The Sheer Face of Story (Why writers need an anchor)

(This article was originally posted at www.rabbitroom.com

Two years ago at Hutchmoot, Doug McKelvey and I did a session on the importance of both anchors and grappling hooks in the life of a writer. For me, the topic was born out of a growing desire to understand why certain stories, music or art have impacted me more deeply than others, in many cases fundamentally shaping my own view of the world and my place within it.

To some degree at least, this conscious questioning was sparked by a fascinating moment in C. S. Lewis’,  “Till We Have Faces”, his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche has told her sister Orual that she has become the wife of a god and, convinced that the gods are a sham and Psyche has been duped, Orual attempts to find her sister and convince her that the things she believes to be true are simply in her imagination. As she searches, Orual pauses and kneels at a river to drink, looking across at the empty space where Psyche claims there is a palace. Suddenly, through the mist, Orual can see it.

This is how Lewis puts it;

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“When I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace, grey - as all things are grey in that hour and place – but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty. As she had said, it was like no house ever seen in our land or age. Pinnacles and buttresses leaped up – no memories, you would think, could help me to imagine them – unbelievably tall and slender, pointed and prickly as if stone were shooting out into branch and flower……… Then as I rose (for all this time I was still kneeling where I had drunk), almost before I stood on my feet, the whole thing was vanished. There was a tiny space of time in which I thought I could see how some swirlings of the mist had looked, for the moment, like towers and walls. But very soon, no likeness at all. I was staring simply into fog, and my eyes smarting with it.”

For just a moment, Orual is given a glimpse into a world that has previously been hidden from her. A curtain has been pulled back and, for an instant, she can see things as they really are. While this unveiling is temporary it is enough to shake her understanding of the world and slowly begin the process of unravelling her unbelief.

As a writer, my longing is that the things I write would be used by God to create moments like this in others. That, even for a fleeting moment, a reader would catch a glimpse of something that begins to shake the foundations of their fear or doubt or unbelief. I know I am not alone in this. So much of the art and conversation around the Rabbit Room is charged with this desire to bring the true stories of the Kingdom to life, awakening or fanning into flame the longing that reminds us of our true home. The question is: how can we do that?

I think certain stories take hold of us because they contain within them glimpses of truth that resonates in the deepest parts of our soul. If this is the case, then surely to write them we must be intentionally in pursuit of and saturated in truth ourselves. In these weeks when so much attention has been focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is perhaps timely to suggest that the anchor we need above anything else is the anchor of Scripture.

When I think of moments when heaven is unveiled and people are tasked with sharing the things they have seen, two occasions spring to mind. The first is in the book of Exodus, when God commissions the building of the Tabernacle. Gathering the people together, God charges them with creating the place he will inhabit. A place where God Most High can dwell amongst the bruised and broken pilgrims he has called his own. In Exodus 36 v 1 he gives them this charge; So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded.” 

To construct and maintain the Tabernacle would take a wide variety of skills, including some highly specific artistry. It is interesting that the Israelites were not told to create something and then bring it to the Tabernacle so that a place could be found for it. They weren’t asked to get together and decide what they thought a fitting house for God would look like. Instead, their task was to collectively use their gifts and talents to create a picture of something that already existed, allowing others to catch a glimpse of a world that was beyond their understanding. In order to do so they had to know and follow the pattern God laid down for them.

The second incident is in the book of Revelation. John, in exile for his faith on the island of Patmos, is given a glimpse of things so incredible he falls down as though dead. In Rev 1 v 19 God gives John this instruction, “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

I’m not suggesting that our writings are comparable to John’s vision in Revelation, however his commission is an incredibly helpful template. As he begins to share what God has unveiled to him, John is asked to write 3 things: 

1.     What he has seen

2.     What is now

3.     What will take place later

1. What he has seen.

Whether it was the artists in the Tabernacle, John in Revelation or the countless others in between, the truth God’s people were called to share never originated with them. The diversity of gifts, personalities and art forms meant they told the story in a thousand different ways, yet their job was always to write, reflect or recreate the things that God had shown them. Similarly, if our desire is to write something that is real, we can only write out of the overflow of what God has revealed to us. If we haven’t seen it, we can’t share it, no matter how creatively gifted we are.

