Tell Me the Same Old Story
I once received an e-mail from a former parishioner. Catherine had been a star student in my youth group, and she was now enrolled in a fine Roman Catholic liberal arts college. I was delighted to hear from her, but alas, she wasn’t writing to catch up. She was having a crisis of faith, and she needed to talk.
Her letter painted a candid picture of how her faith had run aground. She had taken an introductory course in Scripture, and as she was not deeply familiar with the entirety of the Old Testament, she was shocked to discover that several of the stories contained within its pages were dark and disturbing on multiple levels. She wrestled with the Canaanite genocide, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, and the rape of the Levite’s concubine. “Why,” she wrote, “are these horrible events recorded in a book that’s said to be the inspired Word of God?”
My first impulse was allegorical. As a lover of hermeneutics, I have long championed the theological reading of Scripture in my parish. I am a firm believer in the contemporary revival of Biblical allegory, and the bookshelves in my study are brimming with texts on symbolism, typology, and figural reading. Surely, I thought, I can set Catherine’s faith aright with a nod to Paul Ricoeur’s “surplus of meaning” and a solemn invocation of the traditional fourfold sense of Scripture.
Little did I know that tradition was at the root of Catherine’s crisis. Her professor had already told her that the great Christian tradition of allegorical reading was the answer to her problems. Yet, she remained unconvinced. In fact, his well-meaning reassurance only served to make her more skeptical. “Is this really the best Christians can do?” she wondered to me over text. “If we have to allegorize whole sections of the Bible just to make it palatable, why do we bother reading the Bible at all?”
Catherine’s question brought to my mind another young woman: Lucy Pevensie. In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy is forced to carry out a mission for a group of invisible, one-footed creatures known as Dufflepuds, who need Lucy to go into the home of the local magician they greatly fear and find a spell to make them visible. Wandering alone through the halls, Lucy stumbles upon the magician’s study and begins to peruse his Magic Book. After reading through a few enchantments, Lucy discovers a spell of a different order. C.S. Lewis writes,
On the next page she came to a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit.” The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, “That is the loveliest story I’ve ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years.”
Lucy tries to read the story again, but the book is enchanted. Lucy cannot quite remember what she’s read, nor can she turn back the pages. Yet the story stays with her. In ways she does not fully understand, the story has moved her and changed her. As she struggles to recall the tale, her mind fills with fleeting images: a sword, a cup, a tree and a green hill—but alas, Lewis tells us, “she never could remember, and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story that reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”
Why wasn’t Catherine assuaged by allegory? Why does Lucy yearn to read the story from the Magician’s Book again and again? Perhaps because both Catherine and Lucy are human beings, and God designed human beings to receive Him in uniquely human ways.
Foremost among these ways is story. From the beginning, human beings have been story-driven creatures. We ponder through story. We impart wisdom through story. We grow and struggle and deepen through story. Stories are not mere distractions from the mess of life; they are life manifested as meaning, life illumined from the vantage of the transcendent. When Joseph Campbell introduced his vision of the archetypal “Hero’s Journey” that stretches across the boundaries of culture and time, he wasn’t proposing yet another academic theory; he was tapping into the eternal truth of the Imago Dei at the center of every human being. Stories matter to us because we know that life is meaningful.
Allegorical readings of Scripture, for all their wondrous insight and creative possibility, have a weakness: they sidestep the eternal power of story. Even the most sublime substitutions of allegory must bend the knee before the arc and anticipation of narrative. As Joseph Campbell discovered, the movements and moments in a great story are not arbitrary; they parallel desires that lie deep within every human person. This is why Lucy’s spirit is refreshed when she reads the spell in the Magic Book. The story nourishes depths in her that she did not know she possessed.
I think this aspect of human nature is best illustrated by the phenomenon of resonant frequency. A resonant frequency is the natural frequency of vibration which belongs to a particular object. Most objects have multiple resonant frequencies, and this means they will vibrate most readily at those frequencies, and will resist vibrating at others. In fact, objects will even naturally “pick out” their own resonant frequencies from more complex patterns of sound and vibrate to match them.
Human beings are no different. Our bodies and souls have resonant frequencies, and when we encounter these frequencies in the world around us, our being vibrates and sings. I suspect nearly everyone has experienced this for themselves, and if you haven’t, I pray that you do. I cherish the fact that my bookshelves at home are filled with stories that inspire me, fill me with hope, or make me weep, and it brings me joy to share these books with my wife and children. Great stories—stories filled with goodness, truth and beauty—are one of the primary ways we sound the resonant frequencies of humanity. Without them, we are lost.
By the grace of God, I remembered all of this before it was too late. As Catherine and I continued our conversation, I found myself referring not to patristic exegesis or postmodern criticism, but to the story of Jesus Christ. No event in the Bible is meant to stand alone, I said. Everything takes place within a grand narrative that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation, and in the center of it all stands the story of stories, the Gospel. This is the tale C.S. Lewis once referred to as “the true myth” or the “myth made fact,” the story which rewrites every plotline and reimagines every ending. The story which can and must be told again and again and again.
Lucy discovers this when she utters the spell to make invisible things visible and finds herself staring into the face of Aslan. When the Great Lion appears, Lucy throws her arms around his mane and asks, “Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do.” “Indeed, yes,” he replies, “I will tell it to you for years and years.”
Whether Lucy realized it or not, this assurance of an ongoing story is the assurance of the Gospel. Aslan’s word to Lucy is a promise that his story, God’s story, is interwoven with the story of us all. And until God’s story comes to its full and final conclusion, no ending to any other story has yet been given. This was the assurance I gave to Catherine as well, and she came to see that her doubt was actually an invitation into deeper faith.
Because truth be told, Catherine was right. The Bible does contain dark and disturbing passages, and they aren’t meant to be quickly erased or explained away. The Scriptural narrative is filled with tension, fear and darkness, and these moments aren’t meant to be passed over in silence or ignored. All of it must be met by the Gospel. We need nothing else. And deep down, we desire nothing else. It is Jesus’ story, and no other story, that has the ultimate power to reveal and resolve the pain and mystery of human existence. As the great Anglican preacher, John Stott, explains:
This is the stuff from which the world’s great literature is formed. Have Christians nothing to say to these things? Of course we have! We are convinced that the questions themselves reflect and bear witness to the paradoxical nature of human beings which the Bible teaches, namely their dignity as Godlike creatures and their depravity as fallen and guilty sinners. We are also convinced that Jesus Christ has the answer to these questions or—in the case of intractable mysteries like pain and evil—that he throws more light on them than can be gathered from any other source. Jesus Christ, we believe, is the fulfillment of every truly human aspiration.
John Stott is also right. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of every truly human aspiration. He is also at the center of every individual human story. This is why our best tales are always echoes of the Gospel. No matter who we are or what trials we face, the story of Jesus Christ meets us with grace and truth. It is the Gospel that supplies our need, rekindles our light and refreshes our spirit, and its enduring power proves that the words of the old hymn are both tested and true:
Tell me the same old story
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory
Is dawning on my soul
Tell me the old, old story:
Christ Jesus makes thee whole.