The Story-Formed Soul | By Maribeth Barber
Why are stories so important, especially in times of fear and uncertainty?
I have been so impatient to introduce this week's special guest, my friend and a writing kindred spirit, Maribeth Barber! She's a force to be reckoned with when it comes to discussing life, literature, and film through a Christ-centered lens, and a sweet Southern belle in every way!
“Why are stories so important?” I asked myself in preparation for this article—and immediately my brain went haywire. I’m so passionate about this subject and its life-changing magnificence, I hardly knew where to begin!
Thankfully, I recalled a moment from one of my favorite films, Man of Steel, in which a young Clark Kent locks himself in a closet, terrified of his burgeoning alien powers.
“The world’s too big, Mom!” he wails in despair.
“Then make it small,” whispers his mother on the other side of the door.
So I’ll make this small. I’ll narrow all the lofty thoughts I have on stories and the importance of the Christian imagination down to this question:
Why are stories especially important right here and right now?
By the time this article debuts, most of us will either be almost ready to break out of the COVID-19 Quarantine or already celebrating our long-awaited freedom. I know I’m anxious to return to Sunday worship, choir rehearsals, and even good ol’ Walmart!
But I also know this ordeal isn’t over yet. Even the most optimistic among us fear America’s economy will endure a long, hard recovery—and since my home state depends heavily on tourism and oil, we’ll probably be tightening our own belts for a while.
I’ll admit, it scares me. What if there are food shortages? What if my dad’s work slows to a crawl? What if inflation skyrockets? What if the virus flares up again and we’re forced back into our homes this winter?
Yet even as these thoughts scurry through my mind like plague-ridden rats, little sparks of light rise up to challenge them. These aren’t always theological points plucked out of the Westminster Confession (although those are important). They are, instead, familiar characters from stories I’ve loved for years…like Kit Kittridge, American Girl’s plucky Great Depression heroine, who learned how to adapt and overcome. Or Frodo Baggins, unlikely hero of The Lord of the Rings, who decided what to do with the time and place given to him. Or Elnora Comstock, who resolved within the pages of The Girl of the Limberlost to find hope amid the grim injustices of her life.
Neither Kit, nor Frodo, nor Elnora are Bible characters. They aren’t even historical figures. But as I’ve trudged through these uncertain weeks, Kit’s resourcefulness, Frodo’s courage, and Elnora’s stubborn gratitude have remained at the forefront of my mind. It’s as if they’ve walked alongside me, urging me (like Princess Anna in Frozen II) to “walk through this night, stumbling blindly towards the light.”
Writer and teacher Heidi White put it this way in a podcast with the Anselm Society: “What we take in is formative for us…We are what we behold.” By God’s grace I’ve been formed by stories of brave, resilient heroes and heroines. Some are entirely fictional; others come from the Bible and from history. Regardless of the source, my imagination has been nourished by tales of truth, goodness, and beauty—tales that neither deny the darkness in the world, nor neglect its enchanted light.
God is the Great Storyteller. Because of that, storytelling is an intrinsic part of our being created in His image.
Just as a concert hall is designed for perfect reverberation and reflection of sound, so our hearts are designed to receive and resonate with truly good stories.
The Bible itself confirms this. Not only is it loaded with the true stories of epic heroes, sweeping battles, and even talking animals, but Jesus himself communicated profound concepts through fictional tales of hidden pearls, prodigal sons, lamp-bearing virgins, and murderous tenants.
“The function of imagination,” wrote apologist G.K. Chesterton, “is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.” In other words, an imagination saturated in Scripture and the love of Christ takes the theological truths we accept in our minds and helps us embrace them in our hearts.
Here, for example, is a truth I know deep in my mind: God is sovereign over all things, He will give me the grace to get through times of great uncertainty, and no matter how bleak things look, the Kingdom of God is always victorious.
But is it always easy to believe that? Umm, no. Sometimes it’s as easy as hanging off a cliff and trying to hold on with whitened knuckles.
But here’s something else I know, something Andrew Peterson brilliantly communicates in his book, Adorning the Dark: stories, whether based in fact or in someone else’s creative mind, are “an expression of the truth, born of the light beyond, framed by the prism of revelation, and given expression on solid ground.”
So when fear hits me full in the face, I remind myself of Rey, the heroine of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, who defeated darkness because she fully embraced what she knew to be true. And I remember, too, the Virgin Mary, an unwed mother facing scorn, rejection, and possibly execution, who still lifted her eyes to the heavens and cried out, “My soul magnifies the Lord!”
These characters—one fictional, one real—remind me to press forward no matter how bad things look. Because of their courage, my heart is a little stronger…and better equipped to embrace the truth my head already accepts.
A soul that feeds on Scripture first and then on tales that foster courage, hope, and love is well on its way to being happy, healthy, and whole. That is why imagination and stories are so important. In a time when we all need to be a little bit braver and a little bit tougher, we must—as Peggy Noonan writes in When Character Was King—“eat from the tales of those who’ve gone before, and brandished their swords, and slayed dragons.”
Maribeth Barber is a small-town Southern girl captivated by stories, the beauty and loving-kindness of her Savior, and the power of the contemplative, Christ-centered life. During her years as a homeschool student, she developed a fierce love for history, literature, and film; these passions have inspired her own writing as a novelist and a blogger. She reviews books, movies, and television from the angle of a Christ-saturated imagination at maribethbarber.com while also pursuing publication of her debut novel. A hobbit at heart, she lives with her parents and six of her eight younger siblings on their hobby farm in Louisiana.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, check out Maribeth's free mini-ebook, The Secrets of a Good Story!