He who knows the story

the story He who knows the storyAll my life, I’ve been fascinated by stories. Whether it was told in the form of a book, a movie, a play, or through some old relatives sitting on the front porch on a hot day sipping cold bottles of beer, I’ve always been captivated by the almost magical power a story has to make you feel more human, more alive.

As a kid, I used to write my own tales incessantly. When I was eleven I finished up a 100-page novel about an awkward loner girl who was ostracized by the popular kids, only to have them falling at her feet and begging for her approval and forgiveness after she solved a great mystery (no idea where I got that plotline). By the time I graduated from high school, I had five or six more unfinished books tucked away in dresser drawers. But a funny thing happened as I got older: I lost my passion for stories.

At the time I was a strict atheist materialist, and the more I thought through this worldview, the less room I found for the human story. Every time I had ever felt moved by some epic tale of heroism or glory, I had been moved by a sense of the transcendent, that something had transpired here that was more than the sum of its parts. I was touched by the idea that even if every single character on the staged died, with nobody knowing of anything that they had done in their final glorious moments, they would still have had an impact on the universe in some lasting way. Yet my atheist materialist belief system did not account for that. In a worldview that said that all of mankind’s experiences ultimately go no further than the chemical reactions in the human brain, concepts like heroism and glory and honor, as they had classically been defined, did not exist.

In college I briefly explored Buddhism, and found it to be wisest among the godless philosophies. I was drawn to Buddha’s ideas about the cessation of suffering being possible through letting go of passion. And it was another blow to my love of the story: whether it was a thriller or a mystery, a historical epic or a nonfiction how-to instructional, what made reading or moviegoing electrifying was the thrill ride of death-defying victories and breathtaking losses, and the transformation of the individual that took place along the way. Yet if Buddha could have heard me, he surely would have cautioned me against all these passions, and perhaps even counseled me not to think of “me” as doing anything at all. There is nothing permanent in this world, he would say. Even my concept of “self” was merely an illusion — a dangerous illusion that I needed to let go of, because it would keep me clinging to all those passions. In a sermon to his first followers, the Buddha said that the best path is to get wearied of feeling and perception and consciousness, until you’re finally wearied enough that you let go of passion. Then you’ll be free.

“Well, that’s unbelievably depressing,” I thought when I first read it. I wanted to jump on a tabletop in defiance, shouting that not all passion is bad and that the instinct to seek triumph and joy and love and the wild ride that comes with it is something to be toasted, not something to intentionally grow weary of and discard. But then my rational brain would kick in, pat me on the hand and remind me to get real. Everything in this world is destined to decay, including yourself, and there is no individual life beyond death, so you might as well let go of it all.

And then I discovered Christianity, and everything changed.

First of all, Christianity preached the soul. It said that, wrapped up in all those chemical reactions that fuel our emotions and our experiences, there is a non-material aspect of our being, one that unites us to a realm beyond the fleeting material world. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton fabulously connected this concept to the concept of the story when he took aim at atheist materialists who see history in purely economic terms, who assume that we humans make our decisions based on cost/benefit analyses rooted in instinct alone. He wrote:

Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing-grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading. Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration.

I was still researching Christianity when I read this, and I actually got chills when he went on to say that a true story only begins “where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off.”

Yes.

Yes.

That is what I had been looking for all those years as I wandered through the wasteland of dead materialist thought. Immediately, I recognized that the eternal soul is the necessary component to the story. It clicked into place that stories — as well as all art — are secret handshakes of beings with souls, the very calling card of the only members of the animal kingdom who are made in the likeness of God. “It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south,” Chesterton wrote. And if you do try to remove the mysterious movements of the human soul from the human story, he warned, “it will not only cease to be human at all, but cease to be a story at all.”

I still had a million questions about this odd belief system. I’d only read a couple pages from the Bible at this point, and still could not imagine setting foot inside a church. But I began to see something here, something that sent a shiver down my spine, something that left me with an exciting and terrifying premonition that told me that I would end up giving up everything I had for this belief system because everything it said was true: It was that here I saw no sins against the story.

“All the other philosophies avowedly end where they begin; and it is the definition of a story that it ends differently,” Chesterton wrote. “From Buddha and his wheel to Akhen Aten and his disc, from Pythagoras with his abstraction of number to Confucius with his religion of routine, there is not one of them that does not in some way sin against the soul of a story.”

