I guess I'm an academic.
Every day I find myself researching philosophies and ideas. I spend my time discussing theories and concepts. I read article after article so that I may engage in scholarly debate. I analyze other people's opinions. I critique other writers' writings. I add my own original thoughts. The conversation continues.
My courses are intriguing. My professors are inspiring. The cognitive dissonance I experience from these mental backflips is exhilarating. There is no end to the discourse. There is no conclusion to the questions and arguments and proofs and thought processes. I enter the conversation only to leave with more questions than answers. I enter the conversation to give my input, and I leave wondering where I started. And it's fantastic. Exercising the mind and cultivating ideas... it's all wonderful.
But it's always been the stories that have brought me to tears.
Along my journey through academia, it's the stories that I remember the most clearly. It's the fairytales that I seem to have stored in my memory. For every philosophical proof that has stirred my heart or moved me deeply, there have been a thousand stories that have accomplished the same result.
My Dad was always the king of storytelling, in my opinion. Around the dinner table, we'd hear stories of his childhood. The laughter would ensue as he'd describe his humiliations, his failures, and his comical experiences. The tales of his teenage rebellions had us on the edges of our seats, our eyes wide and gleaming in delight. The stories of the romances between him and my Mum would have us sighing dreamily.
Summer camping trips with the family brought adventure by day and stories by night. Lying in our sleeping bags in the dark of the woods, we'd giggle and squirm with delight at the wonderful tales my Dad would invent. Of children in search of adventure. Of deepest, darkest Africa. Of the cold white North. Of the depths of the ocean. Of bravery, of cleverness, of danger, of surprise, and of resolution.
And those stories have stuck with me. I may have only heard each one once, by the light of the kerosene lamp as a five-year-old child, but the lessons are engraved in my mind and branded on my heart.
And it makes me think about the times my spirit's been moved while I've listened to somebody sharing their testimony. I think about how often my heart's been stirred as I've listened to people's stories of forgiveness, of redemption, of pain, of sorrow, of loss, of miraculous healing, of success, and of hard learning. Those stories have stuck with me. I may not remember the teller's name or where I heard their tale... but I cannot forget their stories.
Ever since I was a child, stories have won my heart over. From the shortest fables to the longest books, they've captured my heart. Sometimes they've pierced it and made it bleed. Other times they've hugged it and made it glow. But those stories are never forgotten. They've left their imprint. They've made their mark- the proof that they've been told.
Now, I tell stories of my own, because I've lived them. It's what we do when we get together with friends and family. Enjoying snacks as we sit around the campfire, we share stories from our lives. We tell of the experiences and the wild circumstances we've found ourselves in. We tell of the crazy coincidences and the "Would you believe me if I told you....?" We share the stories we've heard from others. The stories still in progress. The stories that made us cry while they were happening, but make us laugh now that they're over.
At Christmas and Thanksgiving, it's the same thing. The parents tell stories of their children, and the kids groan in embarrassment. The older generation tells how the times have changed and how different life was, all those decades ago. The family joins together and remembers stories from the Christmases gone by- the reunions of the past. "Do you remember that one year when....?" And the entire room begins chuckling in fond familiarity before the story even begins. But nobody interrupts, because they want to hear it again, anyways.
My teachers and professors have told me stories. Those are the best moments in class, aren't they? When your Prof decides to pause the lecture for a moment and instead share a personal anecdote. It's a moment of vulnerability. It's a connection between student and teacher. A chance for relatability. A bridge between the stage and the audience.
I remember so clearly when my Professor, one day, in the middle of a 3-hour lecture, decided to tell us the story of the day he met the Queen of England. As he began to set up the story and gave us the background for his tale, I looked around the room. Heads that had been asleep on desks just moments before were now up and fully alert. Students who had, just ten minutes earlier, been texting their friends and surfing the web, were now listening with rapt attention. While for the first 40 minutes of the lecture only 20 pairs of ears and eyes had been engaged, all 90 bodies now gave my Professor their full attention. Eyes were wide. Mouths grinned in eager anticipation of the story's climax. People chuckled. They laughed outright! People gasped and shook their heads incredulously. They covered their mouths in disbelief. Jaws dropped in amazement. The room was perfectly silent, except for my Professor's animated narration of his hilarious experience meeting royalty. The class was brought to life by his words. We paid attention. We listened. We remembered. We went back to our dorms and told our roommates. We Skyped our families, saying, "Did you know my Professor has met the Queen of England?!"
