Discovering God through Stories
© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino
love stories. I become lost in other people's worlds. I devour good
fiction voraciously, returning to the same wonderful story again and
again, marveling each time at the tantalizing power of human
creativity. Truly wonderful characters become almost as real to me
as people in the "real" world. A gripping suspense story
starts my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my nerves ready to
jump at any sound. If I must put down a half-finished intriguing
mystery, I find my thoughts straying from my work to the puzzle,
looking at it from one angle and then another, bringing my mental
tools to bear to solve the mystery when I should be meeting
deadlines. Some of the most profound personal and spiritual insights
I've ever experienced have grabbed me from the pages of a story. In
exquisite story telling I see the creatorial image of God reflected
in authors who create worlds of ideas never pondered before. As a
spiritual novice and a moral ingénue I encountered and came to
understand faithfulness, integrity, courage, humility, and
self-discipline through good characters; and betrayal, deceit,
cowardice, pride, and self-indulgence through evil ones. I can't
count how often God has sneaked up on me in a powerful story, and
taught me lessons I wouldn't have willingly learned had he been so
obvious as to challenge my stubbornness directly through a Bible
study. My actual conversion to Christ came through a fairly ordinary
encounter with the straightforward gospel, but the Holy Spirit
softened me beforehand through literature, and nurtures me long after
through the same manner.
used outstanding stories to share some of my most important beliefs
with non-Christians who would never listen to an overt preaching of
the gospel, but who can be enticed by a good story into thinking for
the first time about life after death, justice, morality, and
redemption. Mainstream, popular contemporary fiction -- if it's good
-- is a valuable tool of pre-evangelism, seed-planting, "soft"
of the best pro-life books I've ever read is Horton Hears a Who
by Dr. Seuss.
Remember the story from your childhood? Horton the elephant finds a
speck of dust on which is a village of little persons, the Whos of
Whoville. Horton realizes he must rescue the Whos "Because,
after all, a person's a person, no matter how small." The rest
of the animals scoff and refuse to believe persons could be so small.
But Horton can't give up. He recognizes the moral responsibility he
has, "I've got to protect them. I'm bigger than they."
When the black-bottomed bird flies off with Whoville, Horton chases
after him, crying, "Please don't harm all my little folks, who
have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!" In
desperation, Horton urges all the little Whos to shout as loud as
they can so the other animals can finally hear them and realize they
exist. No one hears anything until finally the last little Who joins
in with a "Yopp!"
Finally, at last! From that
speck on that clover
Their voices were heard!
They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. "Do
you see what I mean? . . .
They've proved they ARE persons,
no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved
by the Smallest of All!"
I don't mean to imply that Dr. Seuss was a pro-life Christian, or
that he intended this children's story as a pro-life statement.
Nevertheless, Horton Hears a Who reflects how truth can be
recognized even by unbelievers, as Paul stated in Romans 2:15, "the
requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their
consciences also bearing witness. . . . "
author John Fischer describes the importance of using the story to
communicate the absolute truth, in today's society of realtivism,
where "absolute truth" is rejected in favor of what he
calls "truth anarchy":
What happens to the Christian
apologetic in such a world? How do we explain what we know as
absolute truth to a generation that cannot even think in terms of
such a thing? . . . .
Story. Narrative, novel, film,
music, art, but tell a story. As in the parables of Jesus, we
intrigue the modern mind through story and entice them to start
thinking differently. Through story, one can encounter a world where
absolutes are true even if one does not believe such a world
presently exists, and in the process, the soul can unconsciously
hunger for what it knows to be the truth but is culturally and
intellectually being denied.
don't need to spell out the entire gospel message in block letters to
provoke some serious soul-searching. A local Southern California
mystery novelist and newspaper columnist, T. Jefferson Parker,
recognizes the power of a good story, "I like a sense of danger
and a sense that in the book that I'm writing, life and death are the
issues as opposed to financial solvency or cocaine problems. I want
large things to be at stake."
In one of his columns, he focused on the meaning of life in only a
few words of contemplation. He recounted the true story of a local
teenager who was convicted of killing his friend over a robbery
dispute. The convicted murderer, Robert Chan, "wrote in letters
to the court that he had read Albert Camus' The Stranger some
nine months before the murder and claimed that the book encouraged
him to kill his victim because 'everything [is] meaningless and
nothing matters because we are all going to die.'" Parker notes
that he read the same book some twenty years earlier when he was a
teenager, but responded differently:
Rereading Chan's words . . . I
was struck by how close he was to the mark, and at the same time how
far away. Because we are all going to die, he reasons, everything is
meaningless and nothing matters.
