What's the Use of Stories That Aren't Even True?

Christians are not called primarily to rules or beliefs, but to a community of faith within a great narrative.

Appears in Spring 2011 Issue: Letters to the Young
March 1 st 2011

The question

I need to tell you a bit about Salman Rushdie. He is probably best-known for The Satanic Verses, the book for which in February 1989 he was put under a death warrant in a fatwa decreed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the political and religious leader of Iran. The novel was said to be a blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, and the Islamic faithful were called to exterminate its writer and any others who were actively engaged in its promotion: "Anyone who dies in the cause of ridding the world of Rushdie will be a martyr." However strongly we may feel about blasphemy, or even about the inadvisability of scandalizing the religious beliefs of other people, it is not the Christian way to murder the writer, except perhaps in reviews. But in Rushdie's case, in the first four years of the fatwa, the Japanese translator of the book was murdered and its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were both nearly killed; an assassin accidentally blew himself up in an English hotel with a bomb intended for Rushdie; fifty-six people were killed, and a further hundred and sixty were wounded in riots and associated troubles sparked by the book in India, Pakistan, and Turkey. The fatwa was apparently negotiated to an end by the British Government in 1998, but in February of 2006, a government-run foundation in Iran declared that, after all, "the fatwa will be in effect forever."

Salman Rushdie now lives in New York, but he spent nine years of his life in hiding under British government protection, unable to stay in one place more than a few weeks and separated from his family. In 1990, he published a book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories for his young son Zafar, who was eleven when Rushdie went into hiding, and whom he couldn't be with during that time. On one level, this book is a children's fantasy; on another level, it is a plea for freedom of speech and the vital necessity of stories.

The story is about Haroun and his father Rashid, who is the city's storyteller. When his father loses the gift of the gab, Haroun sets off on a quest to find the Ocean of the Streams of Story. Eventually, he has to fight against Khattam-Shud, a despotic leader in a silent land whose followers all have zipped lips, and who is building a vast plug to dam up the Sea of Stories forever, because stories are the one thing he can't control. (Rushdie provides a glossary of Hindustani names at the back of the book: "Khattam-Shud" means "completely finished, over and done with.") The taunt that initially drives Rashid to despair—and therefore to the loss of his storytelling skills—is a sarcastic comment from his totally unimaginative neighbour Mr. Sengupta, who seduces Rashid's wife with the "serious business" of facts. It's a taunt which Haroun throws at his father in a moment of anger when his mother has left: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" In response, "Rashid hid his face in his hands and wept."

"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" This is a question that haunts many English students, perhaps particularly English students with a social conscience—and, perhaps most of all, English students who are Christian. In my third-year Contemporary Fiction class at Redeemer University College, we regularly read Haroun. I ask my students to consider Haroun's question, and a lively discussion regularly ensues. Many of these students seem to feel that their peers in Business and in Environmental Science and in Social Work and in Education are often, in effect, asking them this question. What use is it to study English? Why don't you do some seriously useful work, and look at inner-city ministry, or saving the environment, or running an honest business, or teaching Bible to kids? What's all this about reading stories for your homework? What's the use of stories that aren't even true? Moreover, a number of students regularly comment that their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings also give them either overt or covert hassle about studying English when they're home. What are you going to do with an English major, if you don't want to be a teacher? Isn't it a bit self-indulgent? How will it advance the Kingdom of God? Will it even feed your family?

I'm not going to try to convince you of the practical value of an English degree for getting you a job—though I could. (Being able to read intelligently and write fluently are skills that almost any managerial job requires, for instance.) Rather, I want to address, a bit more philosophically, that question: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"

Now, of course, as a Christian teaching in a school which takes a Reformed biblical perspective, I am always conscious that in teaching literature I am teaching a rich, creaturely expression of God's creativity under God's sovereign care, and I am trying to be a good steward of God's varied gifts. I want my students to understand literature as an extension of God's imagining and ordering of the world. I want them to recognize that God has given them literature as a beautiful and life-enhancing gift to enjoy—that enjoying a good book because it's beautifully crafted is, in and of itself, a valid thing to do. I want my students to understand that God's command in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and fill the earth relates to all the world's potential, including its literary potential, and not just its families and its gardens. Well, okay, but, my students might still want to ask, what's the use of stories?

