Stories That Had Meaning: A 2021 Reading Project

In January 2021, I decided to take on a unique reading project in which I would choose twelve narrative works of fiction that I found had influenced my adolescence. That is, I re-read twelve novels that guided, channeled, disposed, and otherwise began to shape my spiritual, moral, and theological self in adolescence (between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five). Needless to say, this was a deeply formative period of exploration, growth, and expectation that coincided with intense schooling that included high school, undergraduate university, and, for me, the first years of seminary training. This was, indeed, a time in which I was becoming more autonomous in my spiritual journey, more cognizant of my moral personhood, and very aware of a newly beloved theological acumen.

The books that I choose to re-read, those that I found formative in my adolescence, are of no great surprise. In some ways, they might be a bit cliche, and the influence of these stories is certainly not unique to me – even if the way they influenced is. For several of the authors, any number of works could have been chosen but I purposefully chose only one work per author, and often the choice was simply made out of convenience, expedience, or availability. On another note, I am fully aware that most of the authorship is white, male, cisgender, and eminently privileged. Those were simply the authors that I was reading at the time.

That being said, the novels that I read included:

  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabella Allende
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

In the end, I decided that making particular comments and specific reflections on each work would prove tedious and repetitive. So, as valuable an enterprise and as worthy an endeavor as that might have been, I chose instead to identify motifs that flowed from the stories, themes that struck my adolescent self (to the best of my remembrance) and that stuck with me in my spiritual and theological journey. Indeed, there are probably other motifs and themes that I could have chosen – themes that strike me now but were not relevant in my adolescence, motifs that were important in adolescence but have faded from memory, or notions that just proved less than important in my spiritual journey. In the end, there are three themes that stand out and stand firm. As a conclusion, I  will also add a comment on what is more of a concept (rather than a theme or motif) piece regarding my understanding of story, storytelling, and narrative. So, the four parts will be:

  • The spiritual life is a dynamic adventure.
  • The spiritual journey is inherently a fellowship divine.
  • Theosis is the goal of the spiritual life.
  • The story itself has value.

The spiritual journey is a dynamic adventure of progressively deeper union with God that should never be stagnant because our human-created nature can never contain or comprehend the fullness of the infinite God. 

I will begin by noticing that just because the spiritual life is a dynamic adventure does not mean that the journey will not, at times, seem a lackluster stroll rather than an exhilarating march. Indeed, the fellowship of the ring (LOTR), the Hamiltons (East of Eden), and even Phileas Fogg (80 Days) experienced routine and habitual, commonplace moments and experiences on their otherwise exciting journeys. And, it must be said that such routine and habit might actually and ultimately prove extremely valuable within the context of the journey, necessary tools in and for the adventure to succeed (whatever that might mean).

So it is that the routines and habits that form the regular patterns of life are important in two ways: First, they offer a place of respite and refreshment! Routine and habit are places of life-giving energy for the long journey. It is no accident that Jesus habitually went off by himself to pray and commune with God (or at least tried to). Second, the ordinary supports our efforts to even consider the extraordinary, as one will note especially with Santiago’s extraordinary struggle with the marlin after eighty-four ordinary days with no fish (Old Man & the Sea) or with Elizabeth Bennett’s struggle with real goodness rather than superficiality (Pride & Prejudice). It is no accident that the Episcopal Church so highly values sacramental living – finding in the ordinary things of life (bread, wine, oil, water, touch, and voice) vehicles for extraordinary grace and divine life. 

Nevertheless, despite the importance or even necessity of the routine and ordinary, the spiritual life and journey remain a grand adventure! Yes, indeed, each of the stories that I chose to read is a grand adventure, each in its own way a reflection of the adventure that is the unfolding of participation of life in the cosmos – legendary journeys (LOTR, 80 Days), generational family epics (East of Eden, House of Spirits), love stories (Pride & Prejudice), and internal-personal wrestling (Old Man & the Sea, Foucault’s Pendulum), and social struggle (To Kill a Mockingbird). For each of the novels that I read there was for me a sense of belonging to the narrative precisely because of the cosmic perspective, a sense of adventure that allows me to say that I belong to something bigger than my daily routine. In other words, I am not and you are not distinct and separate from the cosmos: You are in the cosmos and the cosmos is in you.

