I talked this morning about how closely connected are our capacities for imagination and for faith. I also gave thanks for how great art, of whatever medium or genre, helps us to imagine a different world than this one: to see, for instance, how good could triumph over evil or to hear and feel how our lives could have greater purpose if we lived them bravely and boldly.
Great stories, in particular, enable us to encounter other, brighter worlds and better selves; and, simultaneously, to see this world and our present selves more clearly, more truthfully and more hopefully. They also give us inspiration and energy to make our world more like the world of our best dreams and visions.
With all my talking about art and story, some people have wondered aloud if I think Christian faith is “only art, only story.” I think that’s an odd way to put it, because wonderful art and compelling stories can’t be “only” anything—just as there’s no such thing as a “mere” symbol. By its very nature a true symbol can’t be “merely” anything. Art, including narrative art, is our highest and best way of discerning and describing the truth.
But I understand what people who worry that I think faith is “only art, only story” are worried about. So, here’s a bit of a response to their worries.
Christian faith hinges on historical reality. We claim that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were actual events. These things, Christianity has said, happened. We also know that the stories about what happened are remarkably resonant with the themes of the classic legends, myths, tragedies, comedies, and fairy tales of myriad cultures. It does no good to pretend that our stories do not sound like such stories. They do.
The earliest tellers and writers of the stories were not just reporters. They were artists, too, often very gifted and imaginative artists. Both because the events behind the stories were remarkable, and because the stories about those events are so artfully crafted and deftly told, the Bible’s stories have great power.
A significant dimension of their power is their ability to meet the yearnings in the human spirit. One of my favorite Christmas carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has this line: “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the tonight.” The Christian story meets and fulfills the hopes and fears of our hearts, which means that the Christian story also meets and fulfills the dreams and needs which give birth to all great stories. In Jesus, history meets story. Event meets art. What God has joined together, let us not cast asunder.
On this point, I am with C.S. Lewis, who said, essentially, that Christianity is myth made fact, which sounds like the Gospel of John’s claim that Jesus is the word made flesh. The Christian story is as compelling as any legend, as encompassing as any myth, as tragic or as comic as any drama, as enchanting as any fairy tale, and as gripping as any work of fiction. Indeed, more compelling, more encompassing, more tragic, more comic, more enchanting and more gripping, because the gospel story is, quite literally, grounded. These things, we claim, not only inspired us; they happened.
And, in the deepest and most profound sense, they keep happening in God’s “eternal now.” All great art, including the art which is God’s good news in Jesus, reveals to us that there is here, and “that” is “this,” and then is now.