Stories Jesus told

"...the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard..."

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers..."

"Listen! A sower went out to sow."

Why does Jesus tell stories? Why doesn't he just tell his questioners and the curious and the cynics the truth? I am going to suggest four reasons:

(1) Stories offer a wider kind of response than abstract propositional statements do. Stories give you an environment to explore. They enlarge your head. They extend beyond your rational faculties to include your imagination and your feelings. They put you into a narrative. And this means that any simplified headliner statements are blown up like balloons and become three-dimensional.

(2) Stories engage our imaginations, even in spite of ourselves. Stories can get to us when we resist the affront of propositional truth, either intellectually or emotionally. Stories get under our skin. Think of King David and Nathan's story of the ewe lamb. David has presumably long since rationalized his many transgressions against Bathsheba and Uriah, until he is shocked into repentance by Nathan's story, which moves him and engages him before he realizes he has passed judgment on himself (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem which begins, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." This is how both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets tell their stories.

(3) Stories reflect back our everyday lives. Rather than presenting us with a list of facts to learn, a set of theories or propositions to memorize, or a structure of information to retain, they come right to where we are. Stories show me things about myself and my world and my reactions to it. They open my eyes to where I'm sitting. They say, Yes, every detail matters. Put yourself into the narrative. Watch how things unfold in time. Put your own propositions in context. Read the situation carefully. The classical critics well knew this power of literary language to reflect the world in eloquent ways: Horace, writing his Art of Poetry a few years before the birth of Christ, said, "He wins every vote who combines the sweet and the useful." Reading stories is not only enjoyable; it can also be a key to living well.

(4) What's more, stories can help me to see through someone else's eyes, rather than just through my own—stories foster empathy in their readers. How does this kind of summer job, and this sort of attitude to my job, look to a person from another culture? How did it look to someone a hundred years ago? How would it look to an elderly person? Or to someone from a different religion?

Last winter in my first-year poetry class we were reading an essay by C.S. Lewis called "Learning in War-Time." It's actually a sermon he delivered at the university church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford in the fall of 1939, just after World War II broke out in Europe. C.S. Lewis was a professor of English Literature at Oxford, and in this essay he's dealing with the question of how it can be legitimate for students to keep on studying in a time of national crisis, while their colleagues are dying in battle. Lewis starts by pushing this envelope: he says that war simply aggravates a permanent situation—that we are all always in a time of crisis, en route to either heaven or hell. How then can it be justifiable for a Christian ever to spend time on literature or art, mathematics or biology, rather than the saving of souls? One of his answers is that it's precisely in reading literature and in studying that our experience of life is expanded to the extent that we can live wisely and well in the present. He says we need to know about other times and places: "A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village," and in a similar way, says Lewis, "the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age." Because literature can give us a particularly vivid surrogate experience of "living in many times and places," it is particularly able to cultivate in us the capacity to see from someone else's point of view.

But let's go back to Jesus' stories, because it may be useful to ask, what kinds of stories does Jesus tell, and what exactly is their truth-content?

Jesus and true stories

Are Jesus' stories "true stories" of someone or something he's experienced? Or are they "made-up stories" that illustrate what he wants to say? And does it matter?

Stories were clearly very useful to Jesus. He would see situations that needed addressing and address them with a story: those who trusted in themselves and despised others are given the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14); those who love money are given the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14, 19-31); those who grumble that Jesus spends time with sinners are given the story of the prodigal son and his brother (Luke 15:2, 11-32). But could Jesus' listeners go and see that particular Pharisee in the temple? Could they go and visit the brothers of that particular rich man? Could they go and talk with that particular lost sheep of Israel who is found—or his mean-spirited brother? Was Jesus talking about a Good Samaritan he'd met? Had Jesus met the prodigal son? Did these people "really exist"?