So it is, then, that the adventure of the spiritual life actually leaves me unsatisfied with my spiritual state and demands that I seek after that which will satisfy. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The grand adventure motif is a reflection of dissatisfaction and restlessness, a symbol of discontent that pulls me to seek after satisfaction, to find the objective truth of spiritual fulfillment. Ultimately, it is my aim that at the end of every day I might be just a little closer to a truth that I previously did not know or thought was something different – Ferullo’s acceptance of Clara (House of Spirits) or Elizabeth’s learned generosity (Pride & Prejudice), the betrayal of the rebellion (Animal Farm), the wrinkle in time, or Foucault’s pendulum.

Nonetheless, despite the dissatisfaction and discontent, the spiritual adventure is still well worth risking! It leads us to the edge where we find ourselves standing on new vistas staring out into the unknown, asking questions that we never knew we had. I mean, the very place where I am standing now, the very place where the adventure has brought me might not even have been in view five or ten years ago. In this sense, the adventure is the frontier of spiritual discovery, and it’s a messy place! We might not even know where the next step in the journey might lead or what the next question will be. Aragorn (LOTR), Meg Murray (Wrinkle in Time), Samuel Hamilton (East of Eden), Phileas Fogg (80 Days), Jay Gatsby (Gatsby), Santiago (Old Man & the Sea), Darcy (Pride & Prejudice), the protagonists of the narratives all stood in the brink to ask the question: What next? What is the next question? The spiritual journey is indeed at a boundary where we are beckoned to take the next road, at the frontier where we are invited to ask the next question, even if we don’t know the road nor the question. And not knowing is okay, for even if we don’t, even if we are just groping in the dark, we still hang on to the hope that we will touch the divine.  

And so, after reading the works that I did, I am inspired to go forward with my own spiritual adventure, even at a time when I had become complacent and had lost my passion. I am so grateful to have received these narratives as a nudge toward the spiritual journey.

Our sojourn is a fellowship divine that bears both culturally relevant traditions and constantly progressing arcs. 

In short, this means that the spiritual life is undertaken with fellow sojourners who are united with a shared pursuit: To express the human spirit in an inspired and lofty manner by contributing to the great work of building a divine kingdom. Indeed, through my Christian heritage, confessed in the Apostle’s Creed, we hold dear to something called the Communion of Saints – a holy fellowship of believers from past, present, and future who have undertaken, lived, and otherwise participated in the spiritual life as “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation.” I also like the term “fellowship divine,” a metaphor for participation in the very life of the Trinitarian God, in “whom we live, and move, and have our being.”

Anyway, this communion of saints and fellowship divine has two sides to explore. First, the communion unites by helping to establish, cultivate, and enlarge spiritual waystations and observances. Such waystations and observances (traditions, habits, and efforts) are profoundly important as a way of guarding the great adventure against misadventure and misfortune. While there are myriad ways, here are just three in which tradition holds sway: 

  1. Established Authority – Established authority or jurisdiction can be legal (Napoleon in Animal Farm), honor-based (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which in Wrinkle in Time), wisdom driven (the elves in LOTR), experience posed (the Hamilton/Trask elders in East of Eden). Each of the above has real authority in their respective worlds and is able to influence others because of such. Authority remains important in the spiritual life and the spiritual journey, whether it be de jure in the form of bishops and vestries or de facto in the form of confessors, advisors, and elders.
  2. Social Norms – Established social norms dictate propriety in behavior and etiquette; so that, when such norms are upset or rejected, discord and disorder have the tendency to follow. Social norms and etiquette play a distinctly important role in interpersonal relationships, noting particularly Elizabeth (Pride & Prejudice), Nick and Tom (Great Gatsby), and Bilbo Baggins (LOTR), and the turmoil that ensues after the upsetting of social norms. On the other hand, the maintenance of norms by Jay Gatsby (Great Gatsby), Phileas Fogg (80 Days), Darcy (Pride & Prejudice), and among the Hamiltons in particular (East of Eden) help relationships develop. This is not to say that norms and behavioral expectations do not or should not change over time; but, they should likely change slowly, with a common agreement, and with the purpose of furthering relationship building (I think this is what ultimately happens in both Pride & Prejudice and The Great Gatsby).
  3. Ritual – Rituals are observed to create spiritual bonds to unite different people in different places (and perhaps across different times). As I stated earlier, the Episcopal Church in which I live my spiritual life highly values the sacraments and rituals employed as a means of expressing unity with the divine source of life (ie. the Trinity) and living out a common purpose as fellow sojourners on the way. Such rituals are cherished and cultivated to enable people to pool efforts and make use of a common spiritual bond. The Murray family dinner (Wrinkle in Time) and Jay Gatsby standing vigil outside Daisy’s house (Great Gatsby) stand as poignant rituals and create resolute unity. Even the factious flag-raising ceremony and the “democratic meeting” in Animal Farm and the arcane rituals of Foucault’s Pendulum work to unite, though for somewhat nefarious and shameful purposes.

