yarns: In our youth, Death is incentive to chase happiness, because You Only Live Once. In our contemplation, Death is dangerous to dwell on long, turning thinkers into maniacs. In polite company, Death has no place in conversation, drowned in teacups and gossip. At a funeral, Death is a sure entrance to A Better Place, affirmed by the man at the pulpit. All of us who are living are also dying, and we convince ourselves it is not so bad.

You read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Dickens. Like Greek philosophers of old, the best minds press on the vein of the deepest questions, cut into human nature until it bleeds. But in the end, they also must look away, or sink into despair, or treat it too lightly.

“No literature can bear the weight of death,” you said, “without a right theology of God.”

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” Thank you for teaching me the True Story, that by God’s grace, I may do both well.

Today we talked about truth. “Every religion is man trying to reach God, or some higher spiritual plane, or some better sense of self,” you said. “But the truth is, we cannot reach God. God reached down to us, in Christ.”

You sent me off to the halls of higher education, a hailstorm of evolutionary theory and existential philosophy, without batting an eye. Maybe it was nothing compared to your college experience—complete with high quality communist movies from North Korea and Russia. But now I know why you were not afraid. The truth is not something fragile, that needs iron bars to protect it from the world. No, the truth is something fierce, that tears down strongholds of lies. That shakes the pillars of the Earth and stirs our blood. That says, with Paul, we are most to be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead. That dares you to find it false.

Your heroes are not the celebrities, the entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners. Yours are the ones who fought to know truth and fought to defend it, who pursued the glory of God despite the displeasure of men, who counted all things as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” You will not settle for less than that either. When a Man comes into our world and says He is God, who can take that lightly? Thank you for teaching me never to trivialize truth, that it is a hard and holy thing, and that it can set the sinner free.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. “So every year,” you said, “they will make another movie about this fake universe and fake characters and people will pay to watch it? Zhen me wu liao.”

How boring, you said in Chinese, and we laughed. It’s difficult to capture the full-orbed meaning in English—boring, silly, tasteless—and harder to describe why it’s gold coming from you—candid and genuinely perplexed, but not cruel or condescending.

“Of course,” I said staunchly, but I don’t fight back. I gave up long ago trying to convince you why Star Wars was not just for idiots, and sometimes I need your honest irreverence to see the absurdity of our lives.

Our times are in desperate need of people like you. Hence I suggested, with varying degrees of sincerity, that you should record a podcast, host a talk show, or write an autobiography. You laughed at me and said I would be the only listener, follower, or reader—and you continued quietly with your life.

I doubt it, but you made me think. How many mothers do their thankless duties with an audience of one?

Today a strong, independent woman comes with a particular characterization: a feminist empowered to break the chains to societal expectation, religion, institution, and men. To be whatever she wants, to define her own destiny. In pursuit of freedom, we have shackled womanhood to a religion of self-worship. In a march for equality, we have defied divinity to count nothing sacred but the Self: my way, my truth, my life. I wonder, what makes freedom and equality so worth fighting for, if they are nothing but man-made ideals?

Yet if they are divine, we all sit under the judgment of the Creator, and the Maker of its morality.

In a world spinning wild, you show me strength: to forsake what is wrong and hold to what is true. You show me freedom: to think little of self, so I might know a Savior. You show me womanhood: to be gentle but not timid, to have a simple faith but a probing mind, to fear God and not man.

Jim Eliot, echoing the words of Jesus and Ecclesiastes, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Thank you for teaching me to have eternal eyes, that I might hold these fleeting things loosely, that I might have Christ.

Today we talked about stories. Sometimes you laugh at the ones I read, and I snooze at the ones on your shelf.

Today we talked about truth. We have God-shaped souls, though we are small people, anchored by gravity to a small world, hung on a spiraling, galactic canvas of creation.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. We sit in a quiet corner of the globe, eating breakfast and watching the rain. On the scales of eternity, our lives are but a flicker, and a moment lapses into memory with each breath. But I thank God, that in the time and space he carved around us, He made you my mother.

Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!

The Insatiable Search for Story

Epic film trailers have been exploding onto the Internet all year, from Jurassic Park to Avengers to Star Wars. I am as stoked as the next gullible fan, prepared to throw my money at these shameless, endless franchises, unless Rotten Tomatoes convinces me otherwise. It got me to thinking—we keep trying to tell bigger tales of wild future concepts, mind-bending thrillers, and edgy what-if scenarios. Why are we constantly seeking more?

Of course, there is the constant criticism of our digital, attention deficit generation. Without explosions, firefights, or eye-popping visuals, you can’t hold an audience in 2015—and sadly, that line of thought turns the art of storytelling into a soulless machine. The same goes for literature (or what passes for literature), as lengthy prose is tossed in favor of quick action. We are the generation of instant gratification.

But we are still story lovers. In an era of fads and viral trends, good stories manage to cut through the noise and endure. Writers continue to find ways to spin up new and better tales, and readers continue to hunt for the next best thing. Though inundated with flashy, sensory material, we learn to strip away the packaging and find the heartbeat. Why are our souls seared with a hunger for story?

We crave closure.

A common complaint I see in book reviews are about loose ends. “The author never explained…” or “But what happened to…?” We love a good resolution. Often, that means a cheerful ending, but not always; there are the tragedies that resolve more beautifully than a trite happily ever after. Perhaps the death of a character was made of the stuff of legends—honorable, symbolic, and sacrificial. It was meaningful, or it achieved a greater end that justified the loss. In essence, it brought closure to the story, or at least one chapter of a greater tale.