Well, yes—and no. The truth of stories is not necessarily the kind of truth which has a specific empirical referent, a particular piece of evidence in mind. The truth of stories is something more wide-reaching than that. Jesus' story about the Good Samaritan becomes a story about anyone who sees a person in need and helps them out. Jesus' story about the unforgiving servant becomes a story about anyone who gives less mercy than he receives. Jesus' story about the prodigal son becomes a story about anyone who sees the error of his ways and is received back into the family. Does this universalizing from the particulars make the stories less true?

Of course, sometimes Jesus does tell stories about things that had really happened, about things that haven't happened yet. Even the truth of historical stories is not necessarily a truth of relation to past events: it can be a prophecy about the future. It's not just truth as correct factuality that we are talking about here; it's the truth of imagination and faith.

Think about good preachers and teachers you know. Good preachers often tell stories, because they want to both teach and delight. They have a lesson to teach, and they find a story to teach it. They want to engage your imagination, sometimes even in spite of yourself. Sometimes the stories are about things that have really happened, but sometimes they are made-up stories. A group of Redeemer students returned a few years back from a program at the Overseas Missions Study Centre at Yale University, where they met pastors and missionaries from all over the world; the students told how they were particularly struck by the way in which, when the African brothers would tell stories to illustrate what they wanted to say, it was irrelevant to them whether these were stories of fact or stories of fiction. All the stories were alive; all of them were used to bring something important into the light. In this sense, all the stories were true.

Taking stories seriously: "What is truth?"

Now, wait a minute, you say. This is getting messy. I mean, a story can't always be equally valid whether or not it's actually happened. Think about the big story that we live in—the metanarrative of our faith. It matters that Jesus was a real human being who walked this earth and healed people (and told stories) and died by crucifixion and rose from death in a special kind of body and went back to be with his Father in heaven. The apostle Paul even says, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 5:17).

Yes, that story matters. That story has to be "true truth," as Francis Schaeffer used to put it. It's not enough to believe in the concept of the story, or the general imaginative truth of the story: we need a real Jesus in a real body and dying a real death if we are to be born into God's kingdom. So, yes, it does matter that we know what's fact and what's fiction around Jesus.

And it does matter too, surely, when we tell other stories about events from the past. There's a difference between a fictional story that might be made up about some young soldier who fought and died in Italy in the Second World War, and the story of my uncle, whom I never met because he really did die, aged 21, in the awful mess around Monte Casino, years before I was born, and whose grave is marked on the hillside at that place. My grandfather, his father, was a semi-professional cellist. The story was told in my family that on the day he heard his son had been killed he put away his cello, and didn't play it again for two whole years. And that was truly true. We have to be careful not to take away the dignity and significance of real people and real death and real grief by turning everything into the kind of story that doesn't seem to need a specific real referent.

And yet. I also want to argue that we need to take our fictional stories seriously—we need to realize that stories can open our eyes and our minds, can convict our hearts, can lead us into empathy and compassion for people very different from ourselves. And if we remember that the telling of stories can be a matter of life and death in many parts of our world, even today, then perhaps we will be less dismissive than Mr. Sengupta in Rushdie's story, and than many conservative Christians, of stories that "aren't even true." Remember that Mr. Sengupta seduces Rashid's wife not with story, but with facts. "A proper man would know that life is a serious business," Soraya says in her farewell note; "Mr. Sengupta has no imagination at all. This is okay by me." What a wonderful rebuttal of those who are concerned that it is fiction that can lure us from the straight and narrow, while facts somehow correlate with ethical living!

I checked my big Oxford English Dictionary, the one with historical citations for each word, and it turns out that in English a more ancient way of understanding truth is as reliability, fidelity, or constancy, rather than as conformity with fact, accuracy of representation, agreement with a common standard, or correctness of an account of reality. This second set of meanings seems to come into play somewhere around the time of the Reformation and, unsurprisingly, to increase in provenance through the period of the Enlightenment, with its particular emphasis on the powers of reason and on rational argument. Of course, the first group of meanings is particularly helpful in approaching the study of a wide range of literature.

