Ever since I was a kid, I loved stories. Neverland Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts. All of it. They’ve shaped me, molded my thinking. I grew up in a musical home. It just so happened that my favorite songwriters were great storytellers. Paul Simon, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and more recently Andrew Peterson.
And I’m not the only one. No one can deny the obsession our culture (and humanity at large) seems to have with good stories. We flock to the movies, flood the bookstores (or Amazon), and rush to the theatre all for a good story. But why? What are we getting out of all these (often repetitive) stories? Are we just a bunch of escapists, numbing ourselves to the dull realities of our day to day, searching for something more exciting?
To exhaust all that story is (and isn’t) good for would take more than a book. I am simply a singer/songwriter who has found himself writing narrative-ish lyrics and paused to wonder why that might be. Here are a few reasons I can think of.
First, stories make the everyday more real. Good, beautiful stories plunge the reader into a fictional world in such a way that when they come out again, they perceive the real world with more clarity and joy than before. As G.K. Chesterton put it, fairy tales “make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” They increase our wonder and enhancement of reality.
C.S. Lewis was a master at this, and has been incredibly influential in my thinking and writing. I read Narnia as an adolescent, but it wasn’t until I read through them again in college that I really grasped the brilliance of his writing. Narnia was not an escape from reality. Far from it. In many ways it felt somehow MORE real. Through story, Lewis brought true things to light that were either previously undiscovered, or that had been veiled by the familiarity of every day. Narnia increased my joy and delight in God and His good gifts. It taught me about His great sacrifice, friendship, courage, and faithfulness in ways that mere knowledge of them never could. So then, story activates the light in our minds and imaginations which illuminates reality, making us see more clearly the things that were already there.
Not only does story enliven and enrich the familiar, it is also one of the fastest and most effective ways to penetrate the human heart. Lewis called storytelling “stealing past the watchful dragons” of the heart. Stories created what he called a “willing suspension of disbelief” in the mind of the listener. When we sit before a lecturer, we are prone to arm ourselves. Our minds subconsciously bar the gates and set a guard against any words or ideas that may cause unwanted emotions or affections. In some cases, we numb ourselves because we’ve already made up our minds about whatever it is that’s being presented.
Contrast that with listening to a story. When we gather before the fire to hear a great story, we suspend our watchfulness. The guards go on break and the gates left open. Things don’t seem as suspicious because everything is made up, a fairy tale. But as we’ve already seen, stories are also brimming with realities and truth that can be incredibly potent, even life changing. We nod our heads in agreement, laugh out loud, and silently empathize with characters we identify with. This is simply how we are wired, and no one knew it better than Jesus.
It is astonishing to note the instances where Jesus chose to communicate in parable, metaphor, and simile, instead of using more literal or direct language. He knows the passageways to our hearts. He created them! The prodigal son, the rich young ruler, the Good Samaritan—all strategic ways of communicating incredibly important truths about Himself and the realities of eternity. This is not something to casually dismiss. It is striking, as one author put it, that the main way God chooses to communicate to us about Himself is through analogy and metaphor. He is a rock, a father, a shield. He is like a lion and a lamb. He is the vinedresser, the shepherd, the elder brother. Again, these are not things to gloss over.
We should take note of this, and it’s one reason why Christians should seek to be great storytellers, or, as Tolkien would say, “sub-creators.” We are Christ’s image-bearers, which means reflecting what He is like to the world around us. As one pastor out it, “We have a great story, and it’s not just another story among many. We have the Gospel, the underlying reality to which all other stories are pointing to.” We should seek to portray it with as much creativity, imagination, and excellence as we possibly can.
This is what we, The Gray Havens, have sought to accomplish with our sings. Here are a few excerpts from ways we’ve tried to say beautifully the things that are truly beautiful, in narrative form.
This meant the doctrine of assurance became resembled by a ship called “Inheritance”:
There’s a ship that bears the name
It’s pulled by golden chains from where
No sail, no need for oar, with calm
assurance carries on
Fighting temptation became a battle with the “Sirens”:
One taste of the sound from the Sirens in
And I’m thinking I should get out the
sharpest sword and suit of armor
So I can be ready to strike, but I pause
one more time
One last taste of the sound, then I’ll cut
these Sirens down
But as they sang, I forgot they were
So I brought them my heart to be filled,
And I followed them
Using well-known stories to re-capture the glory of heaven with “Jack and Jill, Pt.2”:
Then a chorus rang throughout the land
Tower bells and trumpets sounded and
We were singing Mary had a Lamb
And he was white as snow
And we were feeling new, as if everything
sad came untrue
Our desire is to stir-up the minds, imaginations, and affections of believers and non-believers through song and story, so that through them, they would experience a deeper joy in God. I want to be clear in what I am not saying. I am not suggesting everyone should seek to communicate true things solely through the use of story, or that everyone should go write songs lyrics exactly like the ones above. I am saying the use of story has an undeniable power to enchant (in a good way) and reach the heart, a reality we shouldn’t overlook when we engage in writing our blogs, books, sermons, and songs. The greatest story of all time is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ dying on the cross for sinners like you and me, inviting us to share in an eternal, never-ending inheritance “where joy writes the songs, and the innocent sing them.” Let us labor to make that reality shine brighter and fuller in the hearts and minds of all.
ABOUT THE GRAY HAVENS…
Husband/wife Dave and Licia Radford compromise The Gray Havens, a folk/pop duo whose unique artistry draws from such influences as C.S, Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Jonathan Edwards. Their full-length debut, “Fire And Stone,” recently landed in the Top 10 on iTunes’ Singer/Songwriter Top Albums chart.