The magic of Story

I'm stuck in the tense space between authorial intent and reader response. And that’s okay.

<Well, there go any non-lit geeks. If you're still here, hang with me, I promise I am going somewhere.>

'Reader response' and 'authorial intent' are two different schools of thought in literary theory. Unlike most things that have to do with literary theory, they are almost self-explanatory. 

Adherents to the authorial intent theory hold that the real meaning of a text is in what the author intended to say, the meaning he intended to communicate. Reader response types believe that meaning is in the mind of the reader, their 'response' if you will. These two schools of thought are often thought of as polar opposites, as two different approaches that contradict each other. In some ways this is correct. 

The disciples of each will adamantly speak of “true meaning” in a real sense. Proponents of authorial intent will say that the author creates a singular meaning as he crafts a text. They argue this is the one, true meaning. Someone who believes in reader response will say that true meaning can only be found in a single reader’s response to a written work, and that this meaning is valid for that person, and is not duplicated in another’s response. Currently, reader response holds sway in most university English departments, but the traditionalists have no intentions of going away any time soon. The argument goes on and on, and frankly I don’t have a dog in the fight.

I don’t pick a side for one reason, because when it comes to human literature I think they are both true. I do not think they are opposing ideas. I think this is a metaphysical paradox which shows us something important, yet not fully understandable about the nature of God’s truth. In short, I think something very special lies between authorial intent and reader response.

Magic.

Yes, magic. 

In this no man’s land of literary criticism I think we see the real magic of stories, and storytelling.

No one who has ever read a novel that deeply moved them can deny that something special goes on in our heart when we are moved by a character, their struggles, and their victories or tragedies. In a great book that we connect with, like Les Miserables for me, there is something deep, profound, and dare I say, personal. The Jean Valjean and Monsignor Bienvenu of my Les Mis are just that, mine.

But at the same time, Victor Hugo had a compelling vision when he wrote that book. He had a specific intent, and specific point of view and story that drove him to tell this story. He was concrete in his words and work, and his intentions are not only valid tools to understand the story, they are the keys to understanding it. As an artist this is also clear to me. My work, and it’s meaning, is profoundly mine.

So how can these two experiences, that artists and patrons alike confirm, stand shoulder-to-shoulder? Again, I say to you: it must be magic. The magical alchemy of story.

We can have conversations about God, objective truth and subjective reality all night long, and it will not take away our basic experiences. There is something magical in the way we consume stories. Somewhere between the intent of the author’s mind and our response in receiving their story, there lies something special, mystical and metaphysical. It truly is magic.

As a storyteller I want to contribute to this magic. As a reader I want to revel in it. As a believer I see God in it. And when that story is one of a redemptive gospel, I want to live it.

Stories are magic. We just have to see them that way.


Tolkien on the love of an artist for their art

This is an older post from my tumblr. I am reposting it because it fits well with stuff I am currently working on.  On my tumblr I post links to things I'm reading and gathering, as well as things things too long for twitter, but not suited for the blog. You can subscribe to it in your RSS reader here.

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Then Manwë spoke and said: ‘Hearest thou, Fëanor son of Finwë, the words of Yavanna? Wilt thou grant what she would ask?’

There was long silence, but Fëanor answered no word. Then Tulkas cried: ‘Speak, O Noldo, yea or nay! But who shall deny Yavanna? And did not the light of the Silmarils come from her work in the beginning?’

But Aulë the Maker said: ‘Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet awhile.’

But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: ‘For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman.’ 

The passage above is one of the most moving to me from The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  As someone who has been wired to be a “maker”, I get what Aule and Feanor are feeling. They both understand the love a maker has for his creation.

How we see the art of others

When Tulkas cannot see how anyone could not crack open the Silmarils that Feanor had crafted he was seeing the utility of the jewels. He saw them as backup of the light within them, not as unique pieces of craftsmanship on their own. The idea that the Silmarils may have some value to Feanor beyond the sum of the parts seems to be foreign to him.

But Aule is different. Being a Maker himself he understands the draw of the work of the artist. He understands what it is like to look upon something that did not exist before you made it. This compels him to show Feanor grace. Sure, they need an answer and it is probably the best idea to take the light from the Silmarils to bring the Trees back. But he did not push Feanor. He counseled the other Valar to give him time, because he knows how brutal this decision is. This reminds me strongly of the biblical image of a loving Father looking down on us.

