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Reading Is Worship 7: More Than A Story

Do you suspect that claiming a story must have higher “purpose” somehow cheapens its quality? Or do you agree this actually makes stories more truthful and beautiful?

I am a story pragmatist. If a fantastic story that is either “Christian” or “secular” isn’t helping me do a certain thing, I have little interest in it.

What do you hear when I say that?

This is what I might think:

He has a utilitarian view that a story is no good unless it tries to accomplish some other end. That’s still a prevalent notion among many Christians. They believe a story must do something besides be wonderful. Rather it must Promote Morality, Be Clean, or Push Spiritual Agendas such as evangelism, beliefs, or denominations.

That is indeed what I used to suspect. But no longer.

Now I believe that Reading Is Worship, “worship” as briefly defined in part 1 of this series.

Over five parts I’ve overviewed ways this worship is misdirected. We may use stories to idolize personal experience, a Cause of story-promotion, the craft of writing, or even fringe “weirdness” itself.

In the Sunday-school classes my wife and I teach, we often make “idols” out of aluminum foil or Play-Dough, and smash them. So far it seems I’ve run out of idols to smash.

Thus, part 7 marks a turning point.

It’s inspired by the great discussions in part 5 and part 6 about why we love stories at all.

How do we worship God as we’re reading fantastic stories? What does “worship” mean, especially when we hear different definitions? Doesn’t a great story have intrinsic worth?

The ‘point’ of painting

In chapter 9 of The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis imagines a painter from the slums of Hell, visiting the open borders of Heaven. (Lewis later says these are allegories of today’s real-world choices). The ghostly painter, rendered lightweight and nearly transparent by the solidness of Heaven, is awestruck by the sights. “I should like to paint this,” he says.

Yet a redeemed human Spirit, apparently another artist, discourages that impulse.

“That sort of thing’s no good here. […] When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself.”

(Read a more-complete excerpt of this scene in this blog comment.)

“I think every artist and musician should read that once a year, at least!” one blogger wrote. And though I would add “reader and writer” to that sentence, I agree. Because this, in the form of a beautiful story, gets at the heart of what I mean in saying I am a story pragmatist.

  • What people may hear: “story pragmatism” means “whatever works” … to push beliefs and messages about evangelism or social policy or moral exhortation.
  • What I intend: “story pragmatism” means whatever works to glorify/worship God according to how He has revealed Himself and about how He is glorified.

By this definition, pragmatism points not only to a technically truthful story, but a truthful story that is well-told. It includes not only truth but beauty and goodness. It insists on skill in craft, not only content. It proclaims that God is glorified not simply in basic repetitions of Biblical doctrine truths, but in the celebration or fleshing-out of truth in beauty. For “truth” without beauty is near-deception, and “beauty” without truth is near-ugliness.

What is the chief end of story? “Story’s chief end is to glorify God and help us enjoy Him forever.” More at Beauty and Truth 4: The Chief End of Story.

By contrast, the concept of pragmatism — “usefulness,” God-glorifying-ness, worship, purpose, or any synonym — is hijacked. It has been poorly and deceptively defined.

That may be the very reason Christians react by endorsing stories that have little purpose, and for that reason lack enhanced beauty in their craft.

If a fantastic story that is either “Christian” or “secular” isn’t helping me do a certain thing, I have little interest in it.

Yes, that “certain thing” is worship. That is what makes a good story “more than a story.”

This does not enslave us to false “whatever works” pragmatism for false ends. It does not limit creativity, reading audiences, or sacrifice beauty to a false-god version of “truth.”

Rather, knowing that a story is “more than a story” improves its quality.

We know the beauty’s source — God Himself. We know that He is glorified in more ways than overt “spiritual” activities (yet these are also vital). We also know He endorses stories, not in some sense for their “own worth,” but because they point to Him as ultimate Author. Only when we do that can we find true story enjoyment, and can better craft our own.

After all, as the spirit says, challenging the belief that true worship requires no painting:

“I don’t say that. When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right, we all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

What do you hear when someone says “all things should glorify or worship God”?

Is that inner definition Biblical? If not, from where did it come?

Do you suspect that claiming a story must have higher “purpose” somehow cheapens its quality? Or do you agree this actually makes stories more truthful and beautiful?

How do you strive daily to “come and see … come and feed” of the Artist, before “painting”?

