As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (182).
Lewis, the author of the Narnia books and Mere Christianity spent many years as an atheist, but he found himself always drawn to stories. In the years before he became a Christian, he struggled with the contending worldview points of Atheism and Christianity:
“All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed” (201-202).
One book in particular was influential to Lewis’s imagination: Phantastes by Scottish Presbyterian writer George MacDonald. Many years later in the preface to an anthology of MacDonald’s works, Lewis wrote: “Now Phantastes . . . had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence … What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise … my imagination.”
The correlation Lewis draws is an intentionally powerful metaphor. He’s speaking in retrospect, looking back over his life. From this perspective, he understood that hidden in the enjoyment of his favorite stories was something that went deeper than basic reason or logical cause-and-effect–stories carried an appeal that reached him almost without his knowing it.
Even our greatest fictional stories are . . . echoes of . . . the great redemptive narrative of scripture.
What happens in your brain as you read a story? Could Lewis’s imagination have, in a way, understood the gospel before his heart and conscious mind recognized it? How do we approach understanding the gospel–which is the greatest story–not only from our logical minds, but from the perspective of whole people who learn with heart, soul, mind and strength?
What happens in the physical brain when a person is reading a story might carry some hints. A 2014 study found that once the verbal area of the brain finishes translating the words, what happens in your brain looks much more like experience processing than the verbal-information interpretation that happens when reading non-narrative words like signs or maps or instructions.
Reading a story “lights up” the areas of the brain associated with empathy. In order to interact with the story, we have to put ourselves in the protagonists’ perspectives, to imagine ourselves falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, to be standing at the edge of the cliff in Aslan’s Country with Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair.
Other parts of the brain activity signify a process of interpretation. There’s some translation work that needs to be done to interpret characters’ actions and to imagine the possible goals, thoughts, and outcomes. “Some of these regions aren’t even considered to be part of the brain’s language system,” Wehbe, the author of the study, says. “You use them as you interact with the real world every day, and now it seems you also use them to represent the perspectives of different characters in a story.”
In reading stories, we are practicing interacting with the mysteries and possibilities of character, plot, setting, and narrative structure. When Scout Finch stops a lynch mob in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee doesn’t simply write “Scout Finch made them stop.” Instead, we have to experience the action through Scout’s eyes, experience, and even her own limited ability to understand what is happening. When Mr. Cunningham kneels down and puts his hands on her shoulders to promise her he’ll tell his son she said “hey,” we can understand that the danger has passed.
Could Lewis’s imagination have, in a way, understood the gospel before his heart and conscious mind recognized it?
Even our greatest fictional stories are, as J.R.R. Tolkien might have said, echoes of the truest story of all time, the great redemptive narrative of scripture. And yet, how often do we read the Bible as a textbook, for information and instruction alone, rather than as story? How many can say they remember the character’s names and the smallest details and most obscure references of their favorite stories better than the Bible verses they had to recite each week for Sunday school?
Mark Bertrand tells the story of eleven-year-old Max, who says he likes his new Bible because “nothing gets in the way of what I’m reading.”
And, if you’ve ever been in the middle of a really good story, you know that deep longing, don’t you? You just want to keep reading, and you want nothing to stop you–not sleep, not needing a snack, not school, and certainly not your younger siblings.
For the most passionate readers among us, it sometimes can even seem that reading a few more pages of a great story must take priority over almost anything–I have a friend who was so absorbed in his book at the airport that he missed the entire boarding call for his flight home–twice.
Because stories reach beyond simply processing verbal information and into experience, they subtly become entwined with the worldview framework of how we view and interpret the real world. When C.S. Lewis writes about the character Eustace Scrubb, he often refers to how Eustace “never read the right sorts of books;” ie, stories that might equip him to deal with the strange world in which he finds himself.
. . . stories . . . become entwined with the worldview framework of how we view and interpret the real world.
So, what exactly are “the right sorts of books”? Could reading the Bible more as narrative than simply as information help us remember and understand its truths in a more compelling way? Why are stories so powerful? G.K. Chesterton, the writer whom Lewis said “had more sense than any other,” wrote in Orthodoxy that “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” Our brains are wired for story; we bridge the gaps between facts with connecting stories, and we are greatly influenced by the “right sorts of books.” Perhaps these all point us to the Story-teller.