The Power of Stories

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Through the power of the stories we tell, rejoice in, and hear over and over again, we strive to fill in the puzzle pieces ... and to reach for something that brings all our stories into a coherent whole.

Watching Micah delight and obsess over stories that drew him in forced me to look at my own spiritual autism and how God is penetrating through those barriers of static systems and isolation and a very closed world. God does it by inviting us into a story that, deep down inside, we know is true because it cannot help but resurface with every story we tell.

This is the argument that was made by the author ofThe Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien to one of his colleagues at Oxford- a man he called “Jack”. Jack was a brilliant professor of literature in the early part of the 20th century. He was also an avowed atheist. But, Jack had come to respect and even enjoy Tolkien’s company. Tolkien, of course, was also professor of literature at Oxford and both of these men dearly loved mythology, the ancient hero stories- sometimes even learning languages like Old Norse and then translating the myths out of their original languages so they could be read for the simple, sheer enjoyment of the stories themselves. Around this time, Jack had also begun to seriously question his atheism. Indeed, around the summer of 1929, Jack had professed a belief in God, though he had not adopted any particular faith. [1]

One blustery night (September 19th, 1931 to be exact), Jack had dinner with Tolkien and another literature professor at Reading University- Hugo Dyson. After dinner, the three men walked along Addison’s Walk discussing the purpose of myth. In the midst of the discussion, Jack began to wrestle out loud about his questions with Christianity. Specifically, how could one man’s sacrificial death 2000 years ago help us in the here and now? That comment led to a question from Tolkien and Dyson that went something along the lines of- “Why does it so bother you to hear of Jesus’ self-sacrificing death and yet you can read about similar acts of heroism and sacrifice in the myths and be moved by it? You are too hard on the gospels as they present Jesus as the self-sacrificing savior considering how much pleasure you get from mythology’s self-sacrificing heroes.” Jack, of course, responded, “But, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.” In other words, the great stories of old Norse mythology about Thor or Balder, they are enjoyable stories, but they are not true, so you put no stock into them, no hope into them. To which Tolkien responded, “No, they are not [lies].”

And as they walked along, the author of that epic story of Frodo Baggins and the ring of power and the Dark Lord began to explain that all myths are trying to tell the one true story, the story over which humanity continually obsesses.

Jack listened intently. He posited a question- “You mean the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us the same way other myths do, except this one really happened?” The three men chatted until 3:00 AM. Tolkien finally went home while Jack and Hugh Dyson finished their conversation. Tolkien began composing a poem titled Mythopoeia to capture his thoughts on the truth of myths which find their zenith in Christ, sending one manuscript to Jack (marked “for C.S.L.”). Twelve days after that conversation, Jack, better known to the world as C.S. Lewis, wrote to another friend, Arthur Greeves:

“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ- in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.” [2]

It is the power of stories, stories that we tell and hear and rejoice in over and over again…like a feedback loop. In our own spiritual autism, we continually rewind these myths to catch our favorite parts and to see the glimpses of hope in them. And sometimes we even catch ourselves, from time-to-time, breathing in these same myths and moving past the joy of the plot and the heroics to asking if they are somehow ultimately true, if perhaps they are pointing us to a true story of hope and if they may, in fact, be inviting us to participate.

So here was my little guy, Micah, standing in front of the TV, wrapped in his royal blue fleece blanket jumping up and down, clapping and laughing as he watched his favorite stories over and over again, reminding me of what I do, what we do, how we strive to fill in the puzzle pieces and reach for something that brings all of the stories together into a coherent whole. God’s story starts with a creation of all things good and a fall that poisoned everything. It was a fall that introduced both death and a despot into the world and made enslavement the norm. But, the redemption part of the story, the hero part of the story, begins with an exodus and that is something I can join in on the jumping and clapping and laughing because all of our stories tell me it is true. The myth-makers and writers of sagas gave us these raw materials to reconstruct a true hope as we find it in God’s true tale; a tale which God Himself obsesses over. Or as Tolkien wrote in a section from Mythopoeia:

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things nor found within record time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night,

or bid us flee to organised delight,

in lotus-isles of economic bliss

forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,

and those that hear them yet may yet beware.

They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,

and yet they would not in despair retreat,

but oft to victory have turned the lyre

and kindled hearts with legendary fire,

illuminating Now and dark Hath-been

with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Written by Dave Lynden


[1] Carpenter, Humphrey, Tolkien- A Biography, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, p. 146

[2] Carpenter, p. 148

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