Narrative understanding of ourselves

Listen for a minute to the French Protestant Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who died in 2005 at the great age of 92. Ricoeur talks of what he calls "a narrative quality of experience," and he describes human life itself as "an incipient story" that needs to be made into a narrative. He actually argues that the serious business of life cannot be understood other than through stories we tell about it. "If it is true," writes Ricoeur in Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator, "that fiction cannot be completed other than in life, and that life cannot be understood other than through stories we tell about it, then we are led to say that a life examined, in the sense borrowed from Socrates, is a life narrated."

And he goes even further than this, arguing that "a life is no more than a biological phenomenon as long as it is not interpreted. And in the interpretation fiction plays a considerable, mediating role." What Ricoeur is suggesting here is that reading fiction shows us how plot works—how narrative is shaped—and therefore enables us to do the same kind of work in finding meaning in our own life-stories.

We might suggest, then, that hearing and understanding and interpreting stories is part of the God-given way our "self" is brought to full adulthood. Not just in Jesus' telling of stories, but also in our telling of stories, real and fictional, to one another, stories have a central part to play in our working out who we are as human beings. The early Puritans knew this when they laid emphasis upon the importance of personal testimony to God's salvation narrative in the individual life as a vital part of a Christian's growth into spiritual health and strength.

Elsewhere in an interview, Ricoeur says that "narration preserves the meaning that is behind us so that we can have meaning before us," and that "to give people back a memory is also to give them back a future, to put them back in time and thus release them from the 'instantaneous mind.'"

The Bible is full of directives to help God's people remember the story. As I write this, we are nearing what in liturgical traditions is seen as the end of the Church year, and we will soon be moving into the season of Advent, when every year we remember and prepare for the coming of the infant Jesus. But just like Advent and just like Christmas, every memorial of the church, every baptism, every wedding, every Sunday Eucharist, every saying of the Lord's Prayer, every giving of thanks at a meal, has its meaning not merely in that moment alone, but in the story of which it is part. It has a past, a present, and a future significance in the great narrative of Scripture that we are inhabiting. And we fail to see this to our own great detriment.

It is when Christians lose sight of the whole story that, in my experience, they are most likely to fall into error, or depression, or doubt, or schism, or apathy, or generally to lose their sense of calling. God doesn't call us primarily to a set of rules or even to a set of beliefs; he calls us to join a community of faith within a great narrative of faith with a past, a present, and a future. And this is why narrative matters so much to the Christian.

Haroun: story as participation in life

If we look back to the story of Haroun, we find that Rushdie does something surprisingly similar there with stories—something that answers that awful question, "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" Rashid the storyteller used to tell a favourite story about a Moody Land where things change constantly according to the moods of the inhabitants; after the disaster of Soraya's leaving and Rashid's losing "the gift of the gab," and when he and Haroun are being ferried across Dull Lake on their unwilling way to work for Snooty Buttoo the dishonest politician, Rashid and Haroun experience the weather as alternately gloomy, miserable, harsh, and confused. Suddenly Haroun realizes that they are living inside the land of his father's story; when he speaks with authority to the lake, "the boiling breeze fell away, the thunder and lightning stopped . . . and the waves calmed down."

At the end of the story, when Rashid—reunited with his story-tap and thus able to be a storyteller again—stands up at the political rally where he has been hired to tell stories, the story he tells is the story of the book we have just been reading. And the effect of the story is that the listeners recognize in it the repressive forces embodied in the politicos around them, refuse to submit to their machinations any more, chant them out of the arena to the accompaniment of much pelting with rubbish, and are freed up to choose rulers they actually want. Two cheers for democracy, in other words. Rashid's storytelling has enabled the people listening to find themselves. So, stories are useful, in this political sense.

