On a recent episode of The Story (a fabulous radio program which, I’m sorry to say, is ending), Dick Gordon was interviewing Minneapolis rapper Dessa. And while I’m not usually one for that genre of music, I am always interested in well-crafted lyrics. The longer the conversation went on, the closer I listened. She’s clearly someone who thinks about language, as well as beats, and understands how words change both the speaker and the listener. What struck me most in the interview, though, what sent me to my own keyboard, was a single phrase she used: telling a true story.
Maybe it’s the alliterative nature of the phrase (which I’m always a sucker for), but the words thrummed in my mind like a bass guitar string. It came out of my car speakers as poetry, the right words in the right order, as Coleridge said. It also felt like truth. Perhaps that’s what all good poetry is, truth wrapped up in just the right words. Whatever the case, as I listened, I knew exactly what she meant and felt the veracity of it in my own life. I could see the places in my past where I failed to reach the ideal and felt a longing to have it one day said of me that “he told a true story.”
Of all the great and terrible things in this world, of all that’s out there to amuse or distract us, what I love most is a good story. Whether it’s a book or a movie or a double-overtime thriller in the cold Denver night, a good story still gives me the chills. It seems to me that the best stories are the true ones. Not in the fiction or non-fiction sense, but in that they contain something we can sympathize with or, better yet, aspire to. True stories can be filled with fairies or robots or kings because that’s not what defines the essence of their truthfulness. It is the story itself, the way in which a character responds, which makes a thing true or false. I will never have to slay a dragon (probably), but when the troubles come, I can remember the courage of Wiglaf or the steadfastness of Samwise Gamgee, and handle life the better for it. The best stories are not overly didactic, but rather they give us examples of lives lived, which are true in their own right even if they aren’t analogues of our own.
When you get right down to it, this is what Jesus did most of the time. Very rarely did he speak directly about the kingdom of God or about his own divinity. Take a cruise through the Gospels and look at Jesus in full teaching mode, say Matthew 25 or Luke 15. All he’s doing is telling stories. They are not pictures of things He’s seen in His travels, nor are they specific instructions for living. Rather, he tells stories which are undeniably true in the sense that they give examples of how to live out the kingdom, regardless of your station in life. This is the base, the model, of good fiction. The stories which last, which touch people across ages, are the one’s in which people can see themselves. They are specific enough to feel real, but detached enough from reality that anyone can see themselves in the plot. It’s why Shakespeare is still performed 400 years after he stopped writing; it’s why Job, the oldest book in Bible, is still cultural shorthand some 4000(ish) years after it was written.
It’s also why I read so widely, and why I get so irritated with people who use Jesus’ name as an excuse for rampant censorship. I’m not one of those who say there is truth everywhere, but neither will I automatically disparage something just because it isn’t explicitly Christian. Harry Potter might be a wizard, but his evolution as a person and as a leader over the course of seven books is masterfully played out. He is a wildly imperfect character, but who of us isn’t? In the end, though, he rises above those imperfections and overcomes evil with good. If you ask me, that is the truest story anyone can tell, and it’s what I aspire to in a day-to-day world which seems intent on throwing me for a loop. I find inspiration to do that through the likes of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and endless volumes of literary non-fiction. Miles Davis might have been a heroin addict, but listening to Kind of Blue is like hearing David’s Psalms through a Harmon mute.
There is no doubt in my mind that God is telling the truest story any of us can know. Indeed, it is the truest story in which any of us can participate. The hardest part about it is that we are the characters, not the authors. Whatever else we may think, we are not writing own tales. The very first thing God did, ever, was speak the world into being. Those were the opening lines, and it is the height of pride to imagine that we are somehow outside of the larger story. Like any good fiction, bad things inevitably happen, and we have to trust that it is for the greater good of a book which hasn’t yet ended. That doesn’t make it easier, necessarily, but it can help you feel a sense of purpose, of peace. All any of us can do is become the best versions of ourselves, and, in doing so, hope to tell a true story with our particular chapter.