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Reading Is Worship 8: Source Of All Stories

Scripture is the source of all stories — the story of reality, the smaller “stories” of us as real people, and the stories we subcreate. We must recall that truth when we’re discussing how our stories glorify God.

Five years have passed since that Washington Post article, and I’m still incensed about it. Revealed within are myths about fantastic stories — myths we ourselves often repeat. Especially when we try to argue, rightfully, that we read and write stories to glorify God.

Let’s review the article’s opening so you may also be vexed, and ask: what did this writer ignore?

As the days tick down until Saturday, when a breathless world learns the fate of the teenage wizard, a new breed of fantasy fiction, with Potter-style stories, is emerging.

Like the Potter series, it has mystical creatures, macabre events, epic battles and heroic young protagonists.

But, unlike the Potter books, this genre has overt Christian tones: messiah-like kings who return from the dead, fallen satanic characters and young heroes who undergo profound conversions. What you won’t generally find: humans waving wands and performing spells.

Where to begin?

  1. Harry Potter already has such redemptive themes to be classified as “Christian.” (To be fair, this was shown more clearly in the final volume, released after this piece.)
  2. Harry Potter builds upon preexisting Christian and redemptive works of fantasy, such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, with messiahs returning from the dead, evil villains, and young heroes who are converted. Had this author not read the Harry Potter series to see the evil villains and young heroes converted, just like in previous novels by Christians? (The piece mentions only Lewis once in passing.)
  3. In this area, as I argued in a July 2007 column for Old Speculative Faith, Christ-followers had fantasy fiction first. We can also lay claim to post-apocalyptic fiction, medieval paintings, classical music, and science. We didn’t rip those off.

Epic Story

I could go on, debunking this exhibition of the apparent media template of “those oddball Christians just keep ripping off brand-new and original things made in the Real World.” But all those rebuttals would be secondary to this point: Christians had fantasy stories first because Scripture itself is a “fantasy” epic, the Epic Story, that is also perfectly true.

As I wrote in 2007 (with some edits made here):

Even Lewis and Tolkien themselves were inspired by a previous Source for epic fantasy fiction. That Source is revealed in the very comments of dozens of “Jesus-haters” (as Wayne Thomas Batson referred to them) following the Washington Post article. Nearly every one of those critics repeated a canard like this: “Ha! Ha! Why do you need fantasy? You stupid Bible-Belters already have the Old and New Testaments, ha! ha!” Then they laughed at themselves over such cleverness.

My reaction is more positive than they could have imagined: “Yes, that’s right, thou cleverest of secularist sneerers. The Bible is a fantasy, it is mythology. True mythology, that is. You’ve merely proven the point this article avoided: that the Bible is the archetype of all fantasy literature and good-versus-evil thrillers.”

After all, what do we find in Scripture? Ancient civilizations. A dark menace from a distant past. Warriors, kings, prophets, workers of miracles. Stunning displays of supernatural power. Crowd scenes, epic quests, and wars between true Good and Evil. Am I now referring to Israel B.C. or to Middle-earth?

Scripture is the source of all stories — the story of reality, the smaller “stories” of us as real people, and the stories we real people subcreate.

We must recall that truth when we’re discussing how our stories may glorify God.

After part 7 last week, Kessie’s comment set me to considering this:

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?

While these issues may be difficult to communicate, here is one reason I didn’t just say so:

If I simply stated it like that, it’s nothing more than my paltry opinion.

Rather, I hope to base any truth about how Reading Is Worship on Scripture’s truth.

The first, best, and truest “fantasy” epic.

Let’s say I’m loving a book, and I know that technically my love for this book should glorify God. I might grab for some truths — even individual Biblical truths — as justification. After all, I know that God gets glory from all things, so naturally He is getting glory from this book enjoyment, right? Even if I’m sinning, He’s still getting glory somehow, right?

But here’s the problem: I’ve started with the wrong basis. I’ve started with: The stories I enjoy must be what God also enjoys. I haven’t started with His Story — which tells me more than I could know (or regrettably, often more than I’d like to know!) of what glorifies Him.

How would the wrong view work among human relationships?

ESB: Happy birthday, honey! Here is your gift.

LRB: Oh, thank you. It’s … it’s … (Opens the package) “Green Lantern: The Animated Series,” season 1, part 1?

ESB: (Beaming like a galactic Guardian battery) Wonderful, isn’t it?

LRB: .

ESB: Let’s watch it tonight! And how about I pick up dinner from Taco Bell?

His desires and His Story come first. His Word not only forms the pattern for all our stories, but reveals how He wants us to worship Him.

Without that Story, I can have all the great skills in a world, but I will surely fail to see the brightest reflections of His Story in other stories. And without that Story, I can have great motives to write well or share the Gospel or explore people and the world in fiction — but all my efforts to glorify or worship God will only do so “incidentally,” not as directly.

