Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Prodigal Story Seeker

When I was young, I lived in a world of stories. Some of my earliest and most cherished memories are of my father creating stories for my brother and me. The story that survived the longest was the ongoing adventures of Spaceman Spiff (a heroic space ship commander) and his seemingly constant battles with the Dreznaks (evil and grotesque aliens who had constantly-running noses). My brother and I were absolutely captivated by these stories and thrilled when our father would sketch scenes from these on the back of church bulletins.

As I learned to read, I kept myself immersed in stories—Star Wars movie books, comic books, and novels. Each book I read was a sort of temporary reincarnation as I experienced new lives and new worlds. Stories were part of my life throughout my youth and helped carry me through even the most difficult of times.

Near the beginning of my college career, an intense thirst for knowledge inadvertently pulled me away from my home in the world of stories. Thinking that straightforward non-fiction books and other classical literature were a more “concentrated” form of knowledge (and therefore more valuable), I focused my attention on books such as the Meditations of Marcus Arelius and the Analects of Confucius. These works had great lessons to teach me, and that fact further convinced me that non-fiction books and related literature (the more ancient, the better) were what I needed to learn as much as possible.

It wasn’t until I began graduate school that I “came to myself” and realized the wealth I had forsaken in leaving the world of stories. One of my dear friends (whom, years later, decided to marry me) began reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had read that book on my own in 5th grade, and remembered really enjoying it. I wanted to have something to talk with her about.

So I read.

The story was as good as I remembered it, but it somehow seemed even more relevant to the world I now lived in.

In the process of finding a copy of Fahrenheit 451, I stumbled across a collection of short stories by H.G. Wells. As soon as I finished Fahrenheit 451, I started in on this one. Two stories in particular really resonated with me: “The Country of the Blind(where an overly ambitious man’s attempt to rule a hidden village of blind people ends in disaster), and “The Man Who Could Work Miracles (where an ordinary man is granted the ability to bend the world to meet his own selfish needs, with disastrous results). After I somehow—almost unconsciously—worked the moral of these stories into an everyday conversation with a friend, I began to question the stance I’d taken on stories.

Shortly thereafter, I was in the middle of reading through all of C.S. Lewis’ theological writings when I learned he had penned a science fiction trilogy. I was familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia, but I’d never heard of this series. The intermingling of theology and science fiction was too intriguing for me to ignore.

In Perelandra, the story’s protagonist travels to an Edenic planet (Venus) where he meets the fairer of the planet’s two native inhabitants. She looks relatively human (despite the greenish tint to her skin, as seen in this illustration), but is surprisingly innocent. Another character arrives, bent on corrupting Venus’ Eve, and the protagonist battles to prevent this.

I was initially struck by the incredibly vivid imagery that Lewis used to describe this new world. It wasn’t until after I began thinking about the dialogues between the characters that I realized the theological and philosophical weight of their statements. Within this fictional setting, Lewis was able to explore a wide range of important topics in ways that would be near impossible in works of non-fiction. The force of this epiphany carried me back to the world of stories, which practically ran to welcome me home with open arms.

The Prodigal has returned, but he has returned a transformed man. I’ve re-immersed myself in the world of stories over the past several years, and have continued to increase in my appreciation for how stories function in people’s lives (both past and present). I’ve actually become somewhat of an advocate (or maybe an evangelist?) for the beauty and power of stories, which has bled into my professional life. For instance, last year I presented a paper at a scholarly conference proposing that instructors could easily use comic books to teach unfamiliar religious subjects, and elsewhere delivered a talk on how to use Batman to explain sacred clothing (the video of this presentation is available on iTunes here).

This is the first of a multi-part post I’m writing on the world of stories. In the following weeks (and probably months), I’ll explore the history of religious stories (or “myths”), modern uses of such stories, and the transformative nature of creating meaningful stories. Finally, I’ll wrap up this series of posts with a list of some of the stories that have impacted me most recently.

Enough of all this talk—worlds await us.