Since we are the epiphany of God’s imagination, walking and talking parables, how can we learn to better interpret our parables and the parables of those we encounter? One important way is by growing more familiar with the basics of a good story: plot, setting, and character. One need not be a literature teacher to recognize the basic elements of every story. These Aristotelian categories are so fundamental to narrative that even a four year old includes them when telling a story—fib or no fib. Just this evening I heard through the bedroom window my galloping four year old daughter vehemently cry, “For Aslan and for Narnia…No, no…I mean, for Narnia and for Aslan!” I’ve heard this cry before and she usually has a brandished stick in one hand and a stick pony between her legs when she shouts that battle cry. So when she came into the house screaming, twenty seconds later, one of two things must have happened: either she fell and hurt herself or her older brother, in an attempt at self-protection I’m sure, had unhorsed her.
“I need an ice pack! My favorite one, not that one (sob)…Mommy, I was just minding my own business outside (sob), when…”
“…Then he (sob)…”
“(dramatic sigh) That’s why…”
Voila, a narrative complete with plot, setting, and characters! Simple, perhaps, but Samantha will hone her skills with more practice over the years. Perhaps someday she will understand that this single moment in time is one snapshot within a much larger and more complex series of events. She will learn this lesson best by reading the great stories of the world, interpreting their lessons, and navigating their complexities.
Regardless of how rich the fabric of a story, it can always be reduced to its most elemental: the plot. The first lesson to learn about a good story is that no event in the plot sequence is random. Every side comment, every seemingly irrelevant detail plays a role in the narrative’s overall purpose. God is no inferior storyteller. If we know what constitutes a good story, then certainly God knows how to speak a good story. From a character’s perspective, stuck in the moment on one single page at a time, life events may very well have the look and feel of chaos. Our burden is remembering to see all this apparent chaos in our lives as important parts of the overall plot.
Let me invite you into one of those apparently purposeless moments in my life: I am sixteen or so. I have a sheet of questions placed before me: a chemistry test. I write my name at the top. That might be the only thing I get right on the test. I have studied many hours for this. I have prayed throughout. I am still praying. “Dear God, help.” I look at the letters and numbers and they swirl before me. I cannot set them in a comprehensible order in my mind. I close my eyes.
I want to be a doctor.
“Doctors do chemistry,” a voice in my head nags.
I open my eyes. It’s still just a jumble of letters and numbers and large empty spaces anticipating my pencil lead. My chemistry teacher thinks I’m mentally disabled (no joke). He’s never said it in so many words, but he wrote a note to my dad as one scientist to another and explained what he thought might be my mental problem. I am not mentally disabled, only something more frustrating: stupid, at least when it comes to these strange animals called equations. Equations are creatures that go “bump” in the night. They gurgle and giggle and make tiny scratching noises behind my closet door about an hour after the lights go out.
I want to be a doctor.
Time is up. I put my pencil down. So many spaces filled with scribbles. Doctors sometimes scribble. Others pretend to understand the scribbles. Maybe my chemistry teacher will glide over the scribbles and see something essentially, primordially true in the tilt of my penmanship and the test will secretly whisper to him, “The boy doesn’t need this test.”
And he will say, “The boy doesn’t need this test.”
“You should give him an A.”
“I should give the boy an A,” he will say. My chemistry teacher is a well intentioned man, though large and intimidating in a way that makes me think of old Ben Kenobi playing with little minds in Star Wars. I turn in my test. He looks briefly at the page and looks up at me. Clearly, no subliminal whispers.
I wanted to be a doctor. The author had other plans. I wanted patients, but he gave me students. I wanted to combat cancer of the cells, but now I combat other kinds of cancer. What seemed at the time to be a miscarriage of authorial skill, turned out to be an essential plot twist.
The first step to aligning our imagination with God’s, then, is to see our lives as more than the meaningless and chaotic events we see with our eyes. The very fact that we cannot practically live with the idea of mere randomness as the defining aspect of our lives suggests that we come from a good story maker. Only bad stories have no point and no order. The ones worth reading are moving somewhere; the Christian story is headed toward final and eternal closeness with God, but for now we live behind a veil. For now we see in part, but someday we will see face to face (I Corinthians 13:12). And that’s the way it has to be…for now.