God decides how He gets glory. When we know more of that, we don’t feel slavish to overt spiritual appeals or duties. Rather, our joy is enhanced. So is our reading!

What Scriptures discuss how we glorify God? How might we miss those in our fiction-reading justifications?

Next week: More specifics about Scripture, God’s Story, and the “color spectrum” of His glory.

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Kessie Carroll
Member

Aside from making all books into devotionals, I’m still not sure how this works in practice. I’m interested in some practical examples.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Only if the only God-glorifying genre is the “devotional” genre.

Based on the multiple genres in Scripture, I doubt that’s the case!

So far, by the way, I haven’t found much “devotional” material in the Bible, that is, based on the evangelical understanding of the word. And of course, some “devotionals” end up glorify the devotional writer more than God — such as the author of one very popular series who directly admitted in her prologue that she had grown tired of what was in the Bible and wanted to hear more from Jesus.

Kessie Carroll
Member

“Without that Story, I can have all the great skills in a world, but I will surely fail to see the brightest reflections of His Story in other stories. And without that Story, I can have great motives to write well or share the Gospel or explore people and the world in fiction — but all my efforts to glorify or worship God will only do so “incidentally,” not as directly.”

 
This still sounds like you’re saying, “Read your Bible before cracking a novel, then look hard at the novel until you pick out some sort of Biblical principle. Worship GET!”

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Alas that we keep running into this wall. “Read your Bible before cracking a novel, then look hard at the novel until you pick out some sort of Biblical principle.” What you’ve described is moralism, not Biblical Christianity. That’s not real worship. It’s a spiritual-sounding imposter that insists, God, I’ll glorify You in my way, with Rules.

By contrast Moralism tries to rubber-stamp Morals onto things. That’s how we get some Christian fiction like the book I’ve been recently reading, in which Christian characters spout cliches and easy-believe-ism and “just take a leap of faith” slogans. That’s also how you get children’s materials that fear telling stories; they tell stories only for the means of an easy Point. It’s wrongly defined Pragmatism.

But that’s not how Scripture reads, which is what I’m recommending here.

In the Story, God gives Law, then insists, Shut up, you can’t do this on your own. Give up the “basic principles.” Behold my justice and mercy. Then He in Christ dies on the cross, resurrects, and promises the same for His people. That is the redemptive historical epic of how God has saved human rebels from His wrath, through Christ, for His glory, a salvation that then affects creation and creative work. God saves man; man’s salvation in turn saves creation and creative work itself. Including all of man’s cultures. Including his stories and artworks.

So things like Getting Saved and Morality are means of glorifying/worshiping God, getting more of Him and His beauty and truth personally, not vice-versa.

This whole topic may seem less complex when Biblical principle is redefined not as rubber-stamping moralism, but as that understanding of redemptive history — the Gospel — which truly affects all our views, even when we’re not thinking about it.

I might recommend a newer book on the topic, which is “lay level” (perfect for me) yet in-depth: Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. He argues this well.

Perhaps pointing out these things or bringing them up inevitably sounds like moralistic “Christianity”? If so, I’m not sure how to rephrase this; I could try hip megachurch jive-talk or something, but I doubt that would be effective! Ha!

This might help: historically, Kessie, how have others presented the Bible to you? “The true-life Story of God’s redemptive history.” Or, “Life’s Instruction Book”?

Kessie Carroll
Member

For me, the Bible is true reality. I can’t compare it to fiction because the Bible is Real. God speaks to me through it daily. It’s nuanced and layered and living.
 
So comparing the Bible to a man-made work of fiction–or to somehow read a man-made story the same way as the Bible–to me is talking apples and oranges. The Bible is nothing like fiction, especially high-flying imaginative speculative fiction. The Bible is Life and Truth.
 
Fiction is entertaining, and sometimes has flashes of Biblical truth in it (which I identify with pleasure). I understand how to identify redemption, grace and salvation in a story. But those themes are merely pale shadows of Reality.
 
When I want to worship, I go to the Bible and talk to God Himself. I don’t go wandering through man-made fiction. So I just have not understood a thing you’ve said in this whole series.

Paul Lee
Member

Scripture is the source of all stories — the story of reality, the smaller “stories” of us as real people, and the stories we real people subcreate.

I think that’s one of your most interesting insights. I’m not sure if I completely agree with it, but I think it’s something that’s too broad to really disagree with either. To me, your view sounds as if the Bible is a mystical metaphor of all of reality. Either that, or “Scripture” is being defined as more than just the canonical books of the Bible. I know that the scope of the Bible spans from Creation to New-Creation, but you and I are not literally in the inspired words. And I think it’s probably a good thing to understand Scripture as more than hard and cold words, but I’m not sure that I understand what you mean.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t know. If I could use an analogy, I’m getting the sense that you are saying “All buildings are churches, because churches came first, and both buildings and churches often have four walls, roofs, and stone bricks. Therefore wherever we go into a building, we are at church.”