Only Christianity understood it. What it said of who we are, why we’re here, what we really want, and what is truly good in life all resonated with everything I’d ever known about what makes a story. To read the Catechism was like watching the stage get set up for a great epic. It said that the material world is good, but will not bring us lasting happiness. It taught that life is to be cherished, and that we should live each moment to the fullest. It said that resentment leads to slavery and forgiveness brings freedom. It warned that indulging your carnal pleasures to excess will lead to death, spiritually if not physically. And it loudly, boldly proclaimed that in order to achieve anything worthwhile, you first must be willing to sacrifice everything.

There were a lot of reasons I ended up converting to Christianity. It was a years-long process in which I searched and asked questions and read a couple of shelves full of books. But one of the key turning points in my journey was that moment when I realized that this belief system understood the human story better than any other. When I realized that I was looking at an uncannily thorough knowledge of what it means to be a player in the grand drama that we call the human experience, I had to consider that it may have all come from the One who wrote the script.

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Enter the Conversation...

22 Responses to “He who knows the story”
  1. Indeed, the greatest story ever told.
    Antique Mommy recently posted..Wherein We Speak of YKW

  2. Michael says:

    Great post! I studied science and struggled with similar issues. Now in these discussions I usually talk about different ways of knowing. Rational knowing works in science, but not in relationships. Mythic knowing (as you describe here) carries us into a bigger picture that detailed analysis and mindless meditation will miss every time.
    Michael recently posted..Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

  3. elizabeth says:

    What a thought provoking post. It brings to mind the Flannery O’Connor quote:
    “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.”

  4. Amanda says:

    Story truly is at the root of it all. Our God is THE consummate story teller. I am returning through N.D. Wilson’s Tilt-a-Whirl book and DVD right now, and that truth is Wilson’s theme throughout the book when dealing with everything from the problem of evil to the problem of kittens. Understanding God’s storytelling nature helps us both make sense of the world around us and embrace our own stories more fully.

  5. Karen says:

    Jennifer, this post spoke volumes to me! While my own story is different from yours…I was raised in a Christian home, and accepted Christ at a very young age….I have recently been in an intense struggle to keep my faith. I’ve had some dialogue with atheist friends of mine. And, some of the things they have said have planted seeds of doubt in my heart.

    I’ve been praying & seeking God earnestly. In addition, I found your blog a few months ago & it’s been a great encouragement to me. This post in particular really touched on some of the core issues with which I’ve been struggling. Thank you Jennifer! Keep writing!

  6. Melissa P. says:

    Thank you for writing. I found your blog about a month ago. I watched a video of you talking about your conversion and then went to day one of the posts and started reading.

    For awhile now I have been praying that I could find someone to help answer my questions about my Christian faith. I grew up in a Protestant home and my faith has always been an integral part of my life. However, I started sensing that something was different in how I processed what I was being taught. I remember being young and thinking there were basics things I could and couldn’t believe about Christianity. It lead to such inner turmoil since being a child. It seemed that well meaning people had nice answers, but they never helped quiet the questions and the churning in my heart and brain. I searched for answers everywhere, but sometimes I didn’t even know how to formulate my questions! I read a lot. Some books were fluff and made things worse. Some books were way too over my head and made me frustrated. I saw christian counselors, met with christian mentors, talked with my parents, but it seemed like no one could help explain things the way I needed. It caused so much depression and doubt. I am thirty now and just kept praying that God would send a person to my life that could help me in the way I needed to be helped. I was tired and wanted help.

    After reading through your blog I remember telling my husband, “I think I found the person I was praying for.” Your blog from the early years and the comments have helped me tremendously. I felt like I was reading my own self. All those thoughts and questions I have thought a million times over. You have a way of putting them into words what I couldn’t.

    I am excited to read your book someday soon!

    Thank you for posts like this! Breath of fresh air to someone who thinks the way I do. I get it! I saw Donald Miller (whatever people think about him) speak one time and he mentioned the link between story and atheism. It wasn’t the point of his talk, but he off-handedly said that understanding “story” and the human life was a real reason he was a Christian. He said there was just no room for atheism. That has stuck with me for years. I think he speaks to this topic in a talk he did at Harvard that you can get on his website. I have never listened to it, but you post got me thinking about this topic again. Thanks!

