As a child, I blurred the lines between fiction and reality. After reading twenty of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, I imagined that every step in the garden was part of a Great Adventure, and looked for clues for treasure everywhere: in twigs and castles.
I fell in love with novels, which is to say, I fell in love with travelling to other worlds. As the eldest, I had the privilege of the top bunk, but with no bedside table I propped my pillows up with ten books at a time, so I would never be marooned without a book.
I switched on my light late at night and continued to fly round fairy castles, tramp through smugglers’ underground tunnels, or make internal lists of what I would need in order to survive on my own, if the need arose. Tinned food. Methylated spirits. A rope. Those seemed to be the principle survival kits in life. I was prepared for whatever life threw at me.
I grew up, and by the time I was in my twenties, serving as a church minister, I was almost embarrassed by my English Literature degree, when so many other ministers had been busy gathering their theological knowledge for decades. Reading stories was seen as a frivolous indulgence, an escape route for lazy minds, when I could have, by now, become fluent in biblical greek.
It was only when I became housebound with chronic illness that I returned to stories in a big way. I was a new mother with a new baby and a new disability, unable to leave my bed. How can anyone entertain a gurgling baby for hours a day, if they are not armed with fairytales? As it turns out, in an emergency, a stack of books is of more use even than methylated spirits and tinned peaches.
With each story, one after another, we left the beige room and travelled into magical worlds where animals talked, eggs grew and hatched, pots of porridge flooded whole villages, foxes chased chickens, who in turn fooled foxes.
My real world had faded, and turned into a prison. I needed a bigger world, with possibility. My baby needed distraction, but I needed fairy tales to escape in.
I had thought I was too old for fairytales. Instead, I discovered, as CS Lewis promised Lucy, that there is always a time as grown-ups when we need to return to fairytales.
Stories reveal our world to us, and perhaps never better than when they present us with a world alien to us. When I was grieving my health, I found my tears in David Copperfield. When I was overwhelmed with love for my newborn son, I cried through the final page of Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle. When I grew frightened of how I would look after my baby, I read Dr Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go’ and wept for the possibility of hope. In my search to make sense of my new world, God gave me fictional worlds to exercise my battered resilience in safety.
Stories reveal our world to us, but they can also even help reveal God to us. A preacher once told me that, when it comes to God, most people’s minds are not repositories for facts and words, but picture galleries, full of images. So many of us have inherited a faulty picture of God in our minds, and we need to know what a loving, good God really looks like. As every good preacher knows, we need to know the Bible, but we also need illustrations of what God’s nature looks like.
When they are at their most pure, stories point to hidden truth. Tolkien actually went so far as to say that every good story reflected the Best True Story – which is to say every good story reflects in some way the story of God.
Jesus was both the Word and Image of God. We need preachers who can expound the Bible, but we also need storytellers, who give us truth in parallel and parable.
For months after I became so ill, the Bible was a battle to read. The words and long sentences no longer made sense to me cognitively, and all Bible stories had fragmented in my head. But like the clues I had craved as an eight-year-old embarking on an Adventure, God was in my reading. God was in the fairytales.
God showed up in stories – as a mysterious but good lion, as the bishop in Les Miserables, as a kindly Christopher Robin to a very bewildered Pooh Bear, as the best Marmee a girl could have. God will always speak through the Bible, but sometimes, in mercy and goodness, he speaks in our own language, too.
The God who could speak through wind, fire and donkeys spoke to me through novel characters and cartoon pictures. It was the very healing I needed.
I am no longer a child, but I still look out for clues, and I am still having a Great Adventure. I’m still a preacher-girl, by calling, but today I preach principally in stories and metaphor. I’m still a Bible-teacher, but now whenever I explore the Bible, I dig under the skin of the characters, and look at the Bible-world anew, as though I am discovering it for the first time. It is not the memorised verses that call to me now, but the stories of those ancient disciples, who stumbled and faltered, and found God.
Over to you:
- Which fictional stories and images have helped you better connect with God?