How we are taken in by our own art

But now we turn to Feanor. He loved his art, but in the end he loved it more than he loved the Valar and his fellow elves. He took the Silmarils and ran, and eventually they end up in the hands of Morgoth. Then, the Valar and the Elves have neither.

This is what greed brings us. As sinful, fallen humans we will always be disposed to love our creations too much. To claim ownership, to set them on a shelf to never be used nor shared. This is wrong and harmful. In contrast to the gracious view we see in Aule, here we see the selfish love of man for his own creations. Think the golden calf from Exodus. 

Tolkien gets it

As a committed Catholic and artist Tolkien is perfectly positioned to understand this and pass it along to us. There is great beauty and truth in the Silmarillion, even if reading it can be a bit of a slog at times. 

If you are an artist, I suggest picking this book up and taking another (or your first) spin through it. I think you appreciate the artistry and the point of view.


Gospel storytelling requires conflict

Conflict is the engine of good storytelling. As Christians, we should also understand that conflict is at the heart of the gospel. The proclamation of Christ’s victory over sin and death is good news precisely because mankind is locked in mortal conflict with sin. Without our sinful nature we would have no need for the mercy and grace Jesus’s victory secured. As the church, we need to remember this conflict honestly in order to rightly celebrate our deliverance.

Gospel storytelling is the work of kingdom artists sharing stories of human sin and the redemption, healing, and response of God’s people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  When kingdom artists seek to show how the gospel changes the lives of believers, conflict must be front and center.

What is conflict, really?

Dramatic conflict can be defined as the thing (or person) that prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo seeks to destroy the ring of power but Sauron’s quest to find it stands in his way.

 As fallen creatures saved by grace, conflict is the Christian’s constant companion. Everyday we fight sin through the power of the Holy Spirit. We strive to be more like Christ, but sin stands in our path. Even the way Paul describes this tension is Romans 6 is replete with the language of conflicting powers:

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Romans 6:9-12

“Let not sin therefore reign” is a revolutionary battle cry against our sinful natures. Paul calls us to fight sin, to overthrow it’s reign over our hearts, because Christ has won the victory already. This is epic language. It’s language of kingdoms and heroes, life and death. Paul frames redemption and victory in the language of conflict to remind us that in this life, our battle is not over yet.

Why must gospel stories show conflict?

The meta-narrative of the Bible has four main plot points: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Without an understanding that the fundamental conflict of this story is the rebellion of man and the subsequent pervasiveness of sin, the rest of the plot does not make sense. In God’s grand historical-redemptive plan the conflict between man’s sin and God’s glory is the driving force.

For this very reason, when storytellers frame a narrative of gospel change we must give the story’s conflict its due. For the fallen human mind to understand the beauty and truth of redemption we must show the ugliness of rebellion. Only when the darkness is understood will the need for the gospel be clear. Perfect people do not need a savior, and stories with no conflict do not require redemption.

Conflict and grace

Gospel storytellers should not shy way from sin, conflict or suffering. To tell the stories of our churches with integrity and fidelity to the gospel, artists must be honest about the sin and rebellion in our subjects and their stories. We must present the truth of the story in a compelling way. But we must do so with grace and love.

For artists who seek to tell stories of gospel change we must always be mindful that the story is never more important than the characters. We must never treat believers who want to share their story as nothing more than raw materials. We cannot exploit them by digging deep mine shafts into their hearts, extracting our few precious gems, and then withdrawing to leave a hollow shell. We must treat our fellow believers with love and care. We need to be more than just writers, filmmakers and photographers, we need to be true brothers and sisters in Christ.

Conflict, in its proper place

Finally, we must always keep one thing in mind: darkness is defined only by an absence of light. The light of the gospel is primary. 

We must never glorify or idolize the conflict and sin in a story of gospel change. We should never place sin and rebellion in the spotlight of center stage, anymore than we should ignore it. Conflict in gospel stories has one very specific task, to illustrate our need for Jesus. We must always ask ourselves if the conflict in our stories point to our need to a Savior. If it does not serve this goal, then we have missed something important.

Visit the Storyframes Collective website and checkout our films, photography, and the written and spoken stories. There are many talented artists contributing to the Collective, and I think you will find real encouragement in the stories.