On Stories, Questions, and the Power of the One True Myth
The story goes something like this…
The young man, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, walks willingly to his death. He knows that his sacrifice is the only thing that can save the world. His enemies mock and reject him and finally, the killing blow is struck. But death is not his destiny. He returns triumphantly and destroys the great evil of the world, once and for all.
I am sure you have heard this story. It is one of the most famous stories ever told. It is a story of selfless sacrifice and ultimate redemption. Sadly, in many ways, it feels quite disconnected from the story of our life. The story of our life is full of questions. Every day it seems we are faced with new doubts and worries. Things don’t seem to add up. Often, we find ourselves face-to-face with the unexpected. Less often, we find ourselves face-to-face with something much worse: A tragedy. A loss. A piercingly specific moment that slices through our carefully constructed armor right to our very core. It’s these moments, these wounds that can break us. At the very least, they leave us battered and in pain. These moments also leave us with some fundamental questions: Is God powerful enough to take our wounds and our brokenness and turn them into something beautiful? Can He redeem our suffering and give us our own happily ever after?
For a believer, the easy answer is always yes. That is the quick response. The answer from our heads. The heart, on the other hand, is not always so trusting. If life can be viewed as one all-encompassing story, then we are all actors on the page as well as readers of the text. Yet sometimes, it is as if the head and the heart are reading a wholly different story. The words are the same. The verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs adding up to the same sentences and thoughts, yet conveying vastly different things, depending on the reader. The head reads those words, those sentences, and it sees clarity and a plan. It reads Isaiah 46:101 after a devastating loss and it sees the hand of God writing a grand masterpiece. The heart sees those same words, those same sentences, and it feels confusion, chaos and pain. It reads Ephesians 3:202 and it feels a grand distance between itself and the God of the heavens.
As image-bearers of the Holy God, our souls intuitively understand certain things. Without getting too theological, something I am not qualified to do, our souls were created to know God. We were created to find our full satisfaction in Him. Nothing else will do3. We were created with the ability to know right from wrong at its most elementary level.4 God is a God of order5 with all things ordained and sustained by His omnipotent hand.6 If it is true that we bear His image, and it is7, then it makes sense that we share some commonalities. We react to chaos, pain, death, fear, and questions in the only way that makes sense for an image-bearer to do. Those things do not make sense to us. Our hearts and souls feel the wrongness of them. We want things to add up, to fit. Good, and all its connected implications, must prevail. Evil, and all its connected implications, must be defeated. In other words, our souls cry out for completeness.
Humanity itself, though fallen, reflects this desire for order and wholeness. Our stories are rife with it. You do not have to look hard to find examples. The beautiful maiden falls in love with the prince and they live happily ever after. A boy pulls a sword from a stone and becomes a king. The young moisture farmer learns to use the Force and helps bring down the evil Empire. I could go on and on.
But it goes deeper than this. If you pay attention, if you really keep your eyes open, you can catch glimmers of the deeper story all over the place, some intentional and some very much not. Neo’s (The Matrix) hero journey includes a death, a resurrection, and a vanquishing of evil. E.T. (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) dies and comes back to life, performs signs and wonders and ascends to the heavens. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) is reviled by the people of his time for taking a stand for the good. In more obvious examples, Gandalf the Grey (The Lord of the Rings) sacrifices himself for those he loves and is resurrected in a glorified state. Aslan the lion (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), takes the place of the one who deserves to die, and is sacrificed on an altar. He rises from the dead and returns to destroy evil.
Remember the story the opened the article? Do you recognize it? It is the modern classic, Harry Potter. Author J.K. Rowling meant for there to be a strong spiritual connection. She realized that the story she was telling drew its power from the Great Story that has been told from the dawn of the universe. The True Myth, as J.R.R. Tolkien called it8. Tolkien argued that the great story of redemption has been retold all over the world because it is built into the very fabric of our souls. We long for that sense of rightness. God, in His perfect timing, invaded our story at just the right moment to tell His True Myth. That is the Gospel. That is the story we are all connected to, whether we know it or admit it.
Many choose not to know or admit it. It would be disingenuous of me to fail to acknowledge the strong pushback from our culture when it comes to tapping into the True Myth. It is not a new trend. There will always be those who do all they can to tell stories that run in opposition to the classic good overcomes evil dynamic. And there will always be stories where the “good” guys don’t win in the end. Or, there are no real “good” guys to be found. No right and wrong, no sense of order or completeness. No happily ever after. One of the most popular book and TV series of all time, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones, revels in the notion that the “good” guys (if there are any) cannot possibly win. To be fair, the story is not complete so we cannot know for sure how Martin will conclude his epic saga, but all signs point to a survival of the fittest and most cunning resolution.