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Kessie Carroll
Member

Your terms are too nebulous for me to even know what you’re talking about. Do you mean a story’s theme?

Galadriel
Guest

I think this is where definitions break down. One of my characters from a very musically-inclined culture says “Where there are no words, there is song; but where there is no song, there is silence. And that silence contains all songs, known and unknown.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Which terms seem vague? If you can point them out I’ll try to specify what I mean.

And of course, all this can only go so far. At some point one needs to point to one story, one artwork, and say, There! That’s what I’m talking about, then explain more of why.

Kessie Carroll
Member

This statement seems to sum up the whole article:

By this definition, pragmatism points not only to a technically truthful story, but a truthful story that is well-told. It includes not only truth but beauty and goodness. It insists on skill in craft, not only content. It proclaims that God is glorified not simply in basic repetitions of Biblical doctrine truths, but in the celebration or fleshing-out of truth in beauty. For “truth” without beauty is near-deception, and “beauty” without truth is near-ugliness.
 

Which leaves me scratching my head. Does this mean that books like Brave New World and 1984 are taboo if we wish to only glorify God  with our reading? They are nasty, horrible books intended to make you think. Or Heart of Darkness. Or any of Hemingway’s drivel. (Sorry, English teachers! I’ve always hated Hemingway.)
 
I can’t quite get a bead on what you’re trying to say. Tolkien and Lewis get tossed around in these debates, but they’re just two guys with a small pool of books. What other books are allowed? Only juvie fiction (because of the lack of sex)? Only books written before 1900? Only books written by pastors?
 
Diana Wynne Jones rejected God because of spiritual abuse while she was growing up. But her books still have a numinous quality. Things to make you wonder, whether it was the Magids dealing with the Upper Room or Conrad tiptoeing around the Lords of Karma. Or even the star-people in Dogsbody. Her books are about real people with real problems, often fairly nasty problems like divorce, neglect, or people being cut up and sewn together to make other people. But the heroes rise above these things to triumph over evil. I have yet to read any of her books that wasn’t uplifting.
 
On the flipside, I’ve read books by well-meaning Christians that were so horribly-written, they made me ashamed of my own spiritual brethren. So I don’t think the worldview of the author is necessarily what you’re talking about.
 
Really, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’d love some examples of books that aren’t Lewis or Tolkien that promote this nebulous worship-thing.
 
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Hey again, Kessie. Let’s see if I can point-by-point.

Does this mean that books like Brave New World and 1984 are taboo if we wish to only glorify God  with our reading? They are nasty, horrible books intended to make you think.

Though I haven’t (yet) read either of them, I understand they both show different ways human government leads to evil. The oft-quoted 1984 shows a fascist society oppressing people; whereas, Brave New World seems a bit closer to what we may actually do: gleefully support leaders who oppress us happily.

Both of these, though they seem dark and depressing, could certainly glorify God simply by contrast. They show what human nature is, or could be, without Him.

And this is regardless of the authors’ intents. As my friend Adam Ross likes to say, they are using “parts” that belong to God’s universe. Even if they’re building what are, for them, idols, the idols are still held up according to God’s world, God’s physics, and God’s creativity that He gave to those authors.

Clearly the Apostle Paul, with the Spirit’s endorsement, found that a pagan poet accidentally glorified God (Acts 17). That in itself is a great precedent for this.

Or Heart of Darkness. Or any of Hemingway’s drivel. (Sorry, English teachers! I’ve always hated Hemingway.)

(In the voice of Lena Lamont from Singing in the Rain) ” ‘Enn I kinnn’t stinnum!”

I only read The Old Man and the Sea and I appreciated its sparse style. But it was not entertaining. It’s the kind of book you read because you Have To, methinks.

So does it glorify God by showing His gifts in Hemingway? To someone else, maybe.

I can’t quite get a bead on what you’re trying to say. Tolkien and Lewis get tossed around in these debates, but they’re just two guys with a small pool of books. What other books are allowed? Only juvie fiction (because of the lack of sex)? Only books written before 1900? Only books written by pastors?

I think all of them, if they’re well-written or have a “worshipful affect” on readers — to cause enjoyment or wonder that makes us recognize God in some way.

I’ve cited Lewis mainly because he had thought this out and portrayed it so well.