Our imperfect world rarely offers the luxury of closure, even in great lives. I recently read Unbroken, the remarkable biography of Louie Zamperini. But even in his stunning story arc, there are numerous “loose ends:” men who met senseless deaths in the war and redemption that did not reach full-circle for all. As much as I loved his tale, I wished a different conclusion for some of the characters.

Closure is not the norm for true stories, yet we long for it, and have made it an integral part of storytelling.

We are made in the image of a Creator.

To tell a story is to create. Based on our knowledge, experiences, and observations, we weave elements together to produce something new. In one way, stories are the seed of countless creations, the motivation to action. A single dream grows into a new technology. A single tragedy sparks a revolution.

God is the first Creator, and the first Storyteller. When we look at the course of human history, fraught as it is with strife and sorrow, we see the nature of creating and imagining shine through different cultures and continents, embedded in our humanity. We simply can’t stop making things and telling stories as we find beauty beyond the brokenness.

We are finite, seeking the infinite.

No manmade story can capture all the emotions and complexities of life. We applaud works of literature when they excel in one area—Lord of the Rings for its sweeping imagination, Anna Karenina for its human insight, Sherlock Holmes for its clever wit—but we can’t form an intelligent worldview based on a singular human narrative.

All inspiration and stories are imaging God’s intricate creation and immeasurable story that extends beyond time. We can’t capture the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal. But we can, and we will, keep telling stories to kingdom come because there are always unexplored angles, unanswered questions, and a universe still waiting in the wings for its final resolution.

Stories for Our Souls

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We live in a world of extreme sensory overload and nonstop schedules. Did you scroll through this post and decide it was too long of a read? I hope not, because it isn’t that long. Or maybe you just read the bolded, numbered items. Thanks for making my point – I hope you stay and read this now.

With social media, video games and TV shows on top of our life responsibilities, I think many of us lose sight of the value of good, old-fashioned reading. Remember books? Those things with paper and ink and grand stories? I encounter a lot of people who say, “I don’t have time to read.” But yes, you do! How much time do you spend on Facebook, or playing computer games? I’m not saying that those are bad things, or that you should assume a monkish lifestyle in a cave with only a library for company (as much as I love books, I’d die too). But there is time. If you make it a priority.

I have 4 simple reasons why I think we need to dust off our bookshelves and reclaim the art of reading. These aren’t coming from a highbrow literary scholar or a cynic scoffing at a generation of digital junkies. Yours truly is just an ordinary reader who finds a spark of magic beneath well-told tales and wants to share.

  1. It gets us inside other people’s heads

Well, that sounds creepy. But I mean it. Reading is one of the best mediums for getting inside people’s heads. Even when the story and characters are fictional, the thoughts and emotions reflect a piece of the author’s own mind. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A good author pours himself into his writing.

There is something thrilling and challenging in gaining access to such a full spectrum of intimate thought. It broadens our perspective. Growing up, my worldview was largely shaped by my family, friends and teachers – the people around me who spoke into my life. And it was shaped by books. We are not God, and we do not create ex nihilo, or out of nothing, in matter or in ideas. We are taught, molded by others, and even geniuses stand on the shoulders of giants. Books opened up my eyes to a richer and wider range of thoughts from people of vastly different cultures, eras and lifestyles. It challenges us too. What is in the mind of an adulterer? A murderer? A man single-mindedly bent on vengeance? As a Christian, I want to read with discernment and avoid garbage. But I don’t think we should shy away from the gritty realities of our fallen world. If nothing else, you will understand more deeply the depravity of man, and you may be forced to examine yourself as well, because we all have the capacity to fall far and hard, if not for the grace of God.

  1. It cultivates compassion

I was as selfish a child as they come and I had little tolerance for the shortcomings of others (I’m still working on this). Literature taught me to love flawed people, because all good characters are flawed. Of course, I don’t give all the credit to books – there was the selfless example of my parents, good friends and mentors I was blessed with, and above all, the grace of God. But I will say books taught me a great deal about loving the unlovable. Partly because I got into their heads and saw they weren’t all that unlovable once you understood them (few people are villains just for villainy’s sake) and partly because they held up a mirror to my own heart.

  1. It inspires us

Do you remember how Sam carried Frodo up Mount Doom when he just couldn’t make it himself? When we close a great book, we are awed that the world is still going on the way it was before when everything has changed. Simply because we have this new story living inside of us. Stories inspire us – not just to nod, assent that it was good, and move on – but they inspire us to action. We won’t all get to save our friend’s life behind enemy lines and run a blade through the monsters, but there are little things that make a difference. Be faithful where you are. Reach out a hand when you see a need. And you never know, greatness may be thrust upon you one day.

Sam was just a gardener before he was a hero.

  1. It teaches us about the Gospel

All good stories, though fictional, are echoes and dim reflections of the one Great Story. They are imperfect, because they are written by imperfect people, but they echo the themes of sacrificial love, the brokenness of sin, redemption, the ultimate triumph of good. I love reading quality fantasy. The worlds and people may not exist, but fantasy often echoes the truest themes loudest of all. It magnifies the things of the human heart that our daily lives minimize – the battle to do what is right, the value of loyalty and friendship – to an epic and grand scale. Like C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, it shows us a clearer picture of who humans really are: eternal souls that will either be glorified or damned.

Stories make me shun existentialist philosophies. They show me there is more to live for than man-made ideals and that our hearts are pressed with purpose and a desire for nobler things. We are stamped with the image of divinity, created for eternity, drawn to redemption, made for glory.

So tolle lege! Take up and read.