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.
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.
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.
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”?