“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one.”
This, my friends, is your classic example of an understatement. These are the words C.S. Lewis uses to begin the closing thoughts of his reflection On Stories, and I would argue that his view of what Story is surpasses “very difficult” into the realm of “beyond difficult” – not a bad thing in the least, but a true statement in its most basic sense. Lewis holds storytelling at a very high level of esteem, appreciating it beyond the typical level of teenage fantasy and instead finding perplexing and profound truths immersed in the capability of man to produce works of fiction and nonfiction alike. He sees storytelling just as he describes it: as an art.
I don’t seek to write an analytical essay with this post, so don’t fret. Instead, what I do want to analyze is one of the many ways in which Lewis metaphorically describes his view of Story, because the way in which he relates it, I think, points very accurately to his view of Christianity as a “true myth,” a steadfast belief that served as the very stumbling block that led him down the road from atheism to Christianity. (Given this important shift in his life – and the profound impact he would have on the world thanks to his newfound faith – I think it is one worth looking in to.) In doing so, I think we can yank out some pretty interesting truths about the Christian walk, and NOW LET’S BE HONEST…we are in constant need of reminders when it comes to living the proper Christian life.
(SIDE NOTE: These posts I write in no way suggest that I have mastered that which I intend to preach through my words. Instead, the things I write are a reflection of that which I feel I must learn to apply to myself, and, in doing so, encourage those who read to apply as well, so that I might have fellow brothers and sisters join me on this road we call life.)
Let’s go back to On Stories real quickly, because that’s where Lewis gives us a better idea of what “Story,” as he sees it, is:
“To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird. […] If the author's plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? […] It is an image of the truth. Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many 'real lives' have nets that can do as much? In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”
What Lewis argues here is that, in the art of story-telling, there are two driving factors: plot and theme. The plot is, essentially, the sequential going-ons of the story as we follow the main character(s) through the trials and tribulations of their life, only to see them [hopefully] come out victorious at the end. The theme, however, is the driving point to the plot, that hidden meaning that arises every now and then yet ends up having a profound impact on the story as a whole. A story can be told without any prevalent themes, to be sure, but I hold firm to the idea (and I believe Lewis would agree with me here) that a story cannot be complete without theme. For some stories the theme is happiness; for others it is death; others find their theme in the supernatural; the list goes on and on. Prevailing themes throughout a narrative give depth to the story read, and it is through these themes that authors are given the chance to change their reader’s lives.
Lewis, in the text quoted above, compares plot to a net (plot = net) and theme to birds (theme = birds) that can get caught inside the net. As the reader progresses through the story, often he will catch the metaphoric birds within the metaphoric net and it will blow his mind temporarily (causing him to think deeply and react emotionally to what he has read), but then the theme slips away all-to-quickly because sometimes the author loses sight of his true intentions of where the heart of the story lies. When the plot overtakes the theme, this is like the birds breaking free from the net, flying away with the chance of never being caught again (the story goes on, but it does not impact the reader in the same way as before). A good story is that net which holds fast to those birds, keeping them in perspective the entire time, capturing the heart of the reader until the very end, at which point their life is changed thanks to the abundance of "birds" within the "net." The overarching theme, at the resolution of the plot, leaves the reader
"Alright, David, I get it. But what does this have to do with the Christian walk? You said there would be some sort of application.”
Patience, my friend. I figured you would ask that question, and thus I have prepared an answer for you. But, in order to do so, I feel I must change Lewis’ metaphor ever-so-slightly, because the changes I make will fit my idea much more succinctly. (I must acknowledge, first and foremost, that I cannot credit myself for this change, for it was in fact a friend of mine who made this subtle shift in metaphor that opened my mind to the things of which I now write. As an Aggie, I must give credit where credit is due, for an Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.)
For the sake of this article, let’s change Lewis’ metaphor of a net catching birds to a net catching fish. The reader is a fisherman out at sea, and as he dives into the narrative of the book, he casts his net (the plot) out in the water, at which point he devotes time and patience to see if, at long last, any fish (themes) will be caught in his net so that the experience can be considered successful (the book changes his life).
Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this, but in case you cannot, I’ll be a bit more direct. In the Bible we have two particular scenarios that perfectly fit the situation I’ve just described. This first text comes from Luke 5:1-11, while the other comes from John 21:1-14. In both texts, we read very similar accounts, but there are notable differences that I want to point out.
The first story (Luke 5) tells of a fisherman who is down on his luck. This guy – his name is Simon – has been fishing all night... all for nothing! He hasn’t caught a single fish, not one. He had one job – to catch fish – and he has failed, so it’s safe to say that he is probably beating himself up over it, knowing that he has failed not only himself, but his wife, maybe his kids (if he had any), and anybody else he is supposed to provide for. But all of a sudden, some random guy gets in Simon’s boat, tells him to row out into the water, and cast the net in. Simon knows that fishing in the middle of the day is unheard of, but nevertheless he entertains the thought, bowing to the layman's will and doing exactly as the man commands... and to his surprise it works! His nets begin filling up with fish, so many fish that eventually his boat literally begins to sink thanks to how many fish he’s caught. Fish are practically jumping into his nets, and eventually the net is so jam-packed that it rips apart. Simon learns that the man’s name is Yeshua – the very person we now call Jesus – and pledges his life to follow the man who has so abundantly provided. Yeshua changes Simon’s name to Peter and tells him that he (Peter) will become a “fisher or men.”
The second story (John 21) takes place three years later, and Peter is doing even worse than before. For three years he followed Yeshua without falter, but all of a sudden, in a single night, everything came crashing down all around him. On one single night, he was placed at the most degrading place at the table as he and Yeshua’s other followers ate the meal that would one day become known as the Lord’s Supper, and then he proceeded to fall asleep when Yeshua needed him most (three times), cut off part of a man’s ear while trying to protect his master (only to be rebuked by the very person he strove to protect), fled whenever Yeshua was arrested, and then, in his own cowardice, denied Yeshua three times purely to save his own skin. He had watched as Yeshua was beaten, led down a dusty road and up a gnarly hill, only to be killed in the most humiliating way possible. Peter’s life – which had been making a turn for the best – became hollow and empty. For three days he wallowed in pity over his failures, but then the news came that his master’s body had disappeared from the tomb – he had been raised from the dead! Yeshua appeared to them later, affirming this profound truth. And now, just a short while after, Peter and a few of Yeshua’s other disciples were fishing out in the middle of the lake in which he’d first met Yeshua three years before. As if in an instant replay of that first time, no fish were caught the entirety of the night. Come morning-time, however, some random bystander calls to Peter from the shore and tells him to cast his nets. Groggily, Peter obliges, knowing nothing will come of it. However, to his shock, the nets fill up, and he is left aghast as aquatic animals start pouring into his boat. Talk about déjà vu. Fish after fish jumps into his net, and this time the nets don’t break -- they remain intact as the fish come pouring in. With a look of excitement, Peter looks to the shore and at last recognizes who it was who had told them to cast their nets. With the name of Yeshua on the tip of his tongue, Peter dives into the water and starts swimming as fast as he can towards his resurrected king.
Do you see the beauty of these two stories? In both of them, Peter failed to do his one job: to fish. In the first story he failed it purely in the literal sense, failing to catch literal fish from the water, as was his specified job as fisherman in Galilee. In the second, however, the meaning is twofold: yes, he failed to catch literal fish, but he is also struggling with the fact that he denied his master, and thus had failed to “catch men,” or make disciples as he was called to do...as he had promised to do. Yet both times, in both scenarios, Yeshua comes to him, and both times Yeshua provides. The first time, the net breaks – representing how Peter’s faith, likewise, would break – even though Yeshua was with him in the boat! (Even though he would spend three years at Yeshua's side, Peter's faith would falter.) But the second time, the net stays intact even though Yeshua is off on the seashore – Peter’s faith will remain strong even though Yeshua is about to leave them.
Isn't that beautiful?