Those are just three ways of many in which tradition is observed and cherished, comfortable habits and observances placed as spiritual waystations to guard the spiritual adventure.

Beyond the culturally relevant tradition, our sojourn is also a constantly progressing arc, all the while moving us forward towards newness, wholeness, and fullness! As noted earlier, I will reiterate now that the journey we undertake IS NOT measured by arrival at some predetermined point or destination. Instead, the journey is a spiritual progression undertaken within the context of culture and tradition but constantly moving on from one original and profound creative spiritual adventure to the next. So, when we look at the Communion of Saints/The Fellowship Divine, it is not solely about the waystations and observances (ie. traditions, habits, and efforts); it is not just about guarding against misadventure and misfortune. Indeed, it is perhaps more important to assert the role of the Communion of Saints/The Fellowship Divine in impelling the spiritual story forward, contributing to an unseen and unforeseeable progression. 

Think of the individual saints we remember so highly: for me, in my adolescence (that is, after all, the exercise), that meant Mary, Augustine, Benedict, Francis, and Ignatius. I remember them, not because they sat on their haunches and collected observances and traditions, but because they were daring, adventurous, progressive (in the truest sense of that word). They were, in other words, original and creative contributors to the spiritual adventure! I am, of course, also reminded of my favorite characters who played the same role in their respective worlds: Aragorn (LOTR), Meg Murray (Wrinkle in Time), Samuel Hamilton (East of Eden), Phileas Fogg (80 Days), and Santiago (Old Man & the Sea), among so many others. And so, it cannot just be about the culturally relevant tradition makers; it must also be about those who progress the story forward, about those who impel the progression forward towards wholeness and life. 

To quote one of my favorite philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “It is evident that the world is not going in a straight line but in a curve and that its direction is constantly changing.” This, by the way, is precisely what happens in the story narratives that I read, and it is all the reason to keep on reading them!

The good news is that humanity is no longer outcast from God’s Kingdom; but that they are children of God. The fundamental vocation and goal of each and every person is to share in the life of God.

Christian orthodoxy proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ as an Evangelion or “good news” that proclaims God’s unbounded, self-giving love for creation. Reflecting on the joyous message of the Gospel, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century that the good news is that humanity is no longer an outcast nor expelled from God’s Kingdom; but that they are again children, again God’s subject. The ultimate gift that God shares with us is the divine life itself, a faithful affirmation that God has acted in history so that we might be able to participate in the very same divine life, to be citizens of the divine kingdom. This is a perfect reflection of the prayer we were given: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.

In the Christian heritage, Jesus the Christ (Anointed One, Messiah) is God incarnate, the embodiment of Word and Creative Life sent to restore humanity to fellowship with God. In the Eastern Christian tradition, this notion is affirmed by proclaiming that God had become what we are in order that we could become what God is. Christ is thus exalted as light and life, a model of authenticity in human life which we are invited to follow. Jesus’ victory over death, victory in resurrection, liberates us also from the grip of death and brings us in freedom to God as sons and daughters.

Now, that orthodox position is placed only to set up the motif that I discovered in my reading: namely, the notion of theosis or divinization. To be sure, neither term was in much use during my adolescence; the motif, however, would prove real – and is quite clear and peculiarly found in more than a few of the stories I read. 

In support of a brief definition, theosis (or divinization) is the understanding that the fundamental vocation and goal of each and every person is to share in the life of God. In other words, we have all been created to live in fellowship with God, to share in the divine life! Indeed, it is the very condescension of God in the incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ that reveals that as God has shared our life, so we are invited to share in God’s life. Moreover, the very same incarnation has made possible the very ascension of human creatures (and maybe all of creation, but I will leave that for another discussion) to the divine life of the Trinity. Everyone is on a spiritual arc, a ‘progression’ to use the language of the previous motif, as a movement toward, in, through, or with the divine – a movement defined herein as theosis or divinization.

