Have you ever read a novel or biography and found in it something that you had never been able to articulate, or were even unaware of, but which deeply expresses who you are?
Good stories—fictional and historical—capture the most essential aspects of human existence. They not only convey our most intimate hopes and fears, but they help form who we are and want to become. Key to making stories “work” is the imagination.
Yet many people see imagination as the enemy of truth. Truth is real, imagination is not. Truth is concrete and certain (and so valuable); the imaginary is fanciful and potentially misleading (and so not valuable, or perhaps even dangerous).
Thus the view that “facts are good but stories are bad.” Or at best, facts and stories are very different creatures. And particularly when it comes to beliefs, facts give you what you need to know. Stories are something extra for those who like or want them—like bonus material on a rental movie.
Nothing could be further from the truth. (Pardon the pun). Let’s take a closer look.
Interestingly, stories have led us back to knowledge. And in an earlier post I noted how people believe that they can “access” the Bible’s truth (or Truth) absolutely so as to arrive at certain knowledge: to be without doubt.
Yet as it is impossible simply to “read what is in the Bible” instead of needing to interpret it (whether we are conscious of doing so or not), the upshot is that human beings cannot have certainty. About anything. Through any means. Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.
But let’s look deeper.
People believe in “absolute access” in order to arrive at certain knowledge. This, then, is a belief. Why do we hold it? The answer is there: in order to arrive at certain knowledge. So why is certainty important? Two reasons present themselves.
First, certainty brings security. We can live with other viewpoints without feeling threatened by them. Second, certainty brings rest. We can be at ease from nagging questions and can instead devote our energies to the truth, where they are best spent.
Interestingly, the enemy is again relativism. Relativism implies that other views are just as valid as our own, so we must constantly be maintaining their validity. To circumvent this, some Christians attempt to fortify their knowledge claims: by asserting that what they know is certain—even unassailable—they can feel secure and at ease.
When acquired in the right way and held for the right reasons, security and rest are good things.
As we’ve discussed, though, they cannot be acquired through certainty: certainty is a commodity that humans simply cannot trade in. But neither can they be held out of pathology. Because desiring such absolute security is indeed pathological: we are here again faced with a desire to exceed the bounds of what it is to be human and become like God.
It is pathological, too, in that this desire stems from fear and unmet needs. The fear of wrong beliefs is really the fear of losing our worldview and our very self-understanding (and thus identity). Further, if a loving God is not real this threatens one’s need to be loved and valued.
So what about stories?
I believe that stories—fictional and historical—deliver us from these excessive (and destructive) perspectives. Where a desire for absolute security demands certainty, stories invite dialogue with numerous perspectives through our imagination. And while diversity implies relativism (and doubt), relativism also includes the possibility that matters may be “more” than we had first presumed.
Ironically, it is through opening us to the possible and the essential that stories keep us from falling under the tyranny of the factual and the real.