When this story is taken under the light of Lewis’ view of plot and theme, I think it gains even greater meaning, and that is where our life application comes in. You see, if the plot of the Gospel is the life of Christ, then surely the theme of it would be that "Jesus is God." One can read the plot of the Bible without truly grasping the theme -- they can appreciate the life of Christ without truly understanding the implications of it -- but if they grasp the theme and apply it to their lives, what change will be wrought!
For some, like Peter, the net will break, just as Lewis pointed out in his analogy with the birds. There will be times when you experience Jesus on a personal level and the fish are oh-so-abundant and you realize “Wow! This is the reason I worship Him! He is God, how could I have missed it?” but shortly after, we succumb to the same, undulating logic of treating Jesus not as God but simply as a charismatic teacher, our nets breaking as the fish swim slowly away. This is when we place our hope in the world, forgetting that Jesus will always provide. Like Peter, we are quick to believe, but when times get tough, we deny him, remembering the plot of the story without allowing the theme to change our lives. We read what's happening in the text without looking at what's going on between the lines. This was the case of Peter at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he had yet to experience the grace of Jesus through Christ's suffering and dying on that rugged cross.
But then, fast forward three years, and you see a new Peter. He has experienced Jesus and has lived out the plot right at Jesus' side, though the theme was not in his full grasp until this final moment. Now, three years later, Peter isn't simply seeing Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry: he has seen Jesus’ death and he has seen the subsequent resurrection, and in a moment of epiphany, the rest of the plot suddenly makes sense! This is when the plot reaches its climax and you realize what the theme truly was. Every single thing Jesus did – every miracle, every teaching, every word – was for one purpose: it was for him, for Peter. It was for you. It was for me. It was for all of us. Everything Jesus did was to prove he was God and to prove that he loves us. Peter, having now seen the resolution of the plot, has grasped the theme of Jesus’ life, and in this understanding, his faith is renewed all the greater! This time his net does not break, because the plot and theme are inseparable to him – every single thing Jesus did points to him being God, and no net will break to allow a separation of this fact. Peter finally gets it.
And what does Peter do when it all clicks? He dives in. He swims to Jesus. He begs for forgiveness.
This is our story, my friends. We are so wishy-washy when it comes to our faith, and resultantly our lives don’t reflect that faith which we profess. We proclaim to be disciples of the Way, yet we deny his providence every time we stress, every time we fret, every time we feel anxious. What room is there for stress or anxiety or fear in the heart of he whose hope is in Christ? These are our nets breaking, when we fail to realize that the very man who healed the blind is the one who raised himself from the dead. If he can walk on water and calm the storm and heal the sick, and if we know that he willingly died for you and for me, then why do we let the struggles of this world affect us in the way that they do? The plot and the theme are inseparable, so remember what that implies! The Man (Yeshua) is inseparable from the grace, don’t you see? This is his promise to us, demonstrated through his life as the suffering servant that was born to die.
So this is my encouragement to you: turn into a John 21 Peter. Don’t let your nets break. Whenever life gets rough and things start looking down, I beg that you remember that the very man who turned water into wine is the one who professes to love you, having proved it through his blood. Just like Peter, don’t hesitate to dive in – dive into the Word, dive into prayer, dive into the relationship with He who loves you without falter. Don’t separate the plot from the theme, because the theme is where life change starts happening. Let the fact that Jesus Christ is God make a profound impact on your life; let it mold you, encourage you, and comfort you in times both good and bad, happy and sad. He loves you, he’s there for you, and he’s promised to take care of you. Why do you let your nets break?
Ask yourself these questions: Do you trust him? Do you see how he has provided for you even despite your failure? Do you see how, even from the shore, he can give you that which you could not give yourself? Do you comprehend that even when your nets do break, he will continue to provide? Do you recognize that his love and the acting out of that love through the plots of our lives is inevitable? Do you recognize that you, like Peter, are incapable of fishing on your own, but when he steps in he will give you the tools to do that which you never dreamed of accomplishing? Do you understand that you can be a fisher of men if only you cast those nets?
If your answer was yes, then you have grasped the message I'm trying to preach. I have but one thing left to say to you:
Turn to him and dive. Dive deep.