Amy Carmichael convinced me.
The unlikely Irish missionary to India and “mother” to hundreds of at-risk girls in early 20th-century India, Amy had an authoritative presence—even in her writing. Amy led a group of Indian Christians who raised and educated the children God brought them, mostly children rescued from deplorable Hindu temples. Later in her life, Amy wrote several books during a period of bedridden illness, sharing stories of God’s work and the convictions she had developed over the years.
As a preteen, Amy Carmichael’s story was very influential in my life, and many of my own opinions and preferences were greatly impacted by her writings. Such is what happened when I read this:
“One day…a guest…gathered the children together and told them a fairy story, and then we discovered (I had hardly realized it before) that I had instinctively left those tales [out], and had begun with the far more magical true fairy stories that were strewn around everywhere just waiting to be told. And we saw no reason to change. It was good, when the amazed child asked, ‘Me than a?’ (Is it true indeed?), to be able to answer, ‘Me than’ (True indeed)…” (Amy Carmichael, Gold Cord).
Sounded good to me. True fairy stories (like why leaves are green or what makes rain fall) is of so much more value than made-up ones, so I learned. With that in mind, I unofficially swore off fiction reading for a time. There is no way I will ever have enough time to read all the books in the world, I reasoned, so I might as well only read the ones that do the most good. The true ones.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote in A Chance to Die, her biography of Amy: “She saw fiction, not as a powerful vehicle for Truth with a capital T, but as a waste of time and, much worse, a threat to the foundations of character. When ‘true fairy tales,’ far more magical than any of man’s devising, were ‘happening’ every day in field and garden, why lead the children into make-believe? What God made was Reality to her. Anything men made was a poor substitute.”
It made sense. We have so little time—why waste any of it on something that isn’t even true? Why fill a child’s mind—or my own—with stories that never really happened?
Because they’re powerful.
“Our personal stories, our fiction, our literature, our television shows, and our movies are all accounted for in a sovereign God’s design for the world,” writes pastor Mike Cosper in his book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth. “The stories we tell are all a part of the story he’s telling. We tell stories because we’re broken creatures hungering for redemption, and our storytelling is a glimmer of hope, a spark of eternity still simmering in our hearts…”
Cosper’s book walks through many different genres of TV shows and movies, ultimately showing how the basic plots and story lines of our common stories (think superhero stories or love stories) resonate with something designed deep within us. Stories are important, even for Christians, Cosper believes—and he’s not the only one. Here are three reasons why we should read stories.
1. There is a story wired inside us, and our stories echo it.
“Christians believe an audacious fact. At the heart of our faith is the bold claim that in a world full of stories, with a world’s worth of heroes, villains, comedies, tragedies, twists of fate, and surprise endings, there is really only one story. One grand narrative subsumes and encompasses all the other comings and goings of every creature—real or fictitious—on the earth.” – Mike Cosper
Fiction has the potential to be, as Elisabeth Elliot said earlier, “a powerful vehicle for Truth.” But how?
“The overarching story of redemption history—the old, old story—can be told through the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. God made the world, sin corrupted it, Jesus redeemed it, and one fine day, God will ultimately restore it. That’s the story of the Bible, start to finish.” – Mike Cosper
Cosper explains how these common themes of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can be found in many plot lines and stories—even “secular” ones. Characters long for redemption by seeking out answers and peace in troubled circumstances. They experience the effects of the fall through those difficult circumstances when life isn’t the way it was meant to be. We see people on screen (or in the pages of a book) looking for meaning in circumstances that seem to have none, and we sympathize. “We’re like second-generation exiles,” Cosper says, “who never knew the world they lost, but long for it nonetheless.”
Scriptwriters and authors are asking the questions common to everyone, and their stories spread the answers they believe. Even when they get it wrong, there are usually things they get right. We resonate with these aspects of their stories because we all have that “old, old story” wired in us.
2. We are makers made by a Maker.
“Evolutionary theorists have tried to make sense of the brain’s capacity for (and gravity toward) storytelling and fiction…Why is so much biological energy dedicated to the storytelling organ in our heads? Some theorize that we evolved a capacity to imagine in order to plan for feeding, hunting, and mating, and that once the capacity evolved, we started using imagination for stories as a side effect. Others theorize that storytelling is like the feathers of a peacock—something developed to help attract mates. It seems to me that the answer is much more simple: we were made in the image of a storytelling God.” – Mike Cosper
It seems we can’t help but make stories. Even children use imagination as they play with Barbies or Matchbox cars, acting out a drama they have created in their minds. As people made in the image of God, and as His redeemed people and adopted children, we are called to reflect our Father in what we do. Friends, we should not only be reading stories, but creating them.
As it turns out, Cosper isn’t the only one who thinks this. “Fantasy remains a human right,” J.R.R. Tolkien insisted, “we make…because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
3. Stories explore things we forget.
Finally, stories remind us of life truths that are easy to forget in the craziness of daily life. “That is one of the functions of art,” C.S. Lewis said, “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.”
Stories provide a way for us to step outside of life and look at it from another angle. We know we are busy and sometimes take for granted the people around us, but when we read a touching story about a mother whose child has grown and left home or a friend who misses her childhood comrade, we leave the story with a renewed gratitude for those we love. Stories can remind us that life is short, that material success at the expense of relationships isn’t worth it, or that there can be beauty found in everyday happenings. We know these things, but we forget. And stories can remind us. Anne of Green Gables, anyone?
Never the Same
So I beg to differ with my teenage self—and with Amy Carmichael. Stories are powerful. “All human creativity is an echo of God’s creativity,” Cosper writes. Some stories will be a stronger echo than others; to be sure, not all fiction is created equal. Each Christian reader should decide the boundaries and standards God would have them follow in their reading.
It has been said that we never change throughout our lives except for two influences: the people we meet and the books we read. In fictional stories we find both—books to read and people we want to invite into our lives.
Stories are powerful. We may never be the same.