Stories and the Story

As is probably evident to those who know me and maybe even to those who read my previous post (“Theological Discourse, Literary Worlds, and Tolkien as Theologian”), I am a great lover of stories. On one level, this may be attributed to my Indian heritage, a culture rich in stories and story telling (you should hear my mother and her brothers recount “actual” events). Yet this wouldn’t explain the fact that I seem to stand alone in my immediate family (wife excluded) in the degree to which stories attract me and good stories enrapture me. My wife can attest to my sad demeanor for days after concluding a sad story or a story in which evil may not prevail, but the protagonists are left with scars (physical or emotional) from what has transpired. On another level, my love for stories may be the result of a sense of belonging to the biblical “story,” the ultimate “story” that enraptures me into the actions of the triune God and those whom this God created in his image. Yet this wouldn’t explain the seeming disinterest that many fellow Christians have in stories in general. Furthermore, never mind that “story” is hardly unique to Christianity. My fondest Hindu-specific memory of my early life in a Hindu home is the way the great tale of the Mahabharata captured my imagination, leaving me to envision myself as the great bowman Arjuna. So, perhaps it is best to consider my love for stories as an irreducibly complex mixture of my Indian-ness, my Christian-ness, and my me-ness. Whatever the precise parts-to-parts ratio of this me-mixture, it has left me as a great lover of stories. Combine this with my love for theology, and we are left with a boring cocktail party in which I ramble on and on about the latest story, why it works, why it doesn’t, how does the end make light of the preceding story, how does the preceding story help explicate the true character of the ending, what actually happened, and—most importantly—how successful a representation of the primary world is the secondary world of the story. The last of these ventures, the question of primary and secondary worlds, already received airtime, however briefly, in my previous post, so I shall leave the explanation of this distinction as assumed. Nevertheless, in my estimation, it is the most important and most obviously theological of the questions; it is to this that I turn, briefly (again).

Stories imitate life. Or, at their best, they imitate life. Regardless, though, literature projects a way of thinking about life. This can be done in a number of ways: a less sophisticated version is akin to those movies with a clear axe to grind, whether an explicit war protest, or a shot at the pure absurdity of politics, or whatever the hot topics of the day are. This form of literature (in print, through visual media, or via oral delivery) has its place, usually as a means of calling out [perceived] guilty parties of a [perceived] travesty (often overly simplistically). The question remains open as to whether or not this sort of formal protest actually carries with it any perlocutionary value.

ImageAnother form of literature is the satirical, which often chooses comedy as its weapon of choice. Such modern classics as Catch 22 weave together humorous escapades in a fictional world that usually looks very much like our present world. The undertone or purpose of the writing is often the same as those in the previous section, but the message is less obvious to those unfamiliar with the cipher, the key to the symbolism of the story. Much as with Jesus’ Image parables, though, this limiting of audience does not always bother the author. Indeed, a principle similar to that of spiritual understanding may be at play, weeding out those who have ears but do not hear, eyes but do not see. The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor was a modern master of satirical stories, and while she did utilize comedy and humor, by no means was she limited to the comical to drive her satire deep into the cultural flesh.

In both of the previous forms of stories, the underlying agenda is more or less explicit with authorial intention. Other types of literature offer the same type of author-driven, narrative commentary, including the parable and fables. However, there is an entire gamut of literature that is less obviously pedagogical. In these cases, the author may wish to tell a story that portrays a way of being in the world or a way of understanding the world, or s/he may simply do this non-reflectively or unknowingly. In either event, though, the story takes precedence as an entity to itself, though with necessary connection to the primary world (it should be noted, that “necessary” connection does not mean “intentional” connection). It is this kind of story that I find most interesting, not least because it is possible to jettison “authorial intent” in favor of a “canonical” analysis of the story, with some considerations of “authorial discourse” (see Nicholas Wolterstorff on this distinction). In these stories, the reader can learn something about him- or herself—for example, what shapes Image his or her understanding of the nature of evil, hope, healing, and restoration—by gauging self-response to turns in the narrative and to the resolution of the plot. When the story is “satisfying,” what makes it satisfying? When it leaves something to be desired, why did it fall short? Or, more pointedly, why am I or am I not satisfied? From a theological angle, we may speak of grading stories according to the rubric of the story, just as Erich Auerbach did for all of western literature in his Mimesis.

ImageIn doing so, we may both appreciate a story for what it offers in its depiction of the primary world and be reminded of what the story offers in the way of eschatological hope, the conclusion of its narrative when all things will be made new. For example, in Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie begins his tale with a young woman named India. She is not only geographically displaced—the daughter of an Indian mother and a French father living alone in Los Angeles—and philologically confused—her name is “India” but she knows little to nothing of India, let alone its regional cultural diversities—but she is also displaced from herself, barely human by the description of her empty, lonely life. To make matters worse, the book begins with her father dead on the front steps of her apartment building. It is evident that Rushdie sees a great evil here, and it takes the next 400 pages to sort out just what this evil is: it is fully external, cultural, imperialistic. The girl India is the victim of circumstances that began even before she was born, a husband scorned, a wife-unfaithful, an invasive foreigner. Yet even these characters are the product of circumstances, with evil always external. Criminals may sometimes have to pay recompense with time in prison (Shalimar), but their lot is not their fault. In the end, we are left with a profound tapestry of the ways in which imperialism and cultural imposition can bring about great tragedy and evil: a rich, albeit sad, description of societal dynamics of sin. We are also privy to some transformation, renewal of humanity in India, who is now known as Kashmiri, a specific designation owing to her specific Indian heritage. She has exorcised her demons and is ready to live. Again, the restoration of Kashmiri is powerful, even hopeful. However, something is still lacking: societal evil, yes, but what about personal evil, the internal grasp that sin has on the individual, something so evident in the story (and implicit, even if not acknowledged, in Shalimar)? Restoration, most assuredly, but even healing comes with scars, the realization that once marred, nothing is the same, despite appearances. Scarred tissue does not stretch; Kashmiri must press on without her father and mother and live with her own actions, even her “liberating” ones. We see this, too, in other tales: Frodo recognizes that while the Shire was saved, it wasn’t for him. His scars were too much, leaving him with no other choice than to leave the world that he had just saved. The TV show Chuck illustrates (probably unintentionally) the finitude of hope Imagein stories that are not the story: once memory is lost, it may come back, but not before changing the dynamics of a relationship, introducing devastation that may heal but itself will not be forgotten; indeed, memory may never return, and even as healing commences with “new beginning,” the substance of past joys and developments retreat into shadows while that which is lost periodically reemerges from the shadows, whether in wishful memory (“what could have been”) or through tangible reminders of catastrophic change. Restoration, just as it was with Kashmiri, is only partial and not eternal, and the hope of true and full restoration may be only wishful thinking or worse, the sentimentality denounced by Jeremy Begbie.[1] Conversely, the story tells of a consummation of all things, a new creation wherein all tears will be wiped away, evil—while real in its past destruction and effects—will have no more reign externally or internally, and healing will be complete, leaving only eternal joy, not the pain of ongoing effects from scars. In the story, hope is almost tangible, for it will one day be grasped. And this, no matter how gripping and enrapturing, is a reality that no story can create, save the story of the triune Lord.

I love stories, for this love is part of who I am, but all is shadows and dust before the story.

[1] See his “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 45–69.


About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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