The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.


The Gospel According To “Frozen”


I finally saw the Disney film Frozen the other day. Yeah, I don’t get out much for new films. I blame long hours at my job and a limited interest in spending two hours of my valuable free time on a film.

Frozen is, of course, a Disney film. The Disney corporation are something like the McDonald’s of filmmaking: phenomenally successful, but an easy target. Certain quarters of the church seem prey to a kind of “Disney is evil” meme, and while I’m not usually drinking from that fountain, I do have a few hesitations about some of their recurring sub-themes.

For example, the “Father Knows Zilch” theme in which the hero or heroine’s father figure must be either incompetent or overbearing (or more frequently both), and the vapidity hierarchy among the Disney corporation’s princesses, in which the more worthless and helpless your character, the higher up in the pantheon you rank. Also, I can’t quite forget that these are the people that wimped Tinkerbell and turned Winnie-the-Pooh into an educational exercise in clue-finding and problem-solving. And this doesn’t even begin to take in some of their TV offerings.

However, Frozen is surprisingly good. I’d go so far as amazingly good. It’s beautifully animated with an engaging storyline – this is Disney; that’s what they’ve built their reputation on – but more than that, it’s replete with what appears to be Biblical subtext and unconscious Scriptural parallel.

There are themes of sacrifice, redemption, reconciliation, deliverance and the overturning of deceptions. It touches on rejection, fear, the lust for power and human imperfection. Moreover, it’s the first Disney film I’ve seen in forever that really gets what love actually is.

So I thought that in this post I’d see if we can split the ice apart and glimpse what may lie unconscious and hidden beneath.

Part One: In the Beginning…

As the Scripture itself does, Frozen begins in a state of primordial happiness. The two sisters Anna and Elsa share a close and happy relationship, secure in each other’s love and in the love of their parents, and both knowledgeable and comfortable with Elsa’s ice-generating powers. The trust that the parents have in both of their children is evidenced that when Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s head, they take her “it was an accident!” at face value with no further word of blame. It’s a time of happiness, fun, and family intimacy.

The child-Elsa already has her power over ice; it’s something she was born with, a part of who she is. It’s accepted by her parents and something to be enjoyed and celebrated, rather like human nakedness in the Garden of Eden. There was literally no shamefulness in it. And like in the film Frozen, in the beginning human beings were functioning with all of their powers. Scientists estimate that people only use about 10% of their brains. I can’t imagine that before the Fall, God would have created human beings to only function at a tenth of their capacity; nowhere is it stated, but I expect that prior to Adam’s sin, we functioned at full capacity.

What is more, we were in close family relationship with one another and with our Father, God. Nothing stood in the way, and the doors were fully open.

But then it all began to go wrong…

Part Two: The Closing of the Doors

The childhood idyll is shattered, in the case of Anna and Elsa, by a dreadful calamity in which Anna’s mind is accidentally frozen. Her parents rush Anna to the only ones who can help: the trolls. Disney’s trolls are beings of solid rock; stones come to life, and are magical beings with great power and wisdom. In order to save the life of the younger princess, the troll king is forced to wipe Anna’s memory of her sister’s powers, and in order to protect both of their children, the king orders that the palace gates be closed and Elsa kept isolated until she can control her powers. The familial closeness ends. Separation enters the world.

Frozen may not have the deliberate disobedience that resulted in the door to Eden being closed in the face of Adam and Eve, but the effects are eerily similar. Where there was once closeness, now there is a cold distance and separation; a permanently closed door. The two sisters retreat into their own separate prisons of rejection and fear, and then the real calamity happens: Elsa and Anna’s parents are taken away in the ultimate separation: lost at sea in a terrible shipwreck.

This is the world after the Fall. Closed doors. Rejection. Fear. Death. The loss of our Father God. Separation from one another. But unlike the film, it was no accident. We did it to ourselves, deliberately.

Part Three: Anna’s Prison

Though Elsa is the one sequestered away behind the closed door, it’s her sister Anna’s prison which is most immediately obvious. Much of the story is told through her eyes, and so in the sequence of tragedy between the closing of the doors and her sister’s coronation, we are shown a glimpse of her shattered world.