But the truth is: Because we
are all going to die, nothing is meaningless and everything matters.
carefully crafted, compelling protagonist in an outstanding story
provides not only a creativity reflective of the one true Creator,
but also a prototype of a person redeemed to the creatorial position
for which God originally intended us. In an imaginary conversation
between mystery writer Dorothy Sayer and the protagonist of her
classic Peter Wimsey stories, these two themes are echoed,
"Perhaps you're right in a
way. Perhaps I did create in you the man I couldn't find in this
life. But it was not for some subliminal and sordid satisfaction.
It was to show the world the type of man required for the
satisfaction of a modern, unfettered, educated woman. The awful,
unattainable goal to be achieved."
"And yet, if I may be
allowed one more immodest observation, you achieved it," Wimsey
"In art, Peter."
"It is no less of an
achievement for that. It is no common soul that can shape the world
to its own ideals, no matter that the world it masters is a fiction.
And no common reward awaits the creators of this life. However
modest their creations, each echoes the larger work.
'The glory of Him who moves all
Impenetrates the universe, and
The splendour burns, more here
and lesser there.'"
and horror stories lend themselves particularly well to sowing the
seeds that make us vulnerable to the gospel. In a way, the good
mystery or horror parallels the story of redemption: Everything is
right in the world until evil intrudes and spoils what it finds.
After searching, recognizing clues, and chasing suspects, redemption
comes as good triumphs over evil and the world of the story is
restored by justice. Jewish mystery writer Majer Krich recognizes
this parallel, "Judaism in general deals with good versus evil
in the Biblical sense. . . . [M]ysteries deal with good versus evil.
Horror author William Relling (Brujo) agrees, "The
essence of horror stories’ 'scary stuff' lies in a struggle
between good and evil. I believe that, in fiction, good has to win.
Otherwise we're in trouble."
best contemporary fiction can promote godly morality with subtle
persuasion rather than brash revivalist preaching. Jewish mystery
writer Faye Kellerman's stories feature an orthodox Jewish couple,
Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, whose deep faith seems a natural part
of the story. In Sanctuary, on the trail of diamond thief
murderers, Rina visits the "Cave of the Pairs" in Hebron,
the traditional site of the burial of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and
Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Adam and Eve:
It smelled like a compost pile
of rich, decaying vegetation, as if the shrine echoed God's very
words -- for dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return. .
. . These people weren't fairy-tale characters or mythological
creatures, they were real people. And like all real people,
they had lived, and they had died.
Jewish sholdier guarding the site later explains how he knows Rina is
not an Arab terrorist in disguise:
"I see with my own eyes
that you're a good woman. Because I followed you in the Ma'arat.
I saw the tears in your eyes when you prayed, the expression on your
face when you davened shemona esreh. I saw you mouth the
words with clarity, with assurance, with purpose and meaning. Your
posture, your sincerity. It shows through as if you have a window to
your heart. You pray to a God of mercy, not to a God of revenge.
Many pray here -- Arab and Jew. I don't think you're a crazy
fanatic. And I don't think you are an Arab spy, either. Many try to
pretend to be us to infiltrate. They speak our language, eat kosher
food, drink our wine, and love our women. But they cannot
love our God.
Elizabeth George, without intruding sermonizing, but within the
natural rhythm of the story, explains the forgiveness of God in the
words of a parish priest consoling young Maggie Spence:
"If the Lord's last words
were, 'Forgive them, Father,' and if His Father did indeed forgive --
which we may be assured he did -- then why wouldn't He forgive you as
well? Whatever your sin may be, my dear, it cannot equal the evil of
putting to death the Son of God, can it?"
mystery writer Dick Francis doesn't preach celibacy in Driving
Force, but his protagonist understands its sad consequences: a
young daughter, the unintended product of a physically enjoyable but
uncommitted relationship, growing up with no knowledge of him as her
father; and a recognition that sex is a poor substitute for being
The older I grew, the more I saw
consequences in advance and the more I cared . . . about not doing
damage for the sake of a passing pleasure. I looked back over the
years with horror, sometimes. After I'd lost Susan Palmerstone I'd
drifted in and out of several relationships without understanding
that I might have awoken much deeper feelings than I felt myself; and
I'd dodged a thrown plate or two and laughed about it. How
dreadfully long it had taken me to stop grazing.
of Francis' most poignant stories is of a security consultant, whose
loneliness is drawing him seemingly inexorably toward suicide. Gene
Hawkins has no significant reason to live, and it takes all of his
fortitude to resist ending his life: "The day-to-day social
level had lost all meaning and underneath, where there should have
been rock, had opened a void of shriveling loneliness."
The despair plagues him throughout his search for stolen race horses
in company with an insurance agent who seems to possess all the
meaningfulness, love, and family security Gene so desperately lacks.
The temptation to end it all pierces the prose with an authenticity
that speaks to the heart of anyone who has been close to
I shut my eyes, and the
desolation went so deep that for an unmeasurable age, I felt dizzy
with it, as if I were in some fearful pitch-black limbo, with no
help, no hope, and no escape. Spinning slowly down an endless shaft
in solitary despair. Lost.