There's just something about a story! It's the phenomenon of the parable. There's just something about taking Truth and wrapping it into bite-sized nuggets. There's just something about taking the mysteries of Heaven and concealing them in 5-minute parables. There's just something about taking theological ideas and philosophical questions and tying them into pocket-sized packages.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, "The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
Why have people tried for all of history to describe reality through stories? Why must we endeavour to explain the nature of existence through tales and myths and legends? What's the purpose? What's the value? Aren't stories for kids? Aren't imagination and creativity for children?
Yes. And I think that's precisely why they are so valuable.
Stories may be for children. Fiction may grip the hearts of the young. But remember this: The God of the Universe has given humanity His Truth in the form of a story. And I don't think it was an accident. The Lord of Heaven solemnly chose to reveal His Word to us through ancient tales. Through epic battles and touching love stories. Through moving poetry and deep tragedy. Through autobiography and dreams and visions. Through systematic, thorough accounts and through parables. Through acrostic poems and ancient hymns. Through prophecies and symbolism and metaphor.
Why? Why did He give us this Book filled with stories when He could have given us a clear-cut manifesto? Why can't the Bible be a list of theological beliefs and doctrinal statements? Why couldn't it simply be a checklist of what we should and shouldn't believe, or what we should and shouldn't do? Why isn't it an essay? Why isn't it an article? Where is the five-paragraph structure, complete with an introduction, thesis, evidence, and conclusion? Why?
Matthew 18:3 - "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Mark 10:13-16 - And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Matthew 18:1-4 - At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
I think it's because children receive the Kingdom of God like a story. I think children receive the mysteries of Heaven with wide-eyed delight and wonder. With starry eyes and giggles. With awe and joy. With soft, humble hearts. Hearts open to teaching. Hearts open to miracles and parables. Hearts ready to believe that the impossible can be made possible.
God can enter into stories incognito. Stories can capture the essence of Truth in simple language. Stories can take issues the elite thinkers can't wrap their minds around, and then deliver them straight to the hearts of little ones. Stories can bypass the cynicism and pride of Pharisees, leaving them lost and confused, but bring understanding to the common man.
I think there's a place for the academic. Heck, I think I'm in that place as I type. The questions we ask as we grow older and the problems that we wish to attack are not wrong. In fact, I think God welcomes them. Our questions will never dethrone Him, and our problems will never intimidate Him. He calls for us to seek. He calls for us to ask. He calls for us to knock.
So we dig deeper and we search wider and we think and think until our faces turn blue and our brains short-circuit. And I think the problem occurs when we elevate the discipline of the mind above the mysterious and wonderful Truth of the Bible. I think the problem occurs when we begin to place our faith in the opinions of man, trusting the ability of rational thought to provide the answers. If our faith is in the textbooks, it is bound to be disappointed. If our trust is in human reason, it is just waiting to be broken.
Proverbs 25:2 - It is God's privilege to conceal things and the king's privilege to discover them.
Acts 17:27 - His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him--though he is not far from any one of us.
1 Corinthians 13:12 - Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
We're not meant to remain childlike in our maturity, but we are called to remain childlike in our faith. Even as we mature and develop in our character, our endurance, and our right living through the process of sanctification, we are never meant to discard the childlike wonder that first drew us in. We're never meant to outgrow that foolish, absurd grin we couldn't seem to wipe off our face when we first met Love.
In the words of Andrew Louth,
"Mystery does not so much confront me as envelop me, draw me into itself. It is not a temporary barrier, but a permanent matter of my focus. It is not so much a matter of solving the mystery, but of participating in it."
I think the fact that God chose to reveal His Love for us through a story is very telling of His character. He cares about beauty. He cares about wonder and mystery. He loves the unveiling of the script and the unfolding of the plot. He loves to capture our attention and delight us with the narrative. He's like my Dad, suspending us kids in the thrill of the story. Exposing the plot twists and the secrets. Weaving a tale that draws our hearts into the thick of it.
Stories are for everybody. You don't need a degree. You don't need education of any kind. There are no prerequisites. Stories are for the elite thinkers and the toddlers just learning to speak. Stories are for the professional businessmen and the kids playing in tree forts. To experience a story, all one needs are ears to listen, a humble heart to understand, and that childlike spirit of faith-filled wonder.
And, now that I think about it, what better way for our Heavenly Father to reveal the mysteries of Heaven to his beloved children?