After the closeness of those primeval days, the younger sister feels the separation deeply. Because of the way the troll king had to wipe her memory in order to save her life, she’s never allowed to know about her sister’s powers, nor about the accident and the reason why the doors were closed.

All she knows is that suddenly her sister rejected her and pushed her away.

When the doors of the palace are finally opened for her sister’s coronation, she’s so desperate for affection that she’ll fall for anything. She has no idea what love is, except that it’s what’s been missing since the doors closed, and so she can’t tell the difference between true love and powerful infatuation. So when the dashing but deceptive Prince Hans of the Southern Isles arrives and shows an interest in her, all she can think is that this is True Love. In a different princess story, she might even be right, but Disney finally seem to have worked out the difference between real life and a fairy tale with this one. Though Anna and Hans get engaged that very same day, this is not True Love.

Anna is a lot like many of us, spiritually speaking. Rejected and alone, knowing that True Love is desperately missing but not understanding why, we’re set up to fall for anything. We’ll set our hopes on any apparently dashing young prince who comes along, and bind ourselves to them double-quick before they can get away, just in the hopes of dulling the ache and emptiness. Where Anna is emotionally promiscuous – what we used to call “easy” – we are spiritually promiscuous, our judgement practically nonexistent and our hearts all over the place. Some of us try to dull the ache with alcohol or relationships or pleasure; the old trio of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll; but we’re completely unable to see how hollow and empty these things are. We’ll fall hard for any deceptive Hans that ventures along.

Part Four: Elsa’s Prison

Elsa is the one put away behind closed doors, but she’s also the one who understands why. Trying to control her powers so that she doesn’t hurt anyone else, she shuts herself off in order to protect the world from herself. Her coronation day song says it all: “Don’t let them in, don’t feel, be the good girl you always have to be”. She’s just as much a prisoner as Anna, though her prison is of a different making. She binds herself about with separation: rules and gloves and closed doors, all to protect the rest of the world from what she knows she’s capable of.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this is looking like religion to me.

The gloves and closed doors, “don’t feel; be the good girl you always have to be”. It’s the good son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal. It’s the trappings of a religious separation that understands that people aren’t necessarily good, that is desperate to wall in the darkness so that it can’t do any damage. Elsa’s prison is one of fear – fear of hurting those she loves, but mostly of herself and her powers. So the gloves stay on and the doors stay shut and she strives and pretends to be the good girl she thinks she ought.

And then, inevitably, the gloves come off and the great secret is out. Elsa is something else.

Running away into the northern mountains, and unaware of the frozen disaster she is leaving in her wake, Elsa at last feels free to unleash her powers, up here where there’s no-one to be hurt by them. The “Let It Go” song could have been the start of a Going Bad, but the story has other ideas. Still, it’s laced with a bitterness against the rules and circumstances that contrived to force her hiding of herself. But running away is just another form of hiding.

Part Five: The Quest

Anna, inevitably, goes after her sister, leaving the deceptive Hans in charge and falling in with the ice merchant Kristoff.

In this, Anna to an extent switches symbolic roles (there’s a fair amount of this that goes on, but Frozen is no straight allegory, so we ought to expect this) and takes on the mantle of Christ. Determined to bring back fallen mankind and reconcile, God goes after us in the Person of Jesus.

Kristoff, appropriately given his name (the English version Christopher means “Christ-Bearer”), is in some ways more of a Christ stand-in. He’s the one that begins the process of melting Anna’s self-deception that what she feels for Hans is True Love; he’s the one who was raised by the trolls, in a symbolically other-worldly heaven populated by “love experts”. He’s one of the ones who demonstrates that love sometimes means leaving someone with what they think they want. Looking like a tramp but possessed of a high and noble wisdom, he is with Anna through her quest, as Jesus is with the disciples despite “having no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him”.