Diana Wynne Jones rejected God because of spiritual abuse while she was growing up. But her books still have a numinous quality.

That is what my wife and sister-in-law say, and I hope to read her works sometime. I do know, from seeing the Japanese animated film version of Howl’s Moving Castle (though its story is very different) that there is a loveliness there. I simply suggest: Who is the source of that beauty? The answer is God. So all real beauty reflects Him.

On the flipside, I’ve read books by well-meaning Christians that were so horribly-written, they made me ashamed of my own spiritual brethren. So I don’t think the worldview of the author is necessarily what you’re talking about.

No. I’m sure that in some way a novel that is truthful in its content honors God. But it is still in some sense less true because the deepest truths are best communicated beautifully. For example, I recall reading one of the many supernatural/suspense novels out there about how Aliens Are Actually (gasp) Demons. (Also Nephilim™.) Could this be true? Maybe. But I don’t even recall the title, because the story was so bland and unmemorable. Either way, the author’s agenda seemed to be a charitable aim, such as Raising Awareness, rather than to share a story with truth and beauty.

Really, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’d love some examples of books that aren’t Lewis or Tolkien that promote this nebulous worship-thing.

All of them — if they are written with some measure of honest skill and honest reflection of truth.

Even “test cases,” such as Phillip Pullman’s evidently well-written fantasy novels or the most boring yet most “orthodox” Christian novel, would seem to prove the rule. God may be glorified in Pullman’s skill and use of Christian “parts,” though not in the author’s personal goals and some themes (though even he posits a world in which “good,” redefined, wins over “evil”!). Similarly, God may be glorified in the Christian end-times/alien deception author’s intent to communicate His truth in a memorable way through fiction — yet how much more glory would He get if the author improved his skill and saw story as a means to more than truth-repeating?

Kessie Carroll
Member

So, any book that has some kind of a positive theme you can pull out of it, and is moderately well-written, can be used to glorify God.
 
Why didn’t you just SAY so?
 
Also, the worship doesn’t seem to be on the author’s side of the court. It seems to lie with the reader. I guess that’s where we get rule 34, eh? (If it exists, there is porn of it).

Paul Lee
Member

If great stories don’t serve a higher purpose, than we are all very pathetic.  We spend our days staring at screens and pages, imagining heroism and love and unlimited wonders.  But we can’t do any of the feats we read about.  We can’t  visit the fantastic places that we can imagine.  It’s all “speculative,” and speculation is all we have.  So, that speculation had better mean something, or we are the worst, most pathetic losers out there.

If stories don’t have a higher purpose, than we need to be super-pragmatic about our lives, if we want to feel even a tiny bit significant at all.  We all need to join the Marines, or to go as missionaries to dangerous tribal cultures.  Either that, or plan a way to Take Over the World. 😉  But if epic stories are both meaningful and truthful, then we who love them are also significant, and the Story gives are tiny little first-world problems and our unfilled longings and our small deeds of small self-sacrifice real significance.  I would kill myself if I didn’t believe that there was a greater purpose, and epic stories are the only things that help me to believe that my pathetic life is also for a purpose.

Here’s a thought — maybe it’s a little like Christianity itself.  If Christ never really rose from the dead — if our faith really has no higher purpose — than we are the most miserable people in the world.  A vague, nebulous “faith” would be a waste of time, or a deceptive false hope.  But Jesus is alive, and our faith is infinitely meaningful.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

From Bainespal:

If great stories don’t serve a higher purpose, than we are all very pathetic.  We spend our days staring at screens and pages, imagining heroism and love and unlimited wonders.

Indeed, and some of us from our cliched parents’ basements! 😀

But we can’t do any of the feats we read about.  We can’t  visit the fantastic places that we can imagine.  It’s all “speculative,” and speculation is all we have.  So, that speculation had better mean something, or we are the worst, most pathetic losers out there. […] Here’s a thought — maybe it’s a little like Christianity itself.  If Christ never really rose from the dead — if our faith really has no higher purpose — than we are the most miserable people in the world.  A vague, nebulous “faith” would be a waste of time, or a deceptive false hope.  But Jesus is alive, and our faith is infinitely meaningful.