I’m thinking that instead, some buildings and churches share common attributes that we can be thankful for because humans built them, and human building shows God-given talents we should be thankful for. However, some buildings either borrow church architecture consciously (use christian redemptive themes)or unconsciously, and our thanks is greater because we see elements of God directly in them. To recognize those architectural styles enough to see them even when they aren’t intended-to know that the history of a gargoyle is tied with the history of God’s people in the church-brings the believer’s mind towards God in a greater way.

But some buildings are expressly made to focus the mind on God, and we call them churches. They often share traits with normal buildings, but sometimes they have their own architecture. But the intent is independent of the type, and it’s the presence of God or believers who in many ways makes a church. A church can have no walls-just a series of benches under a tent in the open sky.

I think you are making a theory based on the structure, and it’s kind of stretching terms a bit. You see the similarities, and they are there. But it can only go so far. The design of the lowercase a architect and the attitude of the believer also matter, and they kind of hit the structural theory at many points. Hogwarts is not a church even though it may borrow from them. Not all buildings base themselves on the Chartres Cathedral (to use an analogy to cover the Bible.) Some churches (books) may even use secular architecture for cost, or for purpose (use non-epic or religious structure to tell a religious tale. slice-of-life fantasy or fable rather than the redemptive epic.)

I’m probably stretching the analogy like Gorilla Grodd stretches Plastic Man,  and there’s the whole aspect that someone like C.S. Lewis uses, that mythic aspects of the gospel predate the faith, and paganism often prepares or ties in with it. Some buildings are proto-churches? Not sure. But maybe this will help.

Fred Warren
Member

Scripture is the source of all stories — the story of reality, the smaller “stories” of us as real people, and the stories we real people subcreate.

To me, your view sounds as if the Bible is a mystical metaphor of all of reality. Either that, or “Scripture” is being defined as more than just the canonical books of the Bible.

Similarly to what Bainespal is saying here, there’s sort of a “Grand Unified Theory of Literature” feeling to this, which may be why my instinctive reaction is that it over-reaches. Scripture is God’s Word, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of our interaction with God. It is itself a subset of the Word of God, the Living Word, in the John 1 sense, if you get my meaning.

…and there’s the whole aspect that someone like C.S. Lewis uses, that mythic aspects of the gospel predate the faith, and paganism often prepares or ties in with it.

Good point there, and I like D.M.’s metaphor. It might be more accurate to say, then, that God is the source of all stories (as obvious as that sounds), and Scripture is simultaneously an epic tale of God’s adventure with His Creation, a compendium of true stories, and a useful tool for identifying the truth embedded in stories that predate or exist in parallel with the canon of Scripture.

But here’s the problem: I’ve started with the wrong basis. I’ve started with: The stories I enjoy must be what God also enjoys. I haven’t started with His Story — which tells me more than I could know (or regrettably, often more than I’d like to know!) of what glorifies Him.

I understand you’re trying to define a standard without resorting to a moralistic set of rules, but some of the frustration expressed in the comments springs from the fact that you can’t define a standard without drawing a line in the sand. On this side are books God enjoys, and on that side are books God doesn’t enjoy. Is it possible to empirically determine if a story I enjoy is one that God enjoys? Who sets the criteria, and who compiles the list?
I expect this reduces to “Scripture informs me of what is good and true, so given enough familiarity with Scripture and the stories provided therein, in concert with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I have a sense of the sort of story God would enjoy.” And I think that’s as much precision as we can achieve.
This is an ambitious topic that has generated some great discussion. Thanks for jumping into it, Stephen.
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

I just wanted to say that I pretty much agree with most of your points by themselves, Stephen. It’s how you put them all together that I have trouble following. These have been a great series of discussion!

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Some interactions with Bainespal, Fred, and D.M. Dutcher, all at the same time, and all about this. It sounds like this is one of those things I now accept as axiomatic, and right or wrong, feel no need to belabor the point. So let’s belabor it:

Scripture is the source of all stories — the story of reality, the smaller “stories” of us as real people, and the stories we real people subcreate.

From Bainespal:

I’m not sure if I completely agree with it, but I think it’s something that’s too broad to really disagree with either. To me, your view sounds as if the Bible is a mystical metaphor of all of reality.

Interesting point. Fred carries it further with his reminder about Jesus as Word:

[T]here’s sort of a “Grand Unified Theory of Literature” feeling to this, which may be why my instinctive reaction is that it over-reaches. Scripture is God’s Word, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of our interaction with God. It is itself a subset of the Word of God, the Living Word, in the John 1 sense, if you get my meaning.