2. What is now.

What does it mean to write about what is now? It seems, on the face of it, to be a simple task. From Orual’s initial perspective ‘what is now’ was a misty space on a desolate piece of land beside a river. It turned out, however, that the reality was so much more. Her understanding of what was true was hemmed in by her limited vantage point.

In “Three Philosophies of Life”, Peter Kreeft argues that the best starting point for the gospel in our modern world is the book of Ecclesiastes. A work of literary genius, it explores what the world is like if what we can see in front of us, the world “under the sun”, is all there is. If only the tangible is true then, no matter how much it shimmers or how beautiful it appears, in the end it is all ultimately meaningless. However, when the curtain is drawn back and we see “beyond the sun”, even momentarily, it changes our perspective entirely.

If life under the sun is Orual kneeling at the cold river and seeing only empty mist on the other side, then to look beyond the sun is to catch a glimpse of the castle in all its towering glory, realising that what we understood to be real may not be real at all. Our vision is expanded and we are welcomed into the real story.

Jeremiah 33 v 3 says, “Call to me and I will teach you great and unsearchable things you do not know”. If the Bible is God’s call to see with new eyes then his invitation goes something like this;  “Come to me and immerse yourself in who I am. Allow me to captivate you as I reveal my heart through the stories of my people. Journey with me through the brokenness and longing of the prophets and poets. Walk with me as I take on flesh and teach you what this age-old story looks like in the light of the cross. Sit with me and I will draw back the curtain and show you things you wouldn’t dare to imagine. Let me show you what is really true.”

When we are saturated in Scripture, and the Story that is at the heart of it, we begin to understand that we are part of something bigger than what is happening around us on any given day. As the themes and plotlines of Scripture become part of who we are it changes the way we think.

3. What will take place later.

We are part of a Story that is moving towards a crescendo and, in a sense, the role of the artist is the role of the prophet, pointing forward with hope. However, the hope we hold out must be real.

I have written before about the experiences our family has had over the last few years, particularly with our daughter’s Type 1 Diabetes. I remember when she was first diagnosed, people would say things like, “It’s all going to be ok.” I knew they meant well and I appreciated their concern so I smiled and thanked them but what I really wanted to do was scream, “How is it going to be ok? Is it ok that my daughter has to deal with this every moment of every day? Is it ok that she faces a future filled with all kinds of frightening possibilities? Is it ok that I have to watch this and I can’t fix it, no matter how much I want to? NO! It’s not going to be ok!” Well meaning as they were, the hope they offered was a platitude, rooted simply in their desire to ease our pain.

I think the most helpful thing anyone said to me in those early days was a simple comment by Sam Smith at the end of a Rabbit Room article. He said, “May every stab of joy and every shroud of evil sharpen our longing for the True New World.” That is a different kind of comfort. Hope that is not afraid to acknowledge pain, yet has the capacity to look beyond it. It makes a difference to know that the things we face now are not forever. To lift our eyes and remember that what we see now is not all there is. To quote Sam again, “It is what it is but it is not what it shall be.”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that C. S. Lewis’ profound skill as a storyteller was mirrored by a deep commitment to Scripture. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia there is a constant sense of the sweep of history. I will never forget the first time I read the stunning climax at the end of The Last Battle, sobbing aloud as the things that had always been true were finally revealed and began to bleed backwards into the story I thought I knew. While stories like this are, in a sense, fantasy, at their heart they are profoundly true. Perhaps, rather than being an escape from reality, they are in fact an escape into reality.

If the things we write or create are to offer hope and meaning then they must be rooted in truth. We need the anchor of Scripture, not only to bring meaning to what we create, but also to stop us losing sight of the tale we are telling. In the words of Lewis, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling." When we speak purely out of our own imaginations our words do little to penetrate the darkness, however hopeful they may seem. Only when we are anchored in what is true can we find the freedom to wrestle with life’s big questions without becoming despondent, to explore beauty without becoming hedonists and to enjoy the privilege of intimacy with God without losing sight of who He truly is.