A Life’s Story
Of the many, many (many) conversations that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis carried on concerning God, faith, and the human experience (not that I’ve read them all), there is one I find more intriguing than all the rest. At the height of their respective literary powers, the two men spent untold hours attempting to work out how the Christian story fits into the wider pantheon of myths around the world. Out of that discussion came this:
“The biblical story can also be called a myth; but it differs from pagan myths, say Lewis and Tolkien, by being written by God in ‘words’ that were the actual lives of real people in definite places and times, especially Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian myth, in other words, is not primarily the words written in Scripture. It is the lives and actions of persons. These lives and actions are God’s message; they tell what God is doing….The myth is written in God’s speech in flesh and blood. That, both Lewis and Tolkien believed, makes the Christian story a ‘fact’ of history, not a fictitious expression of human wisdom created by poetic priests and prophets.” (Edward Henderson, p. 36-7, in C.S. Lewis and Friends, which I wrote about here & here).
This concept fascinates me on several levels. As a writer, I am enthralled with the idea that Creation is an ongoing act. So often, when that word gets used, it is spoken of in the past tense, as something that happened only in Genesis and then stopped. What this theory implies, by saying that God’s story is told through people, is that His Creation is still underway. In the same way that these very words are appearing before me as I type, so all of us and all of the universe appears before God as he gets His story down on paper (as it were). In another life, I fancied myself a fiction writer and would sometimes wonder if my characters continued to exist when I wasn’t writing their next action. Were they out there somewhere, in the ether, living a life I knew nothing about, like actors making a movie? Or, conversely, did their reality freeze in place when I went to get a cup of coffee? Of course, the parallel between writing and God’s creation is a dim one at best. He is operating with an omniscence and complexity of characters which would make Tolstoy weep. Nevertheless, it is an exciting prospect, isn’t it? To be able to trace a line, through the Faith, from the people of Scripture on up to our own lives. Not only does it add meaning to our own lives, but it amplifies the meaning of Scripture itself. No longer are we left with a narrative that ends in Acts, sort of trails off into the Epistles, and exits through Revelation. Instead, we find ourselves in medias res at the moment of birth, with the whole of the Bible to give us context.
Most faiths derive their teaching from some sacred text, stories which organize and describe their worldview. For Lewis & Tolkien, every other myth cycle is at best a simple record of quasi-historical events and, at worst, merely words on a page. The Bible is more than a record of events, even supernatural events. It captures the very Word of God as it is expressed through human lives. The Gospel of John opens with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Couple this with Isaiah 55: 8-9, and this idea starts to become clearer: ” ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways,’ /
declares the Lord. / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ” To think that God would limit His expression to ink and paper is ludicrous. With all of His creative and infinite power, it’s only natural that He would make use of a language beyond our ability to grasp. That said, if you stop to think about the good, admirable people you’ve known, maybe it’s not so hard after all.
This train of thought comes rattling out of my brain in the wake of a good friend’s death. He was a good man, and a kind one, generous beyond reason. His hands were constantly filled with leftover food, extra money, or a solid handshake; they never turned inward, but were always extended out to other people. He would never have called himself a theologian and would have laughed at the idea that he knew much about God. Nevertheless, he lived his life in a way that proved otherwise. He might not have been much inclined to write a great deal, but his life was a testament to obedient faith. He was a Word of God. Through him, God spoke to people of love and steadfastness and a quiet sort of service. His deeds might not have been recorded with pen and ink, but they have been written on the hearts and in the memories of those who knew him. In this he takes his place in the great story, the great myth, of Christianity.
It would be too simple to say that his life inspires me to be a better person. That overlooks the complexity of what was at work. Rather, I think it more fitting to say I have learned from his life. I have learned what a good life looks like, in spite of hardship, and I have learned what God can can accomplish through any of us when we live with open hands. It’s a lesson worthy, I think, of the man who taught it and a story worth repeating.