I was thinking specifically about any good story with a “traditional” plot that includes heroes, villains, goals to reach, a good-versus-evil narrative, and a eucatastrophe — the sudden turn from abject horror and hope lost into the happy ending and good vanquishing evil. God invented this first, seen in reality, inscribed in Scripture. Therefore any real-life story, a smaller story, fits into that Story somehow. And any fictitious story (a good one, anyway) echoes this prime Story.

I can’t lay claim to this idea, as Tolkien (among others) has said that God Himself invented the “happy ending” to a story — the “true myth” of Scripture.

Scripture in a sense “wraps around” that reality. We’re all living inside the time after the last Epistle (though those affect all in the Church invisible and visible) and before at least Rev. 20, and certainly before Rev. 21. You and I, if we are brother and/or sister in Christ, “cameo” in the book of Revelation, “seen” on the New Earth.

From Bainespal:

Either that, or “Scripture” is being defined as more than just the canonical books of the Bible.

Not my intent. God inspired only those canonical books of Scripture. Anything else is an echo and far more prone to be flawed — nonfiction books, the witness of creation, stories, and our personal experiences. Yet that does not discount these things, as Fred noted. It merely moves them to the level of secondary “interaction” with God — rather, secondary ways He echoes the truths of His more-direct Word.

From D.M.:

I don’t know. If I could use an analogy, I’m getting the sense that you are saying “All buildings are churches, because churches came first, and both buildings and churches often have four walls, roofs, and stone bricks. Therefore wherever we go into a building, we are at church.”

That’s close to my meaning. A breakdown (which is also not original with me):

  1. God invented the world. Even when rebellion persists, it’s still His world.
  2. God invented every idea in the world, including, say, physical structures.
  3. His physical, Old-Covenant temple, the idea of a physical location that He inhabits, did come first, based on the heavenly template (Hebrews 9).
  4. All other buildings are not the exact same as temples.
  5. However, they secondarily echo the idea of a physical tabernacle or temple, a place of safety and special communion with God, just as the physical temple or tabernacle was based on the Heavenly template — the prime Original.
  6. (Either way, the main “temple” today is the Church, and on another level a Christian’s body as the “temple” of the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 6: 19-20].)

From D.M.:

I’m probably stretching the analogy like Gorilla Grodd stretches Plastic Man

Ha ha! Yet I thought Grodd was a villain for The Flash. Perhaps that was only true in the Justice League animated series (my main source of DC heroes knowledge).

From Fred:

It might be more accurate to say, then, that God is the source of all stories (as obvious as that sounds), and Scripture is simultaneously an epic tale of God’s adventure with His Creation, a compendium of true stories, and a useful tool for identifying the truth embedded in stories that predate or exist in parallel with the canon of Scripture.

I’d support all of that — and only clarify that the central reason we know of Who God is and how other stories in some sense reflect Him (poorly, well, or any level in between) is because of His written Word. His Word describes His reality, and we, being “stuck” on that same reality, can’t help but reflect it in all that we do.

More from Fred:

I understand you’re trying to define a standard without resorting to a moralistic set of rules, but some of the frustration expressed in the comments springs from the fact that you can’t define a standard without drawing a line in the sand. On this side are books God enjoys, and on that side are books God doesn’t enjoy. Is it possible to empirically determine if a story I enjoy is one that God enjoys? Who sets the criteria, and who compiles the list?

To some extent, I think it is. And the basis is not in the book’s content, but mine.

Why am I reading this book with the pale hands holding an apple on the cover? To enjoy the story-world (such as it is, I’m told) and characters, and consider the what-if question about vampires-who’d-rather-not-be for God’s glory? Or to put myself in place of a character and indulge in lusts?

(Now to use a series I actually have read and enjoy.) Why am I reading this series featuring a black-haired kid in glasses who flies on brooms, points wands, and fights a Dark Lord? Is it to indulge in dark horrible desires to use a kind of “witchcraft” that gives me power to control my world and manipulate others? Or is it to delight in an imaginary realm where real good-versus-evil battles come to life amidst genuine whimsy, quirky characters, wise mentors, and mythical mysteries?

If I’m indulging in dreaming-over-sparkly-pecs lusts, or plotting my own Offense While Using the Dark Arts class, and saying This is how I glorify God, that’s not letting God define what He wants us to give Him. That’s what I mean. Or perhaps:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our [stories], But in ourselves …”

Yet I also want to recognize that God is glorified in many different ways, not only like a dimmer switch — slightly more glory, slightly less glory — but in colors. That may be the focus of next week’s column, if I don’t write first about a Left Behind reboot starring Nicholas Cage. (If you haven’t heard this news item, it’s not a joke.)

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[…] So far in this series we’ve overviewed idolatrous “worship” through reading, then begun exploring worship of God. Stories are more than “just stories,” and that does not detract from their worth, but adds to their wonder. Furthermore, all stories are based in Scripture. […]

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