The spinning stopped after a
while. The internal darkness stayed.
the end, the contented insurance agent, Walt Prensela, saves Gene's
life by throwing himself in front of the suspect's speeding car, and
Gene rails at the unfairness:
It should have been me lying
there, not Walt. I shook with sudden impotent fury that it wasn't
me, that Walt had taken what I'd wanted, stolen my death . . . . It
would have mattered so little if it had been me. It wouldn't have
mattered at all.
finally Gene understands Walt's sacrifice and turns away from suicide
The gray day turned to gray
dusk. I got up and switched on the light, and fetched two objects to
put on the low table beside my chair.
The Luger, and the photograph
of Walt with his wife and kids.
The trouble with being given a
gift you don't really want is that you feel so mean if you throw it
way. Especially if it cost more than the giver could afford.
I won't throw away Walt's gift.
. . . . I'll survive.
the gospel, in so many words, but a striking parallel to Jesus'
"greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life
for his friends" (John 15:13).
of the most gripping suspense stories I've ever read is also one of
the most spiritually and emotionally wrenching. T. Jefferson
Parker's Summer of Fear twists together two story lines to
illustrate his theme of the triumph of good over random evil: a
crime journalist, Russ Monroe, follows the unfolding story of a
sociopathic serial killer slashing his way through a Southern
California summer as the journalist anguishes over the invading,
destructive brain cancer that threatens his wife, Isabella. It is
also a story of exquisite soul-searching, a story where what
ultimately matters is at stake.
in the story Russ recognizes the effect of the Fall on nature, "the
way that nature can go so quickly from order to chaos. The popular
notion is that nature's world is ultimately ordered and systematic,
that only man's woeful intrusions can ruin that balance and harmony.
This is not true. . . . the natural world isn't neatly ordered, isn't
flawless, isn't perfect. Sometimes it is just like our human one:
angry and yearning for mayhem.
ambivalent faith in the face of his wife's suffering rings true to
anyone who has anguished over the suffering of a loved one:
God, help me love her more.
God, do something good for her or I'll cut your heart out with a
chain saw and feed it to Black Death. . . .
Have you ever known helplessness
while someone you love is suffering? Have you ever cursed God for
what He has done? Have you ever felt your heart throbbing with so
much love and rage that they get mixed up and you can't tell one from
comes to a crisis where he truly experiences for the first time that
he is not invincible, that he can't make everything right, that he
is, in fact, powerless:
If fear of the Lord is the
beginning of knowledge, what is the beginning of fear? I have an
answer, for myself at least. The beginning of fear is to understand
that you are without power. I took me half a lifetime -- 40 years --
to realize this. Oh, I can hear the protestant brayings of those who
are "taking responsibility for their own lives," or "are
God," but I'm not talking about the mundanities of happiness,
success, self-fulfillment, weight loss, life without alcohol, or who
is okay and who is not. I'm talking about powerlessness in the face
of death, in the face of life, in the face of madness, love, disease,
desire, in the face of all things beautiful and terrible that govern
our every moment whether we know it or not. And I am talking about
the fear of truly realizing that your best may not be good enough,
that it may, in fact, be very little good at all. To understand this
is to become fluent in the language of terror, to become intimate
with the contours of the pit. It is the wisdom of the man before the
firing squad. But fear -- true fear -- is not a reason for anyone to
do something so simpleminded as to surrender. No. The acts of the
powerless are among the lasting nobilities of the race. To advance
with a stomach knotted in terror is more than courage. Fear is
this courage in the midst of powerlessness, Russ longs for a new
beginning, "[Did] you ever wish something big, like God, would
pick you up by the heels with a pair of tongs and just like dip you
into something wet, and when you came out, you'd be clean and fresh
he comes to terms with the fear, the anguish, the terror, and God,
praying before his wife's brain surgery:
Dear Father in heaven, I am
small, corrupt, hateful, meanspirited and too much a coward to sin
importantly. I am a fool. Hear my prayer. I know how you value
humility, so I confess to all this to assure you I know my place in
your order of things. I deserve nothing. I expect nothing. I will
ask for nothing. But you are absent here, you ceded this earth to
us, and there are some things you should know. We suffer. We cry.
We toil. Sickness comes to us. Death moves among us with arrogance.
We die, trembling, bound for unspecified destinations. Christ died
for our sins once; we die for them again. His agony is over, but
ours continues. Our anguish is real. Do you remember how it feels?
I know that your design is huge, so I have stopped trying to
understand it. In your larger hands, we leave the larger motions.