Theosis, then, describes the spiritual pilgrimage in which each person becomes ever more perfect, ever more holy, ever more united with the divine! It is crucial to recognize that this is not a static relationship, nor does it take place only after death! Rather, theosis is a movement of love toward God beginning now (or whenever one chooses) and which continues throughout this life. This is the story exemplified in Frodo – reluctant at his ‘baptism’ by Bilbo at the birthday party, circumspect at his confirmation when the fellowship is formed in Rivendell, and fearless yet fearful at the Eucharistic consummation when the ring is destroyed! It is the story, too, of Santiago who won’t give up even after eighty-four days (Old Man and the Sea); the story of Elizabeth who learns true affection and real generosity over time (Pride and Prejudice); and, the story of Trasks (East of Eden), the del Valles (House of Spirits), and Murrays (Wrinkle in Time) as their epic family narratives move forward in the world toward union with something greater than themselves (read here metaphorically as the divine). In the end, it is my position that the creation, most notably human life, reaches its fulfillment only when it becomes united with that something greater!

This rich vision of Christian life is expressed in the second letter of Peter whose author declared that we are called “to become partakers of the Divine nature.” To be clear, theosis and divinization are but two metaphors – strong and full metaphors though they are – among many others: liberation, salvation, repossession, and redemption. et al.

Finally, and this is an important point within the motif of theosis (or theodicy), the ever-deepening union of each Christian with God is not magic nor is it automatic. In other words, the victory must be appropriated by each person, joining with the lifegiving and liberating Spirit (a person of the very Trinitarian life we are entering) who always recognizes our human “freedom” and invites our active cooperation in perfecting the “image and likeness of God” with which each of us is created. Again I am drawn to the protagonists of my stories: the fellowship drawn freely into the final act (LOTR); Phileas Fogg brought freely into his great adventure (80 Days); Meg (Wrinkle in Time), Elizabeth (Pride & Prejudice), Santiago (Old Man & the Sea), Clara (House of Spirits), and even the pigs (Animal Farm) entered freely into their journeys of discovery. Perhaps the most poignant example of freedom, however, is from The Great Gatsby, where F. Scott Fitzgerald reveals that only after a person loses everything are they then truly free to do anything. Life is similar in that the desire to live freely will result in the loss of the rest of one ‘s ambitions. This is truly how one lives freely, without any chains holding them back.

The reality of theosis bears witness to the love of a God who wishes to share the divine life with us, knowing that each person has intrinsic value and freedom. The “image of God” in us might be distorted but it will never be erased or nullified, as there is always the opportunity for fulfillment. Moreover, to be united with the divine does not mean that our personalities are destroyed. We are not engulfed by an impersonal force or power! As with all true love, God’s love for us respects our personhood. God’s love and the theodicy in which it is enveloped is one that reveals, elevates, and perfects our true selves, and by entering into the life of God, we become the persons we are meant to be.

The works that I most remember, value, and honor are stories that are both worthy of being told and are themselves engaging, well-told narratives.

While the specifics of why and how were not yet within my grasp in my adolescence, even then I knew that storytelling, story, and narrative could be powerful forces for the conveyance of experience and truth. There are three points that I would make about story, storytelling, and narrative that I think are poignant reminders about why story is a vital medium. 

First, something that I would come to deeply appreciate later in life, although it is something that I think I inherently knew as I read stories even in my adolescence, is that story and storytelling is a forceful and persuasive medium in human learning. The learning power comes from the very way in which stories affect the human brain, creating emotional and memory pathways unequaled in other learning modes. Story, moreover, is powerful and necessary for human growth because it is a form that mirrors our very experience. I could have, just as easily, engaged with propositional and apologetic forms of theology rather than narrative and storytelling, after all, as Maurice Wiles notes, “[propositional theology] can, it may be admitted, never lose its truth.” Why, then, would I rely instead on story and narrative, instead of the highly influential philosophical, propositional, or apologetic approaches? The simple answer is relevance! What propositional or doctrinal apologetics lacks is relevance that impacts the present reality of people’s contemporary selves. This is not to say that approaches that use apologetics, doctrinal creeds, or propositional theology are invalid or negative. On the contrary, they have proven valuable and remain important in the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, storytelling and narrative is a unique language that speaks more directly to and through the human person. 

When it comes to the usefulness and, indeed, the vitality of story and narrative as a language for learning, the compelling reason why well-told stories have such power to engage us is the very narrative form of human existence itself. Well-told stories impact the hearer through time and context, imposing meaning on chaos and relating the truth of the self to the other in durational and contextual ways. Stories, in other words, help us become that which we want to be and that which we ought to be. In terms of the divine story – the spiritual story in which we are enveloped, there is the presence of the Holy in our midst, and as we listen for the Holy in the stories we become something new.

