By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published September 21, 2017
One day in early September of 1893, the celebrated artist and author Beatrix Potter wrote to the young and ill son of a family friend, “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter … ”
You probably know the rest, as Potter’s letter to Noel Moore became “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” one of the top 25 best-selling books of all time.
On another September evening, in 1931, the celebrated authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis took a stroll along a riverbank in Oxford, and Tolkien inspired his friend’s conversion to Christianity by explaining to him that, in fact, “myths were not lies,” and that the Christian story was the most profound and truthful myth in human history.
You know, too, the rest of that story, how each man went on to change the literary and religious terrain of the 20th century.
This September, in just a couple of days God willing, I will celebrate my 50th birthday. I will celebrate as well half a life, 25 years, as a Catholic.
Were it not for the power of narrative, as experienced through a lifetime of reading, I might very well not be celebrating anything.
Yet because I heard a story, told many times in many different ways, my entire life—and the lives of those I know and love—changed.
“To hand each other along”
Catholicism is unique in that it is explicitly liturgical, sacramental and traditional. Tradition, for a Catholic, does not mean doing the same thing the same way all the time. Rather, tradition comes from the Latin tradere, which means almost literally to hand each other along.
Thus, the Church emphasizes apostolic succession, and therefore it is adamant that the primary mission of the Church is evangelization. The Church, and the individual Catholic, are each expected to tell the Good News. We are compelled to tell a story.
Our Protestant neighbors are skilled at telling the story of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, all of which occurred for the salvation of humankind. They tell it in a marvelous oral tradition of preaching. They tell it in song. They tell it in over 30,000 denominations. But they do not tell it through a unified and unbroken aesthetic and philosophical tradition that is over 2,000 years old and that represents one of the cornerstones of Western civilization.
St. Francis reminds us that we should preach the Gospel always and that we should use words only when necessary. Yes, our actions must make visible what we profess to believe. Yes, our good works are a tangible result of our faith. Yet we must also tell others what we believe, and one of the most effective ways to do this is, in fact, through art, language and narrative.
I entered the Catholic Church through the portal of the imagination. I discovered this point of entry because of two dear professors who opened my eyes to the richness of the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition. Neither of them ever preached to me, admonished me or frightened me; they did not do any of the things we often imagine when we hear the term evangelize. Instead, they introduced me to the very works that had changed their own lives: they handed on to me that which had been given to them. The Holy Spirit took care of the rest.
The power of narrative
Looking back over my Christian life, I see the enormous gift of a childhood and youth immersed in stories. My Baptist upbringing emphasized biblical instruction, so I knew the power of narrative, and I cherish those stories I was so well taught. I did not know, however, that there was more. I did not know the work of the early church fathers, or the essence of Augustine and Aquinas, or the great mystics, or any of the brilliant philosophers and artists who imprinted upon the world a vision of God ordained and guided by God himself.
It took the Catholic Church to show me all those things, and I am still learning.
If you have followed my regular column in The Georgia Bulletin for the past seven years, you know that I have written an enormous amount about Catholic artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and cultural figures—all of whom are modern or contemporary. We often hear the absurd lament that the Catholic aesthetic and intellectual tradition is something ancient or discarded altogether. If anything, my work has shown the essential relevance and vibrancy of this tradition even up to the present day. In fact, in a post-Christian age, this tradition is more important than ever. However, we have to tell people about it.
St. Paul teaches that all of us have unique gifts, bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit, by which we can share with others the gift of Christ. Limiting evangelization solely to an accusatory question such as “are you saved,” or viewing evangelization as a job solely for the preacher or tract-writer means to limit the full range of the Holy Spirit himself. One man comes to Christ through a sermon, another through seeing a film. One woman’s life is changed by an act of mercy, another is moved by a book or painting. Whatever the means, the end is the same: each witnesses the joy and truth of the Gospel.
For me, as for Tolkien and Lewis, the chief impetus for my conversion came through an appreciation of the full power of narrative, of storytelling. Tolkien was right: myths are not lies. They represent, as Tolkien said, the essence of our humanity; they reveal the communion between the human and the divine, and they direct our experience of life to a vision of “joy beyond the walls of the world.”
For years in this very newspaper, Flannery O’Connor tried to show readers that they must appreciate the Catholic aesthetic and philosophical tradition as something beyond the didactic or edifying. O’Connor argued, as I argue, that this tradition does more than teach. It affirms, it sustains, it transcends, it transforms. It moves us, through beauty, toward truth.
St. Paul, again, says quite clearly, and quite often: “From what I received from the Lord, I passed unto you.” My life, like yours, has been moved and changed by countless people who followed this apostolic example. Yet many of them I have never seen. I know them from the page, from the canvas, from the speaker or the screen. Ultimately, they all say the same thing. God loves us and desires communion with us through the gift of Christ and his Church.
An old Baptist hymn proclaims, “I love to tell the story, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
On my 50th birthday, I am forever grateful to all those, known and unknown, who told me that story. I am grateful for all those who followed tradere and handed me along. I’m grateful for the gift of being able to tell others the story myself. And I’m grateful in knowing that someday, they too will pass it on.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.