  7. Michelle says:

    Thank you for writing Jennifer. You bless us all.
    Michelle recently posted..We Are The 98%

  8. Jessica says:

    I am sure you have heard of “Glory Stories” for your kiddos? Holy Heroes sells them and they are PHENOMENAL!!! My kids eat them up and learn a ridiculous amount through them, and so do I! If you haven’t already, do check them out! http://www.holyheroes.com/Glory-Stories-s/2.htm

  9. Claire says:

    I know this is not the point of your post, but I have to say how impressed I am that you wrote a 100 page novel at age 11, followed by more books in highschool. I don’t know too many kids who have the attention span for that! Writing is definitely your calling.

  10. cinhosa says:

    When I converted 12 years ago, I remember learning about the concept of mysteries of faith. The thing about a mystery is that it is unsolvable … unknowable.

    If there were no mysteries, we would all wither and die because we would live in a world where everything can be known.

    What fun is that?


    cinhosa recently posted..Stand back and observe my righteousness!

  11. Alison says:

    Great post. This was also my experience converting to Christianity. I also had the experience of loving stories (I wrote about a million as a child and, like you, had a bunch of novels sitting in a drawer – or on my computer – by the end of high school), and when I lost my faith in God or any kind of higher meaning, everything seemed to dry up. I read shelves full of books, but, like you say, “one of the key turning points in my journey was that moment when I realized that this belief system understood the human story better than any other.” That about sums it up!

  12. Becky says:

    I have read so many different conversion stories (partly because I love conversion stories) and one thing that is common to all of them is that everybody has something, somewhere in their heart, that keeps tugging them towards God. For you it was the quality of story. It first struck me when I read a book called Peace Child. I don’t know if it is still in print, and it is about the conversion of a tribe of cannibals to Protestantism, rather than one individual to Catholicism, and their point of tugging toward God was quite different, but the principle is the same.

  13. Sara says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’m an atheist who actually converted in the opposite direction that you did; I grew up in a very Christian home and eventually, through much study and reading, decided that I don’t believe in this story any longer.
    I love the idea that there is a great story that we are all part of, but I no longer can believe that Christianity paints this wonderful epic. God created us to worship him through no consent of our own, and yet created us as beings fit for hell unless we believe in the right things. If we submit to his authority, we are allowed to enter heaven, even though we don’t deserve it. I fail to see the justice, the love or the beauty in that story.
    I don’t mean to be so negative and I actually have been following your blog for several years because I truly enjoy what you have to say. (And, I look forward to your book!) But, for me, there is no great story except the one we write ourselves.
    Sara recently posted..Weekly Review: Paleo Diet v. Vegan

  14. sarah says:

    *sigh* I’ve nothing eloquent to say, except that this post was beautiful and I savoured every word. Thank you!
    - sarah

  15. Smoochagator says:

    Jen, I’m amazed you had such a great post in you after finishing an intense season of writing just a few days ago! That feeling that there must be something MORE is, I think, one of the main things that leads people to God. We all want to believe that our story is meaningful to someone besides just us.

  16. Just wanted to jump in to say thank you all for the great comments. I’ve been dealing with the post-book chaos so haven’t been able to reply individually, but I’ve read and deeply appreciated every one!

  17. Suzanne says:

    One of the reasons I became Christian is that Christianity quite simply makes for a better story. Stories where nothing can be lost are boring.

  18. Jonathan says:

    Beautiful. The love of narrative and moral intuition are part of the mystery of the person that only the mystery of Christ can explain. Since you quoted G.K.C., here’s one of my favorites from Orthodoxy:

    ‘The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid’.
    Jonathan recently posted..Shrove Tuesday and the Body of Christ

  19. Caroline Walker says:

    Loved, loved this post, Jennifer. In my book you can sit alongside GKC. Yes, the link of soul to story is so true, I hadn’t thought of it. What brought me back to Catholicism were the “transcendentals” of Phillippians 4, “…your thoughts should be directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure ,admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise.”

  20. Paul Jean says:

    The story is a real blessing. Christianity truly answers all questions we may have concerning the world around.
    Paul Jean recently posted..Chopper Tattoo Review