I like fiction. While many here wouldn’t find that confession controversial, the good Christian folk among whom I grew up would lift an eyebrow at it. Why? Well, first they’d always say, “Can’t you see you’re wasting your time with things that aren’t real?” I’m sure readers of Story Warren can see problems in that reasoning right off the bat. Truth may be propositional, but fictional stories brim with truth claims, even though they rarely appear as straight declarative sentences. Yet fans of the Warren might have more sympathy with the second question asked me: “Loren, why do you read stuff that’s so … unpleasant?” That critique hits a little closer to home. While I like tales where everything sad comes untrue, I also enjoy narratives where the bad guys are bad and the good guys are too, where something indeterminably awful goes bump in the night. How do I justify consuming stories where things end badly?
Usually, I start with the monomyth.
To avoid going into full out lit-theory-nerd mode (which would doubtlessly bore everyone), let me explain the term monomyth simply. Essentially, it’s a way of charting stories on a circular continuum from idyllic to miserable circumstances. Critic Northrop Frye dubbed stories that move from sad to happy states as romances or “the story of summer,” and it’s these kinds of tales that Christian bibliophiles adore. We love Aslan breaking endless winter’s chill grip on Narnia and Aragorn being crowned King Elessar and Christ the Bridegroom triumphing over that serpent of old. Yet in appreciating these good tales, we’ve largely ignored what Frye calls “the story of winter,” those narratives that slide from bliss into torment.
That leads me to my next point: Scripture is chock full of those very stories.
True, the overall history of redemption shares the same shape as Frye’s story of summer. However, that overarching framework still contains accounts filigreed with the frost of their protagonists’ failures. Lot’s unwillingness to love God more than the riches of Sodom leads him to father a wayward nation in the most despicable of circumstances. Ignoring the Almighty’s law during the period of the judges so warps the Benjaminites that they descend into rank perversion and are nearly erased from the tribes of Israel. Saul’s miserable tenure as king ends with him dabbling in witchcraft, the very practice he sought to eradicate from the land. And Ananias and Sapphira learn that lying to the Holy Spirit can have swift—and fatal—consequences. All of these biblical characters began in benign circumstances and fell into woe, their lives serving as examples of what not to do, how to not to fall short of God’s grace.
By now you might be thinking, “This is all very interesting, but why are you talking about the virtues of downbeat stories on a blog that deals with children? Surely you don’t think kids ought to be exposed to narratives that aren’t unreservedly positive?” Actually, I do, and in my next two posts I’ll show how a picture book and a preteen science fiction series perfectly illustrate the value found in tales of winter.
(Picture: CC 2009 by dobrych)