For the past few weeks I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to the nine-year-old boy I mentor. It’s been bedtime stories and English class combined and it has filled my evenings with joy to bring these classic stories to life for a child in much the same way that my parents did for me what seems like a lifetime ago. I’ve long acknowledged that the series helped to shape my worldview and theology when I was younger by showing me an image of God which was somehow tangible but mysterious; fierce but gentle; good but wild.
And, as I field endless questions, I know that this precious child is processing at a level which is unique to learning through story.
“Is this about God?” he asked, toward the end of The Magician’s Nephew.
“Oh! It’s just like Jesus!” he exclaimed as we read of Aslan’s sacrifice and death. A smile spread across his face as he guessed what would happen next – this was shortly after Easter, after all.
And all the while, he is developing a new understanding of the Gospel as he listens to it unfold with now-familiar characters in a wholly unfamiliar way; shaking the dust off the greatest story ever… the one that we often take for granted.
Stories are powerful tools. Dangerous tools, sometimes, when in the wrong hands. The stories we hear define how we think and what we remember. The stories we hear about our world control what we believe is happening and what we think needs to be done. Stories can control our emotions and our actions, for good or ill. Our own stories define us and what we know of other’s stories defines how we interact with them; how we view them.
It’s not only through the eyes of a child that a story can shape a mind – our minds are being shaped by the stories we hear each day, altering – just a little – the way we view the world around us.
That’s why stories are such an important teaching tool. Whether it’s reading for a literature class, teaching history by telling the stories of what happened (by far the best way, I think, to actually remember historical details), or making up a fun story to help a child understand why and how borrowing works in subtraction, stories make the information make more sense – it’s how our brains work. Within the context of a story, things just seem to make sense on a deeper level.
But, the things is, you have to want to understand on a deeper level – because stories can also mask the truth if you’re not listening carefully enough. It’s not enough to listen to a news story and let it tell you what you think about the world – you have to examine in more closely to understand the motives and the meanings and (sometimes) find the truth amid the lies. It’s not enough to read a story or watch a movie and enjoy the plot or like the characters. You can read the greatest, deepest novel of all time and get nothing out of it beyond a plot summary if you try hard enough. Or you can read a children’s book (like Narnia or a multitude of others) and learn profound lessons, even as an adult.
I think that’s partially what Jesus meant when he explained why he taught in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not understand” (Matt. 13:13b). Any story can be a powerful tool – but the listener has to choose to receive it; to seek the meaning within it. Stories do not explain themselves. Yet it is the process of delving deeper into the story that reveals mysteries not so easily lost as time moves forward.
And as I watch this precious boy choose to receive so many truths through these stories I rejoice to see his understanding of God growing each night.
And this is only the beginning of his story.
Grace and Peace,