Moreover, the value of a well-told and meaningful story is underscored by its universal appeal. As I noted in the introduction, my choice of books should be no surprise and any one entry would likely not be completely unique. At first, the universal reach occurs because of the narrative relationship between the experience (the worthiness of the story being told) and the story (the engagement or telling of the story). We all have experiences – all of our lives flow like narrative. Stories thus can have a unique way of bridging gaps – cultural, linguistic, and age-related divides – that enable the transfer of wisdom, values, and norms. The experience of those who came before transferred in story seems a universal way. Ultimately, when authors and other tellers relate engaging and meaningful stories, emotional connections are made that carry lasting significance in the human mind.

Second, story is the most effective and efficient vehicle for transferring metaphor, and without metaphor, human persons would be essentially helpless in their ability to describe the ineffable mystery of God. More than simply literary tools that undertake the description of a subject through comparison, metaphors exist in everyday life, in language, thought, and action. In this sense, metaphors become ways of experiencing one thing in terms of another and a way of mediating between domains. The stories that I read are full of useful metaphors! Some were planted with obvious precision and purpose while others were hidden, requiring discovery with great care. In some cases, the metaphors were very specific items such as Phileas’s sailing ship (80 Days), the ring (LOTR), the flag (Animal Farm), and the marlin (Old Man and the Sea). In other places, metaphors are abstractions such as journey (LOTR, East of Eden, 80 Days), rebellion and obedience (Animal Farm), and Cassaboun’s dilemma (Foucault’s Pendulum). And then, in at least two works (Pride and Prejudice, Great Gatsby), individual relationships themselves become metaphors for self-discovery, cultural shift, or social transformation. 

The link between metaphor and story is in transference. In the Christian context (the obvious context for this essay), this means locating metaphors that bear the faith by probing the Christian tradition as well as the Chrisitan present. Metaphors work as the hinge between multiple lines of associations and manifold worlds of meaning. In Christian tradition, metaphors have borne a heavy responsibility in transferring the content of faith just as metaphor bears a great deal of responsibility in the stories that I read. Ultimately, metaphor works because the traditional stories carried forth meaning that the hearer would associate with. But those same stories also made ample room for transaction, a way of interpreting or encountering the metaphor for a particular hearer or reader. Story is a useful language by which to encounter metaphors that are carried in the tradition and through which to carry those metaphors into the future.

Third, story is necessary to the human experience as simultaneously both an act of self-disclosure and self-discovery! Indeed, history is one of the pre-conditions for being human. Moreover, it is a history that is inherently narrative in quality, existing in time and space, being durational in nature. That is, the form which our conscious existence understands itself in narrative form, having past, present, and a future. Therefore, stories are indispensable for understanding the self because they bind events and agents together in an intelligible pattern. Stories and narratives give structure to the whole whose parts are dynamic, distinct, and irreducible. Stories give shape to our lives and help us to name and master our experiences.

Storytelling unveils our being while revealing the reality of our becoming towards an unconditional horizon (recall the earlier discussion of the great adventure). Storytelling thus seems eminently natural for human persons. Indeed, the very appetite for stories derives, I think, from divine creation. God created humanity to be storytelling and story listening beings, having a created appetite for the stories of others. This is the intersection of disclosure and discovery! On the one hand, story overcomes abstraction and remoteness (ie. self-disclosure). Well-told and meaningful stories are about real possibility – even if written as fantasy. There is something in a good story that has potential. On the other hand, stories are also at a distance from the hearer. A story heard or read will always be about someone who is different, who lived in a different world, or a different time. But we can come to know ourselves (self-discovery) by laying our stories alongside the stories of others and recognizing commonalities of the human condition and experience. This is what I found in Elizabeth’s learning to truly love (Pride and Prejudice), Santiago’s struggle with the marlin (Old Man and the Sea), Atticus’s fight for justice (To Kill a Mockingbird), and the fellowship’s long march to Mordor (LOTR), among so much more. 

 So narrative storytelling held sway in my adolescence and continues to hold sway for me today. It is useful and vital because it engages in the very narrative form of human existence itself. Indeed, human experience is itself inherently narrative, an incipient story that presents duration, continuity, and the scenes of life.

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