The Importance of Story: Why Read Literature, Watch Movies, Listen to Music, or See Plays
As a pastor in the South, I frequently get asked whether it is morally permissible for a Christian to read the Harry Potter series. The reasoning is that because they make something the Bible considers evil (magic) look good, a Christian should stand opposed to them (see my previous post here). It appears to me that at the heart of the argument is a foundational misunderstanding about the nature of story.
First, art, literature, poetry, drama, and movies are important. But, only a biblical worldview gives support to their importance. We are created in the image of Creator. We are creative because God is creative. So, any art form is an attempt by the image of God to simultaneously make sense out of their experience and to shape others with their interpretation. So, art is essential to our humanity and part of every culture. It communicates and reinforces.
Our Story(s) gives us a map by which we live our lives. They show us where we have come from, where we currently are (and what is around us), and where we are going. This is one of the reasons that the bulk of the Bible is written as story. God has made us this way.
Our ‘Story’ (or, ‘meta-narrative’) helps us make sense of our experiences, our world, and ourselves. Story gives us a sense of identity, purpose, and security. For instance, every extended family has certain stories that they tell at family reunions – those stories serve to form and reinforce the identity of that family. As a bigger family (tribe) as American’s, we have stories that we tell that solidify our collective identity and reinforce our cultural values, e.g. Washington crossing the Delaware during the revolutionary war, the Gettysburg Address, etc. (there are certain stories we don’t like to tell as well, e.g. the slave trade, the war against Native Americans, etc.).
The southern writer, Flannery O’Connor once wrote:
“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” — Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
Well, what about fantasy and science fiction? Should the Christian avoid these because they contain certain things that the bible speaks against? The answer needs to take into consideration the purpose of the author. These genres are not intended to necessarily endorse witchcraft, magic, super-powers, etc. Rather, both of these genres are an extended metaphor (they point to something more than the obvious). For instance, science fiction tells us that a new and better world is possible. Fantasy tells us that we need a hero with extra-ordinary powers who can make things right again. Because God has made us in his image, we all know that the world is broken and needs to be fixed. What we don’t know is who will come and fix it.
G.K. Chesterton allegedly once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed” (this quote might be apocryphally attributed to Chesterton, but my props to whomever originally penned it).