Of all the many exercises of distinctively human intelligence, the one unfettered to reality is story-telling. Amassing a fortune, attaining influence, traveling in space, building a house, having a successful marriage, or any of the other infinite variety of distinctively human things we do are very largely bound in many ways to reality, to how the world actually is. Great intelligence is poured into sending a rocket into space, but that intelligence is largely engaged in testing the actual tensile strength of actual materials, the actual amount of thrust provided by actual fuel mixtures, the fixed mathematics of geometry, and so on. The application of intelligence to space travel is strongly fettered to and by reality. And similarly for almost all other exercises of the great human distinction of being intelligent.
Storytelling is the exception, because it does not wield or shape or employ material provided to it, as do the other embodiments of intelligence. Neither does it conquer, polish, or cherish reality, nor is it frustrated or destroyed by it. Uniquely among the human gifts, it floats far above reality, less bound by it than the moon is by a butterfly’s gravity.
If we are careful not to lead ourselves astray by saying so, we may say that storytelling creates its own separate reality, what we might (carefully) call a fictional reality.
The activity itself is as mysterious as it is unique, and it is fundamental to all the special pleasures of human intelligence. There is nothing recognizably human that does not tell stories. What manifests in us in storytelling is pure creation and as such, were there no God, would exhaust divinity in the universe.
But as great as is its distinction, equally so is the danger it poses. The danger is that we are very prone to confuse fictional with actual reality. No end of human tragedy, both intimate and civilizational, results from that confusion. Nations tell themselves stories about war, and come to believe war itself is tolerable. Individuals tell themselves stories about loyalty, and are devastated by betrayal. Christ’s frustration with His disciples was almost always because they confused their human fictions with their human reality.
The avoidance of such tragedy, to the degree it can be avoided, lies in recognizing what is fictional and what is real. That doesn’t negate the callousness of the real, but it does prepare us for it. It is the Way at the heart of Stoicism, the highest purely human philosophy.
But the Son of God brought us a higher philosophy.
We have spoken of reality and fictional reality, but there is another: the reality of God. We may call it spiritual reality, though we must not think we thereby understand what that means.
Until the Son of God became flesh, there was no way of knowing the reality of God in any way, at any level. There were stories about gods as there were stories about demons and sirens and talking serpents and turtles holding up the creation. But they were simply stories, more or less pleasurable exercises of this amazing human capacity, and the tragedies they occasioned were of a kind with the others, the tragedies of taking the fictional for the real.
The Son of God came to tell us about this other thing, God’s reality, and to tell us something about that reality. He came, not as a story teller, but as a reporter. I speak what I have seen with my Father… He used stories to tell us about God and God’s reality because we have no better vocabulary to communicate such things, but that does not mean He was telling stories in the way we’ve been describing.
He described a reality that in some sense lies under and supports and is prior to our reality, one which functions in certain ways and imposes certain responsibilities, offers certain incentives. These are the great revelations of the Word, offered to us for prayerful meditation.
Our privilege as Christians is to receive the Word of that reality; our great opportunity is to explore it, to open our eyes to it. But our great danger, as before, is that we begin to tell stories about it, stories of our own invention, and that we confuse those stories with a spiritual reality that is almost certainly far less comfortable than our stories about it would imply, that we confuse them with the reality of God, who is a consuming fire.
When Jesus said that He himself was the truth, he was, among other things, warning us of the danger posed, not by lies, but by stories.