(emphasis added)

This is one of those I-wish-I’d-thought-of-it comparisons. Christianity could seem like a lot of nice stories and moralities if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead — but ultimately the faith is meaningless. So let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. So it can be said of fantastic stories! If they have no connection to reality, then they are equally pathetic and meaningless. At best they are pathetic diversions from what we are Christians are really supposed to do — preach, evangelize, and so on.

Thus we need stories to mean more than the stories themselves, if we are to have anything to do with them. Fortunately, just as Christ resurrected from the dead, we have been spiritually resurrected and that resurrection flows to all we do. And just as wonderfully, we await the resurrection of creation itself — and the long-delayed arrival of all that is glorious, blazingly beautiful, and utterly fantastic in the world.

Thanks for more great wisdom and iron-sharpening, Bainespal.

PaulC
Guest

Stories glorify God as they reflect truth. However, this does not limit us to non-fiction only, or to blatant allegories. Why? Because the truth is that God always creates beauty in His epic story. If a story lacks that beauty, it usually lacks an essential aspect of the truth.
An exception is, as was mentioned above, bleak stories, which reflect the truth of how a world without God, where sinful man reigns unchecked, is extremely bleak and lacking in beauty.
As an example of a story not necessarily written to glorify God, but that I still worship God through reading, I shall turn to one of my favorite authors: Brandon Sanderson. His books reflect deep pondering of human nature, which reflect truths. And those reflections of truth come amidst the beauty of the epic tales he weaves.
I was at a Christian conference last Saturday, and one of the sessions was on glorifying God. The speaker mentioned, essentially, “If I taste a deliciously cooked piece of prime rib, I can worship God for the fact that He chose to give me taste buds. If I hear beautiful music, I can worship God that He gave me all the complexities of my ears and hearing, and that He gave someone the ability to write and produce such beautiful harmony.” Likewise, I can worship God for giving someone the ability to write such a gripping story. And, of course, even beyond that, I can worship God for the truths that story reflects, whether consciously put there or not, and for the beauty that reminds me of Him.

Similarly, God may be glorified in the Christian end-times/alien deception author’s intent to communicate His truth in a memorable way through fiction — yet how much more glory would He get if the author improved his skill and saw story as a means to more than truth-repeating?

I love this statement. It makes me think of how much God loves being glorified through diversity and differences. Hence why  Revelations shows God in the end being worshiped in Spirit and in truth by people of every ethnicity and language, not just a few.
In response to the specific questions posed:
 

What do you hear when someone says “all things should glorify or worship God”?  Is that inner definition Biblical? If not, from where did it come?

 
I hear, “All things can point to God’s glory… If I choose to see it.” I believe this definition is Biblical, since “all things were created by Him and for Him,” yet, “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see,” and some of that blindness carries through even after my salvation.

Do you suspect that claiming a story must have higher “purpose” somehow cheapens its quality? Or do you agree this actually makes stories more truthful and beautiful?

 
I would argue it makes a story more beautiful and truthful, simply by merit of it then not just pointing to its own flawed beauty and truth but instead pointing to the flawless beauty and truth of God.

How do you strive daily to “come and see … come and feed” of the Artist, before “painting”?

It’s the choice to see the beauty and truth of God, both in His Word and in the world around us, and deliberately worship and honor Him for it; instead of just thinking, “Oh, that’s beautiful,” thinking, “That’s beautiful; thank you, Christ, for giving me a glimpse of Your incomparable glory in it.”

Austin Gunderson
Member

True!  Worship is participatory, not merely passive, and I’m just as likely – more likely, in fact – to worship God in reaction to a beautiful story as I’m likely to worship Him in reaction to a “true” story: while the latter leads me to worship God with my mind because I know I should, the former elicits spontaneous worship from my heart because I can barely help it (I put “truth” in quotes because, since beauty and truth both spring from the same Source, a thematically-correct yet un-beautiful story is missing a huge component of truth, and vice-versa … and, as I re-read your comment, I see that you’ve already made that point).

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  I think this verse should be the byword of anyone who wishes to inspire worship in others through storytelling.  It’s my belief that, in this context, “good works” bears interpretation as “well-written stories.”  Pertaining to writers plying their craft, what else could it mean?

PaulC
Guest

True!  Worship is participatory, not merely passive, and I’m just as likely – more likely, in fact – to worship God in reaction to a beautiful story as I’m likely to worship Him in reaction to a “true” story: while the latter leads me to worship God with my mind because I know I should, the former elicits spontaneous worship from my heart because I can barely help it.