I should say a word about the trolls here. They don’t play that much of an active role in the story, but you see them called upon in times of great need when only their wisdom can help. I don’t want to say too much about them, but it seems deeply appropriate that it’s the people who are living stones (1Pe2:4-5) who are said to be “love experts” and who possess deep supernatural wisdom. So may it be!

But during the course of the quest, another accidental blast of Elsa’s icy powers freezes Anna’s heart, and only an act of True Love can save her.

This being Disney, we’re immediately led to the assumption that this is the mystical “True Love’s kiss” beloved of fairytale and twice beloved of Disney animations of the past.

It’s neither Kristoff nor Anna that makes the most overt declaration of what love is, however, but the comical brought-to-life snowman Olaf: “Love is putting the other person’s good above your own”. Ironically, it’s the one who has a literal heart of ice that not only explains to the frozen-hearted Anna what love is, but demonstrates it. Some people are worth melting for.

Part Six: An Act of True Love

Anna, of course, has a mind filled with fairy tales, and assumes that the only possible thing that an “act of True Love” could mean is a romantic kiss. She immediately dashes for Hans, the deceiver. It’s here that Hans shows his true colours: the thirteenth son of his family, he’s after a closer connection with royalty in order to gain power for himself. He not only won’t kiss her, but he puts out the fire and candles in order to hasten Anna’s slow transformation into ice: the inevitable end of any touched in the heart by ice magic.

With Olaf’s help, Anna escapes and races across the frozen bay to try and find Kristoff, the one she now feels must be her true love.

But Elsa, too, on realising what she has done to her sister, has returned to the kingdom, and Anna arrives just in time to see Hans confronting her sister with drawn sword in hand. Knowing now Hans’ true desire and knowing that only Elsa stands between him and the throne, the stage is set for the true Act of True Love.

Anna breaks off from her last desperate run toward Kristoff – her only hope of saving herself before she turns irretrievably to ice – and flings herself into the path of Hans’ sword. As she does, the curse takes effect and she hardens into a glittering statue. Hans’ sword, rather than striking down the queen or even Princess Anna, shatters on the ice. It’s over. Hans’ power is broken, but Anna is dead.

But it isn’t over. Anna has performed the one true Act of True Love that can save. She dies in her sister’s place; sacrifices herself for her sister. The transformation takes a few moments to begin, but after a minute the bluish ice begins to sweep with colour as Anna’s heart starts anew and she unfreezes.

And not only that, but her sacrifice effects a reconciliation between the sisters and puts an end to both of their prisons. The doors stay open, the evildoers are restrained, and the kingdom returns to days of happiness.

Does anyone not see Scriptural parallel here? Anna acts as a symbolic Christ-figure, achieving reconciliation and redemption through laying down her life for another. She even comes back from the dead. The enemy’s sword is broken by the power of her sacrifice, and a great deliverance is wrought from the power of a deceiver who has taken the throne through a lie.

The doors are open again – there’s free communion between the kingdom and the world outside. And what’s more, the doors will never again be shut.

Coda: Allegory and Symbolism

Now, I’m not saying that this was necessarily deliberate retelling of the Good Story under the mask of fairytale, though in some ways the parallels are closer than seems reasonable for chance. But I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t deliberate either. I don’t know. Disney don’t take me into their inner storymaking works and expose all their secrets.

But it’s not a straight allegory. Allegory works on a one-to-one equivalence, in which if Princess Anna represents Christ, then all that she does or says should be considered to be what Christ would do or say in those circumstances.

Symbolism is a bit more fluid. Frozen is its own story, not dependent for its primary meaning on anything except itself. But for those with eyes to see, it’s possible to discern the shape of the Gospel story lying beneath. Anna’s actions are sometimes those of a Redeemer, sometimes those of the one in need of redemption. Where the allegory has its underlying meaning in the mind of the writer, the symbolic story has its underlying meaning in the eye of the reader, or in this case, the watcher.

So it may not be anything more substantial than something I can see, but it’s fascinatingly suggestive of truth.

I’m reminded of a quotation from – I think – CS Lewis, that “all good stories are reflections of_the one Good Story”, or something like that.

It certainly seems to be true in this case.