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On Easter Monday I caught the first 20 minutes of The Diane Rhem Show on NPR in which Diane was interviewing the Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout. This reminded me of the 2008 “Festival of Faith & Writing” at Calvin College at which I was privileged to introduce Ms. Strout a couple of times and be the staff person assigned to help her find her way around campus those days. She is a delightful and down-to-earth person. About a year later when she won the Pulitzer, she also got added to my very short list of Pulitizer winners I’ve met in person (Marilynne Robinson and John Updike round out that wee list). But hearing her on the radio reminded me of others I’ve met at that same Calvin College festival, including years ago one of my all-time favorite authors, Jon Hassler.
Hassler wrote many delightful novels including Staggerford, The Love Hunter, Dear James, and others. My own favorite is North of Hope and so when I stood in line to have Mr. Hassler autograph a book, this was the novel I had with me at the time. As he signed it for me, I said to him, “I loved this novel. I hated to see it end. In fact, for days after I found myself missing Frank and Libby” (who were the main characters in the novel, of course). At this Mr. Hassler looked up and without guile and with no small amount of wistfulness he said, “Yes, Frank and Libby. I think of them from time to time and I wonder how they’re getting along . . .” He then gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders, finished the autograph, and handed the novel back to me.
He clearly had not been kidding. Frank and Libby were in some fashion real to him. True, he made them up out of the whole cloth of his narrative imagination. And also true: Mr. Hassler did not have a mental disturbance and would acknolwege fully and freely if pressed that of course he was aware that these two people did not now exist (and had never existed) in the real world. Still . . . he wished them the best.
Talk to writers long enough and you’ll hear them talking about their characters as real people, sometimes expressing absolute surprise at what a certain character said or did. “I had no idea he was capable of that” a novelist of my acquaintance once said of one of his own creations. “Her reply to that insult really took me aback” I once heard yet another writer say. What I want to say back to these people is, “But you wrote those ‘surprising’ things yourself because you invented the whole scenario. How can you be surprised by something you yourself thought up?!” Actually, I have said that to writers in the past but in response these writers have not said “Well, you know what I mean–I was just kidding you. I was just using a figure of speech.” Nope. They testify that their own characters quite literally take on a narrative life of their own and if it’s true that the whole shebang of the story singularly belongs to the writer, that somehow does not prevent the story and the people who populate it from taking some unexpected turns.
Personally I find this both wonderful and weird. It requires a certain suspension of belief on the part of writers to claim this about their characters–much less to wonder years later how they are getting along as Mr. Hassler did–but in many ways that suspension of belief is no different than what we all do whenever we read a great novel, watch a movie, or see a play. We both know it’s all staged and fictional and orchestrated and that it’s somehow very, very real in ways we want to get caught up in. When a story is told well–even a true story that we’ve all heard a thousand times before–we are able to enter into that story and let it surprise us, stimulate us, instruct us all over again as though for the first time.
That’s one of the great powers of story and of narrative. And we need a lot more of it in the Church and especially in preaching. In his new book Imagining the Kingdom Jamie Smith does a great job making the case that we are all storied beings, “narrative animals” to borrow a phrase Smith quotes from David Foster Wallace. Smith applies this to worship and liturgy generally but in a book of my own I am working on for preachers, I turn it directly to sermons. Preachers have at their disposal a Bible that is rich with stories that are chock-full of intrigue, deceit, surprises, grace, and all kinds of other narrative wonders. The key is to let those things shine. Instead of drearily working through a story or dissecting the narrative to the point that what started as a story ends up being reduced to a bullet-point list of propositions, preachers need to draw in listeners by making them interested in and invested in the characters. We should want to know what comes next (even though we already do) and have enough tension and drama built into the re-presentation of the story in the worship service and in the sermon that we eagerly tune in for the same reasons we re-watch movies or re-read stories or re-tell the great stories from our own families over and over. That we know how it all turns out doesn’t matter.
Someone once said that the best stories are both surprising and inevitable. But when it comes to stories and characters we know well, we can reverse that: the story is both inevitable (because we know exactly where it’s going in that we’ve heard it all before) and yet is surprising because if it’s an engaging story told well, it takes on a life of its own in our imaginations and we are then caught up in it all over again.
Those are the stories that quicken our pulses. Those are the stories that bring us joy all over again. Jon Hassler didn’t let their non-existence lessen the reality of Frank and Libby for him. Good stories create a kind of reality in which one can immerse oneself. But if that is possible in the fictional realm, how much more so with true stories of the faith? Our knowing how they all turn out is no excuse to not let those stories live in our imaginations–and in our worship–in ways that properly startle and delight us every single time.