The Value of Story-Telling

From ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith:

…one of the important functions of story is that it allows us to vicariously participate in experiences that are not our own, and to gain wisdom as a result. A great story—whether in a novel or a movie—takes us on a journey. If the creator has done a skillful job, the journey becomes our journey, and we feel like we are really there. In the case of a good film, it can engage the emotions so skillfully that we actually have the same visceral response as we would if the events on the screen were actually happening. Our body actually experiences the physical symptoms associated with awe, terror, sadness, suspense, joy, confusion, etc. The physical response means that we have entered into the story and, on one important level, it is happening to us.

I’m not talking about shallow stories that simply manipulate our emotions, but stories that move us because the journey they take us on is so vivid that it feels like we’re really there. In the process of making the journey with the characters in the movie or book, we are able to grow in wisdom, in a way similar to what would happen if we were really having those experiences. Through story we can participate in the same experiential value that we would have if we lived those experiences ourselves.

Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.

The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?

Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.