Story: Out of the Narrow Narrative
An Evening Stroll
On September 20, 1931, something was stirring. Autumn leaves swirled around the feet of two Oxford dons meandering along the River Cherwell. The deep hues of twilight colored their vibrant debate.
From these two intellectuals, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, impassioned tones arose as they discussed the potency of stories and myths*. Though both would go on to become accomplished writers, Tolkien authoring The Lord of the Rings and Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia, the trajectory of their renown began with a routine stroll down Addison’s Walk.
Lewis, at the time a theist unavowed to any particular religion, inquired of Tolkien, “Are not myths, though beautiful, just lies breathed through silver?” (my paraphrase from the video below). What power, Lewis wondered, do stories have and how do they impact me? As the question flew from his lips, a sudden breeze struck the Walk. Something was stirring.
Our Narrow Narratives
Like Lewis, we ask similar questions. What role do stories play in my life? Each existence, when lived in its own rut, falls into predictable patterns. “What has been,” wrote the Preacher, “will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). By itself, this is not a negative. A particular nobility dwells in repetitive simplicity. The problem arises, however, when we elevate our individual stories to the center of the cosmological narrative. Though my existence is ultimately similar to my neighbor’s, we mistakenly believe this life is here to service our personal drama. As a result, we become locked in our own stories. Our narratives become a prison.
Prisoners of the Digital Age
Contemporary culture often acts as our jailer. From social media to mass entertainment, society stokes our hyper-individualistic pursuit of fulfillment. Using Instagram, for example, a person can craft a pristine personal narrative with only a few carefully curated photos and the right filter. With social media at our side, we want our story to be center stage as the world applauds our brilliance.
A Grander Tale
Our narrative narcissism ultimately leads to either crushing despair or blinding pride. To see beyond the scope of our own confining narratives, we need a transcendent story.
In a recent Gospel Coalition article, Dr. Alan Noble wrote, “Asking people to see beyond the frame is extremely difficult, because the frame of the immanent world is our background assumption, and what we can’t see is hard to look beyond. It takes a work of imagination to go beyond—a spiritual imagination. Stories provide the space for this imagining.” Only a tale grander than ours can break open the prison gates.
The Liberty of Disruption
While our finely tuned personal narratives may seem complete, each one has a hole, a point at which transcendence disrupts our immanence. For me, it was the realization that I cannot walk through this life in my strength. I needed something, Someone, outside of me.
Our narrative puncture, potentially shattering to our stories, is an act of divine grace. God is a storyteller, and he is not afraid to weave his needle through the literary fabric of our hearts. The weaving may tear apart our self-stitched seams, but He is threading our lives into the grander garment of his story.
As Lewis’s inklings about the power of story permeated the autumn air, Tolkien saw the puncture in his friend’s personal narrative and boldly weaved God’s needle throughout. Though confined by the prison of his own naturalism, Lewis had a tenderness for story. As Tolkien conversed with his fellow lecturer, he threaded the argument for Christianity as the truest, most fulfilling story.
Through this hole, God exposed Lewis to the grandeur of the biblical drama. In the divine weaving, Lewis surrendered his own narrative so he could join in the Father’s greater story. In this reunion, the Oxford don’s tale gained a new level of meaning. “The value of the myth,” Lewis later wrote, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
A Brighter Sun
We were never meant to bear the weight of our stories. Instead, they were meant to be another stitching in God’s grander tale. To use another analogy, our lives are the bricks in Christ’s greater glory. Speaking of our individual narratives, the Apostle Peter wrote, “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
When God’s story intersects with our own, our reality receives a whole new dimension. No longer is the universe a stage hand to my personal drama. Instead, Christ becomes the lead, and my tale is meant to shine glory on His. When I align my story to God’s, the profundity of loss gives way to the majestic rediscovery of my narrative within His. I find that the sun shines a little brighter because it no longer rises for my glory.
*When used in this post, myth doesn’t necessarily carry the connotation of a made up story. Instead, it is used to refer to any story that lends meaning and purpose to our lives. Some may be historically true and verifiable (i.e., what we find in Scripture) while others are human inventions (the more traditional use, Greek mythology, Norse mythology, etc.)