Writing Life: Living Stories
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Stories are far more than “just words.” Anyone who has felt the life-changing impact of a good story can tell you that. In the last part of this post (Truth-Whisperers), we looked at stories that are “laden with truth,” and an author’s opportunity to present a worldview through the lens of a story. All the great authors did far more than just write entertaining stories — they presented their own worldviews in a way that fit the story, strengthened the story, and made the story enduring. This is the mark of a good story.
Read the previous post in this series: This Writing Life: Truth Whisperers
Perhaps my top goal as a writer is to communicate my passions and my worldview without being obvious about it. C.S. Lewis talks about “remythologization,”, or the process of changing culture through storytelling. Though Lewis and Tolkien applied it differently, both poured their worldview into the books that they wrote. A worldview, a message from the author, is what separates a well-written book from an enduring classic.
So, having understood a core feature of an enduring classic, how can we write that way? As a Christian, how do I reflect the gospel in everything I write?
Obligatory time-out. Don’t photocopy the bible. That won’t lead to strong writing or an enduring message. Instead, it’ll put off your readers, Christian and non-Christian alike, because it’s so in-your-face and so plot-serving (the main character hears a sermon and gets saved! Yippee!) that your readers will throw the book across the room. Lewis wove an intricate allegory about the gospel — in one of his books. Even in his other books, the whole faith bit is a lot less explicit and integrated into the story. Plus, you’re probably not C.S. Lewis (Sorry).
Being subtle about your message doesn’t mean that you have to hide what you’re writing about. But if preaching is the main reason you’re writing, or if including some sort of faith bit in the book is one of your top priorities, you won’t write a great book. Worldview seeps into books subconsciously. You write the things that you believe — even if those things are different than what you say you believe.
The best way to write a strong, enduring message into your book is to have a strong, enduring message that you live by. In other words, if you’re living in the power of the gospel and transformed by the love of God, that will seep into your books naturally, not via sermon scenes. It’s less ‘Aslan is Jesus,’ more ‘Aragon is the coming king who will set everything right that we’ve all been longing for.’
In other words, if you’re living in the power of the gospel and transformed by the love of God, that will seep into your books naturally, not via sermon scenes.
Because here’s the key: stories that echo truth whet the appetites of those looking for meaning. Very few people set out in search of Christianity. Instead, it sneaks up behind them, filling the world around them until their hearts are changed and their lives transformed. If your story echoes the truth of God’s love, or the strength of unconditional sacrifice, or the value of a surrendered life, those are pieces of the puzzle that will slowly reshape someone’s heart: not convince them all at once to make a confession and become a Christian. While that may have happened before, it should not be the primary reason you’re writing.
Sermon-books are more direct, but less effective. While it may seem counter-intuitive, a book that only hints at Christianity in the corners will do more to change someone’s heart than a sermon dropped into a novel. Sermon-books are poor reading, frustrating, and unconvincing. If they’d wanted a sermon, they would have gone to church. Instead, we’re planting and watering tiny seeds that may not bear fruit for a dozen years. We’re truth-whisperers, reflecting a world that unbelievers don’t yet see.
Stories that convey truth this way have a double benefit: not only do they point unbelievers towards truth, but they reinforce Christians as they read, telling them of a world that they know to be true, even if they don’t necessarily see it around them right that moment. When the focus is off of ‘converting’ people and on to telling a compelling and lasting story, the benefits are reaped by anyone who reads it. This is because great stories change people. They stir unbelievers, they encourage Christians. Your message becomes so much broader because instead of limiting your audience to “the unsaved” (a borderline offensive and unhelpful label), your audience becomes every human with feelings, a heart, and a soul. This is why classics are remembered: their message is universal.
“Think of literature as a primer and preparer for the gospel, which is the true story of the world.”
And the solution to writing in this subtle, enduring way is the simplest thing you could imagine: reflect the world around you. The entire way that you view the world is different because of the work of Christ in you. Fairy-tale endings? They’re not just sentimental, they’re true — and we’re all waiting for the ending that’s coming in our own story when all the tears will be wiped away. The knight who slays the dragon and rescues the princess? Christ has crushed the serpent’s head and he is coming again for his Bride. The men who stand up to the evil tyrant and save the kingdom? Look no further than the apostles and the early church who spread and thrived despite Roman emperors who murdered them by the thousands.
Our lives are a million tiny pieces of God’s love shared and shown in a million ordinary days. We are truly wearing rose-tinted glasses as we walk throughout the world. Despair will not last. God’s love will win out. His people will go to be with him. This is a happy ending we are living. Real life is better than any story.
“Shadows and trials notwithstanding, we live in eternal hope. This fact alone, if you let it seep through you and permeate your own being, will make your writing different from everything surrounding it.”
Write your stories with those same rose-colored glasses. Write with all the depth and emotion of the life that’s all around you. Shadows and trials notwithstanding, we live in eternal hope. This fact alone, if you let it seep through you and permeate your own being, will make your writing different from everything surrounding it. It will stand out in a world of cynicism and self-awareness. It will endure, because the emotions and feelings that it reflects have been in the world since God said, “Let us make man in our own image.”
I have seen the tapestry — that artwork of billions of unique stories that God has written for us every day — and I want to spend the rest of my life pointing towards that tapestry in everything I do. May our writing ring true, so that readers read, and cry, and say, “I wish I could have that in real life.” May our writing point to home, and belonging for eternity, so that our readers run to the God of open arms. May our writing echo and image the incredible love of God, so that our readers can’t help but see his fingerprints over all of this planet.
We have seen the burning light of the sun. Let us always write in the light of it.
P.S. I can already hear your objection: what’s so special about the Christian story? Why are the themes that great Christian writers write on any more enduring and special than other writers? Why are other writers considered classics as well if the story of Christianity is so strong and enduring? Can we only read from Christian authors? Tune in next week for the answer.