stories, the news, & Tolkien

Do you ever watch or read the news and just feel utterly overwhelmed? “News” nowadays by definition is stories of one disaster or mistake after another, whether it be death, injury, political error or manipulation. So rarely is there anything joyful. So pervasive is this that we even very often feel the need to preface the word “news” with “good” if it is something positive!

How did we come to this? It’s something a lot of people have noticed and commented on. The comedian Russell Howard has even made a show based on this, called “Good News”.

And then of course there is that word at the heart of Christianity – “gospel” – which means “good news”. Perhaps the fact that such a word exists in ancient Greek indicates that the phenomenon of “news” being a litany of disaster and warning is actually nothing new at all.

But I wonder if this rather depressing and negative focus really does us any good. I am in no way advocating an ostrich approach, refusing to see or acknowledge that this beautiful world is so very broken and in so much pain. Nor do I advocate pretending things are other than they are. But I do feel that the negativity of the “news” can be hyped and exaggerated – after all, the old saying is “bad news sells.” And if there is one thing that both the media and the gossips like, it is being popular and in demand.

Stories are the building blocks of our culture and our identity – collective and individual. As I said last Sunday, Padraig O’Tuama rightly notes that “our stories write us.” We may create them initially, but the narrative we believe about ourselves, our lives, and our world is, in the end, what shapes our entire being and experience.  We dismiss the power of stories at our peril!

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of JRR Tolkien, in 1973. He is one of my favourite authors, and I find it strange that I have encountered him twice within the past two days, from very different (Christian) sources. So I am paying attention!

Tolkien’s impact on the world has been huge. Not only through his own work – but also in the fact that it was through him that his friend C.S. Lewis became a Christian! Tolkien did not shy away from the harsh truths of life, and yet his stories have hope and joy and possibility, whilst also embracing evil, including the evil within ourselves. He had fought in the trenches in the first world war, he knew exactly what conflict looked like in its bloodiest and most brutal forms. And yet he had hope: faith in God and in humanity, whilst knowing just what we are capable of.

His Christian worldview continues to shape the cultural landscape affecting countless lives today. “The chief purpose of life for any one of us,” he wrote, “is to increase, according to our capacity, our knowledge of God by all the means we have; and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”

He believed that within every person and within the stories of every culture there are the fingerprints of God waiting to be revealed. And he saw those fingerprints as often being revealed by the stories and myths that we create, where we imagine what could be.

The ultimate example of power of storytelling is in fact Jesus. It is what he did. If we needed any confirmation of how powerful and important story is, then we need only look to him. The stories he tells help us to see God and ourselves reflected truthfully.

But stories can also twist truth out of shape, can misrepresent and misconstrue. They can cause destruction as surely as they shape and create – we need only think of the cultural stories of imperialism and racial or national supremacy that have existed throughout history in various places.

So often it is the stories of tragedy and heroism in the face of seeming or inevitable disaster that inspire us. And maybe this is because we know that, although the world is beautiful, it is also broken. To live in a world of sugar and candyfloss is not real, it is not satisfying to our inmost soul, because we know there is more. Before any greatness can be achieved, first of all cowardice and fear must be acknowledged and overcome. Before a solution can be found, the pain and reality of the problem must be experienced and truly known.

But the role of story is surely to show us the path out of the valley of the shadow of death, the way through fear, through pain, to the joy and resolution that is on the other side. And it is to encourage us, that we are not alone, that this path has been trodden many times before us by all those who have gone ahead of us.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

Peace and blessings,
Revd. Talisker