I would wholeheartedly agree that spontaneously praising God for His beauty reflected in a secular book is equally or more worshipful than the forced worship of “Oh, this is true, therefore I should worship Him.”
It’s what C.S. Lewis observed in Reflections on the Psalms: true praise is spontaneous;”The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or any thing — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise… I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it…”
 

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  I think this verse should be the byword of anyone who wishes to inspire worship in others through storytelling.  It’s my belief that, in this context, “good works” bears interpretation as “well-written stories.”  Pertaining to writers plying their craft, what else could it mean?

I fully agree. Ecclesiastes 9:10 comes to mind, which instructs, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might”; likewise, Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men”. This most certainly extends to crafting the words within a novel. Do we give God wholeheartedly and painstakingly crafted words that reflect both His truth and beauty?

Teddi Deppner
Guest

From what I hear you saying, this scripture fits with your point:

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation [with] gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on [it] endures, he will receive a reward…” 1 Cor. 11-14

To the extent that our stories reflect the glory of God into the hearts of our readers, our work has eternal significance and enduring value.

Badly written prose, poorly crafted plots, unbelievable characters do not reflect well the glory of God. And so our inner reader, who so desires to worship Him and enjoy His attributes in what he reads, cries bitter tears at all the Christian stories out there with those faults. And so Christian writers ought to seek to excel at their craft.

Stories that do not contain moments of transcendence, glimpses of beauty and goodness and love and kindness and triumph over evil and undeserved grace and all the other wondrous things that sparkle like facets of our awesome God — stories lacking these things also fall short. They might be great adventures or full of thrilling suspense. But if they do not reflect His nature in some way, they are like a clanging cymbal. Noise, but no meaning. And so Christian writers ought to seek to write the stories He lays on their hearts as truly as possible, for surely even through the filter of our human hearts, His attributes will shine through.

Thanks, Stephen, for giving me a place to ponder out loud the meaning of story and how they might best fulfill their highest purpose. 

I do wonder, though, whether we allow for the broad spectrum of purposes that the Lord might appoint for stories. Like the prophets of old, each writer may have specific messages and themes that the Lord lays on them. Some have messages full of warning and tears and bitter reminders of the devastation that comes from sin. Some have messages full of wondrous beauty and heavenly visions. Some call us to brave deeds and others to humble servitude. And the same Spirit inspires all these variety of stories. And that same Spirit guides each reader to the stories she needs when she needs it. You think?

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Thanks for your encouragement, Teddi, especially here:

I do wonder, though, whether we allow for the broad spectrum of purposes that the Lord might appoint for stories. Like the prophets of old, each writer may have specific messages and themes that the Lord lays on them. Some have messages full of warning and tears and bitter reminders of the devastation that comes from sin. Some have messages full of wondrous beauty and heavenly visions. Some call us to brave deeds and others to humble servitude. And the same Spirit inspires all these variety of stories. And that same Spirit guides each reader to the stories she needs when she needs it. You think?

Spectrum is a great word, and it also fits perfectly with Scripture’s own comparisons of light to God’s glory. Yet until your questions, I realized I had been thinking of light in terms of degrees of brightness. A dimmer switch. Is it high or is it low? I thought of, say, a series like His Dark Materials (Phillip Pullman’s fantasy) to be “dim” because of its author’s intent to slander God, even while using God’s story and world materials. I thought of a Christian’s novel, written with skill in theme and craft, to be shining much more brightly, with “direct” glorification. And I thought of the reactions of human viewers, to cover their eyes, or open their eyes wider.

Yet light is not only one color to be raised and lowered, is it? In fact God made a world of dazzling color, an actual spectrum, with shades that can be raised or lowered, mixed, and saturated at varying levels. This metaphor perfectly captures it: We cannot create a color that does not exist, but we can mix, raise or lower, or avert or open our eyes wider in response, to all these colors.

Thus we can have different kinds of art and stories, with varying themes just like you said, and varying genres. Just as colors have different affects on our eyes, and even our emotions, so can stories. And they can be raised or dimmed, or not seen or seen with wide eyes, for the glory/worship of the Color-Creator, and also our joy.

P.S.: You alone named what I believe will be the title of Part 9: Reading Is Worship 9: Spectrum of Glories.

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