My concern is this life you have given us. I am too stupid to
believe it is only a prelude. I am too weak to be happy that there
may be a reward at the end of it. I am too literal to believe that
the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. This is the heart of this
matter. Do not think less of me for holding dear the life you've
given. I lied when I said I would ask for nothing. This is what I
want: I want you to treat Isabella with respect. I want you to give
me the love that I want so badly to have for Isabella in these coming
days. Give it to me so I can give it to her. I ask to be your
representative. Do not leave us without love. Respectfully
submitted to you in this hour of need, Amen.
reading good fiction. You'll discover spiritual lessons you never
would have expected outside the pages of scripture.
I wrote the above, I have explored hundreds – probably
thousands – of imaginary worlds with novelists, the best
transforming me into a better me when I close the book, the
worst propelling the never-finished story against my bedroom wall to
lie forgotten and broken on the floor. I edited these words as I
prepared to give a talk about a popular fiction book that claims to
tell the truth about Jesus and the Bible, but which does not. Not
only does the book denigrate our Lord, in its poor fiction it
denigrates the beautiful power that flows inexorably through good
fiction and into a tender heart that longs to be transformed –
even a little bit at a time – into the heart of our Creator and
Sustainer. Frankly, I didn’t want to spend another talk or
interview focusing on the inadequate. I wanted to focus on what
raises our hearts from our own inadequacies to Christ’s
overflowing adequacy through the transformation of meaningful
God work subtly in your heart through stories. Check the authors I’ve
quoted above and below. Keep searching until you find God in the
middle of a story. You will find a new way of – to paraphrase
C. S. Lewis – “getting God inside you so He doesn’t
merely improve you, but transforms you.”
I am not saying these authors are Christians, or that the books I’m
recommending are Christian books with clear gospel messages. But they
are authors who – however brokenly – are reflecting the
Divine image; and whose books will leave you a better person –
and better Christian – than you were before. One of my favorite
characters, flaws and all, is Harry Bosch, created by author Michael
Connelly. Bosch has devoted his life to homicide investigation. It’s
not his career. It’s not his job. It’s not what he’s
good at. It’s not what he likes. (Although it’s all those
things, too.) He does it because it’s his mission –
his calling, the only thing that fulfills him. And he lives by the
creed that unless everyone matters, no one matters. Isn’t
this an echo of Christ, who told of the shepherd who searched for the
one lost lamb; and who said concerning his death, burial, and
resurrection, “for this purpose I was born”? Look for
books and authors whose mission is ensuring that everyone
matters – that’s God’s message of redemptive
Vachss – his mission is to protect children from evil. He
says, “I don’t claim to do what I do because I love
children. I do what I do because I hate people that prey on them.”
In another place he says, “Sickness is a condition. Evil is a
behavior. Evil is always a matter of choice. Evil is not thought; it
is conduct. And that conduct is always volitional. And just as evil
is always a choice, sickness is always the absence of choice.
Sickness happens. Evil is inflicted.”
Connelly – whether it’s his Harry Bosch series or his
stand-alone stories, Connelly is always about redeeming the lost from
evil into beauty and life. In Blood Work,
the main character, an FBI profiler retired to receive and recover
from a heart transplant, must solve the murder of Glory for
her sister Graciella – it is Glory’s heart beating
in McCaleb’s chest. Is there a better analogy of the
atonement? In a short story Harry is interviewing an inmate on death
row, pleading with him to give him the identity of his last victim, a
young girl never identified and thus never buried by her family. The
killer says nobody cares. Harry says he cares. The killer refuses to
tell. Harry tells the killer, “You’re going to burn. You
are going to burn in hell.” The killer responds, “Don’t
you know, Detective? You have to believe in heaven to believe in
hell.” The problem of evil and the problem of good, all laid
out in a few short lines of dialog.
George – British mysteries crafted with complexity and
richness of character but, in my book, most powerful because her
characters change and grow through difficulty and pain. In
Well-schooled in Murder one main character, Deborah, having
miscarried several times as she and her husband try to build their
family, struggles with guilt over the abortion she had years before:
“As they gazed across the expanse of their bed, Deborah took
the full measure of how completely her past was obliterating whatever
future was possible with her husband.” If only a young woman
with an “unplanned pregnancy” could see the future
Deborah experiences here!
then there’s Dick Francis’s Proof, of inestimable
value for someone struggling through the loss of a beloved spouse; or
his Decider, one of the best arguments for free will I’ve
ever seen demonstrated in story form.
for middle school children, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline
Lawrence, a series by an archaeologist filled with great first
century Roman history, artifacts, customs, and life – and, more
importantly, experiences with forgiveness and God.
authors I credit for some of my spiritual transformation include
James Lee Burke, Donald Harstad (a great, subtle wit, too), William
Bernhardt, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, Val MacDermid,
Minette Walters, Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One), Peter
Robinson, Archer Mayor, Bartholomew Gill, Ridley Pierson, and Michael
are many more – enrich yourself with some and grow pleasurably
in your leisure reading!