A while back, in my rhetoric class, my students and I finished studying a number of short stories to look at persuasion’s role in fiction. Among the stories, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne evoked the most rewarding discussion (maybe the year’s best).
At first it didn’t look like this would be the case. A number of students found the lead character wretched: a man who is obsessed with creating human perfection. His obsession ultimately produces a dark narrative that concludes with little redemption in sight. It is a broken story.
Daniel Taylor in his work, Tell me a Story, places stories into three helpful categories: whole, broken, and bent. He defines a broken story as one in which good is portrayed as good and evil as evil, however, in the end, good is not victorious, but evil is.
When I think of a broken story I first think of the book of Judges. At this period in biblical history, the Israelites have worked themselves into a downward spiral of rebellion. Though we see glimpses of redemption from time to time (Ruth comes to mind), the story of Judges ends with the haunting lines, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Gulp.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve thought a lot about the purpose and value of broken stories. Shouldn’t Christians feed themselves on what Taylor calls whole stories? He defines whole stories as tales in which redemption takes place and good (not evil) is victorious. The Bible itself is a whole story. We may also include Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
At Cornerstone, we don’t limit ourselves to whole stories. We read plenty of broken tales, ranging from the Greek or Shakespearean tragedies to the dystopian novels of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.
I admit, broken stories are dark and unnerving and difficult to navigate at times. Have you ever had a grand piano dropped on your chest? I have: the afternoon I finished 1984. I was hoping, and expecting, Orwell would use Winston to expose and topple Big Brother; instead our hero is consumed by it.
If you let them, broken stories will burden your soul.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that broken stories may serve an important purpose: they affirm what it’s like to live in a fallen world. Often it is the righteous who suffer and the wicked who prosper, and some people never experience a happy ending.
However, broken stories may stir significant questions.
– Why did the villain win? What did the villain want? Is there hope the villain will ever find redemption? Why is this character the villain?
– Why did the hero fail? What did the hero want? Is there hope the hero may conquer the villain? Why is this character the hero?
A couple of these questions led our rhetoric class to consider man’s pursuit of perfection. However, the bell rang and the students left with no answers, just a handful of questions terribly applicable to their own lives.
Why does man seek perfection? Will he ever attain perfection? Is anyone perfect?
Good literature asks questions like these, questions that apply to my students, but also to you and me, and, for that matter, all who are human.
Storytellers have a high calling: to tell the truth. They turn their backs on their craft when they sugar-coat or misrepresent what takes place in the world. The author of Judges, and the author of every book in the Bible, fulfills this high calling. Because of this, when we read Scripture, we read about murder, rape, depression, persecution, and betrayal.
The Bible does not sugar-coat, because God always tells the truth: our world is a broken one. If you are human, you are broken. If you are human, you will never attain perfection. Left alone, we will never muster a happy story. It’s true: evil will always win.
My students must hear this. I must hear this.
If I don’t listen, I will never understand what’s about to come next: God became man and carried our burden of brokenness. Indeed, it was so heavy, it broke the god-man in the most violent fashion. But, after three days, God delivered justice, destroying evil in blinding glory. God made it clear: the only way to wholeness is through the god-man. This is the good news.
The broken stories of human existence matter because they can lead us to the whole story of the Gospel, and as a teacher at Cornerstone, I am called to help my students understand the road from broken story to whole story. What a privilege it is.