But there's another factor too, in Haroun. And that is that Soraya comes back. It turns out that Mr. Sengupta's lack of imagination is combined with a lot of other less than pleasant qualities: Soraya says, "'What a skinny, scrawny, sniveling, driveling, mangy, stingy, measly, weaselly clerk! As far as I'm concerned he's finished with, done for, gone for good.' 'Khattam-shud,' Haroun said quietly." Rushdie is suggesting that stories are not only useful in an instrumental way, in that they can wake people up to political opportunism and oppression, but that they are also useful in a more inward and personal way: because they are a place where the imagination runs free, because they enable people to see things afresh and from another person's point of view, they can be a counter-balance to meanness and stinginess and a general lack of humanity.

In an essay called "Is Nothing Sacred?" which he wrote while under the fatwa, Rushdie tells a parable about literature providing the one room in the great house of the world where we can go to reflect, to listen to all kinds of voices talking in all kinds of ways about the past, the present, and the future, what has happened, what is happening, and what should happen. And he sees this room, this space for voices, as absolutely necessary to make life livable, so that the house of the world is not a prison, but a community of possibility.

The Spirit gives life

Christians, of course, will want to reframe Rushdie's argument, because his view of the literary imagination as well-nigh salvific suggests a kind of neo-Romanticism that turns the imagination into an idol. We are first and foremost "People of the Book," the Bible; we live in a grand story that God is authoring through time, and by its light we interpret everything else we read and experience. Far from being Romantic about the imagination, our story reminds us of the darkness of our imagination as well as its light, the tendency in all of us to behave like spoiled children whose imaginations may actually help us find ways to be even more thoroughly "stingy, measly, weaselly." Our story reminds us of sin, in fact.

But God in divine wisdom has given us stories of all kinds within this house of the world. And Rushdie is right: we do need stories. Even though they can be dangerous, or blasphemous, or blatantly false advertising (and one of the functions of a literary education is to teach us as readers how to be critical of what stories say and do), nevertheless, stories give us environments to explore; they engage and stretch our imaginations; they reflect our lives back to us; they help us to see from other people's points of view, even in other times and places. Stories help us to write our own narrative identities; they are, you might say, a matter of life and death. And as a result, these second-order texts, written by God's creatures with or without overt acknowledgement of God, can help in directing us toward that state of peace and harmony between self and other, self and the creation, self and God, that the Bible calls shalom.

But there is a vital qualification here. For this learning through literature of compassion and understanding and identity is in and of itself insufficient to move us to action. We are not all sweetness and light, and literature cannot save us, whatever Rushdie, following the great educationalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, may hope. If nothing else, the two World Wars of the twentieth century surely taught us this—that cultural education does not make people good. If it did, the S.S. officers at Buchenwald could not have listened to Mozart with such pleasure. Seeing how best to live certainly doesn't automatically result in our living that way. Thus, not only do we need the metanarrative of the Bible story as the foundation for understanding how to live well in the great house of the world, we also need the Spirit of its Author both to will and to empower us to live like that.

In Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, Susan VanZanten Gallagher and Roger Lundin say, "Only the working of the Spirit can transform an understanding of literature's moral issues into action." Both with the primary scriptural stories and with the second-order stories that God has gifted people to tell, it is only through the working of the Spirit that we can find our humanity enlarged and strengthened. In fact, it is ultimately only by God's grace that, whether stories are fictionally true or truly true, their imaginative value can bring us delight. And it is surely only by God's grace that the usefulness of these stories as vehicles of "truthing" can be something that, as a teacher of literature and a believer in God's continuing involvement as the supreme Author, I can bet my life on every day. As Haroun learned, even though we need some serious help to be and do what we should, it truly is a miraculous thing to be alive in the land of stories.

This is a condensed version of Dr. Bowen's inaugural lecture as Professor of English at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, 1 October 2010. Used with permission. The full lecture booklet is available for a modest fee from the Redeemer bookstore: (905)648-9575.

 

Deborah Bowen lives in Hamilton, ON, and teaches English at Redeemer University College. She has become increasingly aware of the call to live within the ancient and continuing Story, and of the impoverishment of those for whom the present is the only significant reference point. She sees postmodernity as a time of hope and new possibilities for the Kingdom Story.

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