Essential Stories

Two sisters, orphaned and isolated, loose winter’s blast across the summer landscape and embark on a journey to drive it back home again.

They fly a bicycle across the moon, the boy and his otherworldly creature.

A little girl from nowhere shuts up a nightmarish beast into the fiery hole in a wall, saving her friends from certain death (with the help of an Eggo or two).

Our culture loves stories, but our favorite medium has shifted from the page to the screen.

I recently discovered George MacDonald, the imaginative author who inspired literary giants like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and who mentored Lewis Carroll. He also loved Jesus, enthusiasm leaking all over his works. MacDonald’s Complete Fairy Tales have been filling my days with gorgeous scenes played out on vibrant landscapes. Shadows meeting for church in Iceland under the aurora borealis, a beautiful girl who waxes and wanes with the moon, people able to walk in and out of framed pictures, gravity-free princesses drifting with the breeze—inviting children of all ages to make much of the Creator.

Jesus Himself was partial to storytelling. While today’s teachers employ statistics and polished strategies, the Word made flesh sat down and made up fables.

As much as America is a storytelling nation, our imaginations are shrinking with our attention spans. When’s the last time you curled up and absorbed yourself in a good long fairy tale, one chosen not for its usefulness but for pure pleasure? I fear we’re losing a vital part of what it means to be human by outgrowing the ability to immerse ourselves in fantasy with a point.

Then there are the pragmatic objections. Who has time for stories when it seems like the world is caving in? There are so many political problems to occupy one’s mind. Just trying to keep my head above water, we mumble small-heartedly. Why waste time on kids’ books? (I’d like to interrupt the scheduled programming to point out that childish and childlike are two very different things. One hinders the kingdom; the other is its only entryway, according to Matthew 18:3. Okay. Carry on.)

For the sake of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health, this will not do. Fairy tales expand our capacity for worship. By contemplating grand, sweeping arcs of narrative, we’re preparing our souls for the glory of heaven by tasting it in bits and pieces here.

In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles VanDoren argue that, even on a purely academic level, fantasy is well worth the effort:

Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to be analyzed than truth … We must act in such a way, when reading a story, that we let it act on us. We must allow it to move us, we must let it do whatever work it wants to do on us. We must somehow make ourselves open to it.

There’s a very real sense in which reading fairy tales demands more of us intellectually than the most difficult treatise. Stories mold us into who we’re meant to become. Sarah Clarkson writes in The Life-giving Home that “once the stories of a few good heroes get into your blood, you just can’t rest until you’ve tried your best to follow them.” So for the sake of the mission, read an epic. Stretch your imaginative muscles. Give God a more exciting way to fulfill His promise to outdo anything our minds can fathom.

If we become what we behold, why wouldn’t we arm ourselves with pregnant visions of greatness? Load your bedside table with pages of truth, beauty, justice, and a little bit of magic. See Christ ripple among the lines, a triumphant scarlet behind the black and white text.

A few resources I’m excited to check out on the topic include Sarah Clarkson’s Book Girl, To Middle Earth and Back Again by Kaitlyn Facista, and G. Ronald Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove.

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