Myth, Mountains, and Mysticism: Till We Have Faces and Christian Storytelling
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Every time I try to write about storytelling, I find myself wandering into the weeds. The topic is too vast, too filled with a multitude of opinions and good scholarship. This week I wanted to write about Christian storytelling—about the Christian as storyteller and presentations of Jesus in stories. But the problem is, such an essay runs the risk of becoming prescriptive, when there is nothing prescriptive about writing stories about God.
To narrow it down, I thought back on my personal experiences and how I’ve changed over the years as a writing educator and as a participant in speeches, conferences, and writing workshops where I’ve tried to teach people the “right way” to tell a Christian story. Writers tend to want Christian storytelling to be prescriptive. We want to learn how to do it right. And this impulse comes from a good place, usually. As a fiction writer myself—with younger authors who ask me how to write books from a Christian perspective—I can’t help but think about these things. “Are you a Christian?” I tend to ask them. “Then, to a degree, you cannot help but tell a Christian story.”
But years of Christian media have demonstrated that the ways in which Christians present Christ in their stories will vary wildly. And how we present Jesus in our stories—how we present eternity to a world that longs for permanence—just might be one of the greatest challenges we face as Christians in a culture hostile to Christianity.
Saying there isn’t anything prescriptive about writing stories about God doesn’t mean there isn’t any logos—any reason or logic—involved. I would argue that a good story must contain logos. But when Christian storytelling becomes an apologetics exercise, it takes on teeth that bare themselves at the world. Instead, stories should woo, not argue. A story isn’t an argument—it’s a love letter. An invitation to a relationship and to mystery. I wish more storytellers who call themselves Christians understood this, for God is far more dangerous, far more strange and whimsical than anything you’ll find in most media that bears the label “Christian.” Christian storytellers are not pastors, and storytelling is not preaching. It gives space to excite the imagination, drawing the audience into a contemplation and an awe of beauty that causes them to long for a mystery of the divine—to desire (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis) a “home they have never been to.”
This homesickness for the eternal can be found in all sorts of stories, not just those made by Christians. Sometimes it’s found best in stories made by unbelievers. The great freedom that Christians have as storytellers is to explore all the corners of the known and unknown world, of stories told and untold, and say, “Here!” and “Maybe here, too!” and “Do you see the beauty here? This also belongs to Him.”
Is there a prescriptive way to do this? Not any more than there is one correct way to paint a sunset or capture the beauty of the cosmos. God gives us freedom of expression to invite people to remember that they are not made for this world, but for something much better that is coming—if they will but grasp hold of it.
We see this freedom at work in C. S. Lewis’s strange and wonderful novel Till We Have Faces, where Lewis retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. He lets the original story breathe without shying away from the pagan subject matter in which a beautiful and guileless princess, Psyche, is sacrificed by her father to the god of the Mountain—who in fact turns out to be her bridegroom and the god of love.
Till We Have Faces is more than just a story, though. It’s a story that expresses the way in which Christian storytelling at its best has the potential to work upon people. Lewis achieves this not only through showing the truth, beauty, and goodness of an old story in a new way, but by using a narrator that Psyche works to convince, throughout, that what is happening to her is good. In one of Lewis’s most famous fictional passages, Psyche beseeches her sister, Orual (the narrator) to be happy for her as she goes to meet the god of the Mountain:
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover.
But Psyche’s appeals fail and fail again, and Orual persists in searching for ways to save her sister from a god she is convinced is a monster.
Throughout the story, Orual is most often moved by sheer force of beauty—by the invitation to imagination. And through Orual, we are, too. About a third of the way through Till We Have Faces, Orual sets out on a sad journey to recover what she expects will be the dead body of her sacrificed sister, Psyche. But once up on the mystical Mountain, she finds herself within the realm of the god of the Mountain and facing a metaphysical struggle. In the realm of the god, she finds beauty—true beauty as she’s never known it before, except for in the ways that Psyche once beseeched her to look for it. Orual struggles to remain sad while her senses react to the world around her. Like a slave unchained from Plato’s cave, she’s come into the Real for the first time. She imagines she hears a voice: “Why should your heart not dance?”
Later, upon encountering Psyche alive and well in the valley of the god of the Mountain, Psyche asks her the same thing, “Why should our hearts not dance?” Why should your heart not dance to know that the god of the Mountain loves you and is calling you to be with him?
How do we tell stories about Jesus, really? How do we alter the perfection that is God? We don’t. We cannot add to or take away from him. But the Creation Mandate allows us to use our giftings in the most creative ways. So we invite people in to imagine him, to long for him, to feel homesick for him. And the liberties afforded the art and practice of storytelling mean that we can take myths, mountains, and mysticism and say, “God is present here, too—can you see Him?” When God became flesh and dwelled among us, he showed up in a way no one expected him to. Maybe, then, when God shows up in our stories, we should present him in unexpected ways, as well.
We cannot improve on the awesomeness of God in the stories we tell about him. What we can do is express the mystery, the longing to be with and like the God who is not like us—who loves us and drew us from the womb and from the dust of the earth. Who meets us in the quiet after the fire and rage and storm on the mountain.
When Orual first meets Psyche in her valley where she lives with the god of the Mountain, Psyche tells Orual her story of how she came to be there, of how she’s alive and not dead. While speaking, she says to Orual, “And you are nearly awake now. What? Still so grave? I must wake you more.” Meeting, and loving and being loved by, the god of the Mountain has brought Psyche to life, but Orual is still in the grave. Psyche is trying to bring her to life by telling her a story of the god of the Mountain. Lewis would not have been one to tell you there was a single, prescriptive way to tell a Christian story. The diversity of his storytelling methods is enough to show us that. But he would have hoped that in reading Till We Have Faces (or any of his novels) you would have longed to meet the true God behind the god of the Mountain.