When a family is made up of a novelist wife and her publisher/filmmaker husband, there are a lot of conversations in the house about story–what makes them powerful, what makes them fail. What makes them lasting, what makes them forgettable.
A few weeks ago as David and I were chatting about some books and films we were reading and watching, we were musing about what the problem was with a certain one, and David said, “I think it’s that it just gives us the answer. The writers didn’t set out to explore a topic–they set out to give a canned answer. But that’s too easy, and ‘too easy’ doesn’t ever ring true. That’s why it’s a fail.”
Over the decades, I have heard Christian fiction called “preachy” soooooo many times–by fellow Christians. At first this puzzled me. I mean, I would get it if non-believers were turned off by any faith message and called it “preachy.” But fellow Christians? Why would they toss a book aside in disgust because it was “preachy”? They like preaching! They go every week for a dose of it, right? LOL.
Then I began to really pay attention to what stories earned that label and why. Sometimes it was that there were literally sermons in the novels that weren’t really necessary…but that was rare. Sometimes it was that a character seriously preached at another character…but that wasn’t always it.
Many times–perhaps even most times–it was exactly the thing my husband pointed out in our conversation. It was that the whole book seemed to be just handing us an answer–a pat, cliche, easy answer.
Life, faith, truth, though…those aren’t easy. They’re complicated. They’re involved. They’re DEEP. So shouldn’t our stories about them be too?
When I enrolled at St. John’s College (The Great Books School), I remember the first day of science lab. Our tutor (professor) said that the goal of the class was not to learn facts. The goal of the class was to learn how to ask good questions. In many ways this is the main goal of the entire St. John’s education. When it was put into words like that, though, I know very well I frowned and looked over at the students next to me. Learn how to ask questions? What was this guy talking about? We ALL know how to ask questions!
Half an hour later, I realized I didn’t. My education had never taught me that. My education had simply taught me how to absorb facts and spit them back out on a test. Not how to discover. Not how to explore a topic. The example from that first lab class was this: go outside. Sit in front of something growing. Now start describing it. We began with, “It’s a tree.” To which our tutor replied, “Is it? How do you know? How do you know it isn’t a bush instead? Or an herb?” And so on it went, not just in that class, but through four years of classes on all subjects. We learned that answers are only part of learning. Just as important, if not more important, are the questions that lead us there, and that lead us onward. To the next discovery. The next Truth. The next good question.
And the stories that really resonate do the same thing–they don’t just lay out a quick, easy answer to some topic that the author wanted to hammer on. No, no. Good stories–whether non- or fiction, book or film or article–ask questions. They make us ask questions. Good questions. DEEP questions. They invite us to ponder, to view a subject from a perspective we’ve never considered before. They make us sit back and go “Huh. Wow.” They open our minds and our hearts to new possibilities.
That’s the magic of story. More, it’s the importance of questions.
Try it in your own conversations or studies sometime, I dare you–it’s so much fun, and so enlightening! Instead of a Bible study being all about the presentation of facts, start with an “opening question,” like we did in each class at St. John’s. And then explore it. See where it takes you. See what amazing thing the Lord reveals through delving past the accepted and expected, past the pat and easy answers. See what depths you discover. And see how much closer you draw to Him and how much richer the world looks when you do.