Additionally, critics will argue that these stories–where good prevails, where things fit together at the end, and where our hero lives happily ever after–are just a form of wish fulfillment. On some level, they are right. Many “happy ending” stories are lazy and uninspired by any true connection to something deeper and more lasting. They appeal to the part of us that craves happiness above all else instead of the part that desires something more substantial. The very best of our stories reflect the power of the True Myth by showing the struggle, the pain, the heartache, for without all of these things, there can be no triumph, healing, or peace. The stories, the ones connected to the True Myth, are absolutely wish fulfillment. Our hearts yearn for a fulfillment only the True Myth can provide.
In The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien chronicles the creation and history of Middle Earth. (Frankly, it’s much more complex than that but I hesitate to go full-nerd in fear of losing any readers.) The story opens with Eru Ilúvatar, the God of the universe, calling the world into existence. Early on, he creates the Ainur, angelic or godlike creatures that will be his companions and helpers in this act of creation. He tasks them with singing the rest of creation into being. At first, the Ainur do their job well.
It is then that Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, decides to stand apart and sing in contrast with the rest. Disharmony and discord reign. Smiling, Eru rejoins the singing, introducing a second theme of song, meant to tie in with the first theme. Melkor grows more “loud and vain and arrogant” in his disruption, which causes Eru to respond sternly. He produces a theme so powerful that it works in unison with the first two themes as well as Melkor’s attempt to overpower all. It is this third and final musical theme that brings forth the Elves and men in the climactic moment of creation.
There is another story where the Creator speaks the universe into existence. After the time of creation is completed, all things are as they should be. It is all good. The highest expression of this goodness is humanity, made in the very image of the Creator that formed them. They are placed in a perfect world, with everything they could ever want or need. Instead of living in obedience and peace, they choose to disobey, bringing an end to their happily ever after. They are banished and their communion with the Creator is broken. This does not stop the Creator from telling his story. Though the grand act of creation is complete, the epic story of his love for humanity is just beginning. Across the millennia, traversing miles and continents, the Creator reveals himself and his love. It culminates with the sending of his son to pay the wages of humanity’s disobedience, all those years ago. The wounds are healed. The heartache is soothed. The struggle is overcome in triumph.
There is a power in stories. There can and should be a deep connection to the True Myth that God has been telling from the beginning. I find great comfort in the story of Eru and Melkor and the interweaving of the three themes. Knowing Tolkien’s deep Christian faith, it is evident that he believed in a sovereign and all-powerful God: a God capable of taking our mistakes, our hurts, our failures, our disobedience, and our betrayals, and weaving them into His masterpiece of redemption. I find greater peace and comfort in the second story. Even though my heart and soul feel the chaos and the disorder all around, I know how this story ends. I have read and witnessed the beginning, the conflicts, the plot twists, the passion, the emotion, and the grand finale of it all. We respond to these stories because they whisper to us of a greater Story; one where all wrongs will be made right, all sorrows will be comforted, and all tears will be wiped away. We respond to these stories because they point, they nudge, and they push us towards the True Myth where tragedy, loss, death, and hopelessness will be crushed under the heel of the One who experienced all those things in our place. The One who now sits at the right hand of His Father, waiting for the final moment of creation where He will establish His kingdom forever and happily ever after.
This is our story. What part will you play in the True Myth that God is telling?
(Images © Ted Nasmith)
- Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure;’ ↩
- Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us. ↩
- John 14:6 ↩
- Romans 1:20, Romans 2:14, Ecclesiastes 3:11 ↩
- The evidence of divine order is everywhere. Mathematics – Link, Link and planetary movement – Link, Link are just two examples that testify to God’s guiding touch. ↩
- Job 12:7-10, Psalm 94:4-5, Hebrews 1:3 ↩
- Genesis 1:26-27 ↩
- Link ↩
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7 thoughts on “On Stories, Questions, and the Power of the One True Myth”
Thank you , Phill, for the reminder of the power of a story, the story. I’ve read the back of the book (we win!).
There is no doubt to me that the main draw to many of these works is the hope they communicate in spite of the darkness of life. Fantasy as a medium, but it’s the opposite of fantasy in real life .
I was reading this again today. Maybe our most important work in 11+ months of this site for several reasons. The biggest is how I wrestle with my faith and knowing the Bible is true apart from circular logic…I think we are definitely imprinted with resurrection on our DNA. We know we hate death and we want more that this life, and Christianity’s metanarrative is entirely fulfilling for our most longing needs in this most crucial area. Tolkien and Rowling and others started with faith but not everyone here that you list. Even outside of Christianity people want resurrection. I will be referencing this article in a soon to be released article on rivalries since death is our greatest rival and not even Harry vs. Voldemort can compare.
I am going to reference this, the article and the idea, for my Easter sermon this coming Sunday. In fact, I think I’m going to title my sermon “The One True Myth” and use this as the opening. I know I’m preaching from 1 Thess 4:13-18 and I want to talk about how resurrection is a real thing that will affect is in real life and real time. But the fantasy imitating life aspect is a great hook.
Gowdy, that means a lot. I’m glad the article has been helpful.
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