Stories as Experienced Meaning

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully. Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantasy because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic.
-Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners

What O’Connor says about fiction can apply to any story, and that’s the way I’m going to look at it here, though I do happen to agree with what she said about fiction. Feature articles, which are technically nonfiction, are written using story elements. Biographies are also driven by story.

The New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) are said to be in a format that was used for biographies during that historical period. One could quote Jesus, “I am the bread of life,” or one could quote words written about Jesus, “Jesus wept.” Sometimes, this is enough, but there is more experienced meaning in the whole story, is there not?

Jesus often told parables. Summarizing the parable of “The Good Samaritan” isn’t the same as hearing Jesus tell the story, and some of the experienced meaning isn’t the same because Jesus told that story to a specific man at a certain place in time. Still, he knew others were listening.

God could have inspired a collection of books of facts. He did give us some of those, but the Bible is mostly written in poetry and narrative, and thus it’s more than just cognitive. This isn’t about modernistic rationalism vs postmodern experience. Both are inadequate. It’s that the story is more than the summary at the beginning or the description on the back of the cover. For visual mediums, like movies, experience also applies. Reading a review of a movie, such as The Hobbit, is not the same as watching the movie.

I agree with O’Connor that truth and story are not on opposite sides. Good stories are not so abstract as to have no relevance. They have an element of truth that we experience.

As Madeleine L’Engle says in Walking in Water:

When the powers of this world denigrate and deny the value of story, life loses much of its meaning; and for many people in the world today, life has lost its meaning, one reason why every other hospital bed is for someone with a mental, not a physical illness…The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs, but in truth… We are to be in this world as healers, as listeners, and as servants. In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars. We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing.

When L’Engle references the secular world, she is talking about the modernistic side of it that puts too much emphasis on facts and propositions. Now, facts are important, but we are more than simply rational beings. And thus, we offer the world more than principles and perceived facts. We tell and live stories. We show and create stories. We give flesh to truth.