The Stories We Tell: Some Stories are Made to be Broken
Of all genres of literature, I enjoy plays and short stories best. A reason for this is because, generally, I can work through them in one sitting, allowing time to read them again and again (something I’m convinced authors appreciate). I’ve also come to understand the challenge of writing a short story after reading widely and trying compose pieces on my own. Unlike the novel, where the author has hundreds of pages to develop characters and unravel plot lines, the author of the short story must master the lost art of concision. (I could say much more on this, but I won’t.)
One of my favorite short stories is “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy. If you haven’t read it, do so. Read the story online. Really, I’m going to give spoilers away. Ok, you’ve been warned.
Pahom is our tragic character who is dissatisfied with his life. One day he decides that what he really needs is land. This will grant the freedom and fulfillment he’s been looking for. So, Pahom begins to acquire land, but quickly Pahom realizes that he still longs for more. Pahom, then, meets a man who shares how he had just purchased a great deal of land from the Bashkirs for very little. It’s a rare opportunity and just what Pahom is looking for. So, Pahom meets with the Chief of the Bashkirs, discovering that he can have as much land as he wants. The cost is a thousand roubles a day, and to secure the land he must only walk its perimeter and return to the place he started at by the end of the day. The next morning Pahom begins his journey with a great start, pacing his energy and resources. However, by noon, he realizes that while he can have as much land as he wants, he’s more limited by time than he thought. So, he quickens his pace, and after the hours pass, the sun begins setting. This is the last stretch; now, he must run. With the sun hovering near the horizon, Pahom runs as swiftly as he can with the Bashkirs cheering for him in the distance. Right as the sun dips below the land, Pahom arrives! Out of breath, no doubt. The Bashkirs congratulate him jumping and cheering! But, Pahom doesn’t look so good. Within a moment, Pahom is on the ground, dead. “Six feet from his head to his heels,” writes Tolstoy, “was all he needed.”
Pahom is a tragic character written into a tragic story, and, oh, the ending hurts! Pahom could have gained so much land, but by small, barely noticeable (at the time) choices, he surrenders all: foremost his life. Greed devours. This is a broken story.
The Broken Story
Daniel Taylor in his work, The Healing Power of Stories, places stories into four helpful categories, and in this series I will focus on three of them: whole, broken, and bent. He defines a broken story as one in which good is portrayed as good and evil as evil, however, in the end, good is not victorious, but evil is.
When I think of a broken story, I also think of the book of Judges. At this period in biblical history, the Israelites were actively rebelling against God. Though we see glimpses of redemption from time to time (Ruth comes to mind), the story of Judges ends with the haunting lines, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (21:25).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve considered the purpose and value of broken stories. Shouldn’t Christians feed themselves mostly on what Taylor calls whole stories? He defines whole stories as tales in which redemption takes place and good (not evil) is victorious. (We will talk about whole stories in more detail in a future post, but Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and, foremost, the Bible are examples of whole stories.) Are broken stories dangerous?
In the Christian schools I’ve attended and served at, I’ve not been limited to whole stories. Actually, we have read plenty of broken tales, ranging from the Greek or Shakespearean tragedies to the dystopian novels of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. They tend to provoke deep consideration of brokenness. To avoid them would overlook an important part of human existence. That is what the humanities do: remind us what it means to be human.
I admit, broken stories are dark and unnerving and difficult to navigate at times. Have you ever had a grand piano dropped on your chest? I have: the afternoon I finished 1984. I was hoping, and expecting, Orwell would use Winston to expose and topple Big Brother; instead our hero is consumed by it.
Warning: if you let them, broken stories will burden your soul. But, should we avoid that?
The Purpose of Broken Stories
I now see that broken stories may serve an important purpose: they affirm what it’s like to live in a fallen world. Often it is the righteous who suffer and the wicked who prosper, and some people never experience a happy ending.
Broken stories may stir significant questions, if we stop and ask them:
Why did the villain win? What did the villain want? Is there hope the villain will ever find redemption? If not redeemed, will the villain ultimately receive justice or escape it? Why is this character the villain?
Why did the hero fail? What did the hero want? Is there hope the hero may conquer the villain? If he doesn’t conquer the villain, will he ever be vindicated? Why is this character the hero?
Good literature asks questions like these; questions that apply to my students, but also to you and me, and for that matter, all who are human.
The Storyteller's Call
Storytellers have a high calling: to tell the truth. They turn their backs on their craft when they portray lightly the darkness that takes place in the world. The author of Judges, and the author of every book in the Bible, fulfills this high calling. Because of this, when we read Scripture, we read about murder, rape, depression, persecution, and betrayal.
The Bible does not avoid the broken reality of our universe; God always tells the truth: our world is cursed. If you are human, you are broken. Left alone, humanity will never attain a happy story. It’s true: evil will always win.
My students must hear this. My colleagues and fellow storytellers must hear this. I must hear this.
Where Broken Stories Lead
If I don’t listen, I will never understand what’s about to come next: God became man and carried our burden of brokenness. Indeed, it was so heavy, it broke the God-man in the most violent fashion. But, after three days, God delivered justice, destroying evil in blinding glory. God made it clear: the only way to wholeness is through the god-man. This is the good news.
The broken stories of human existence matter because they can lead us to the whole story of the Gospel, and as a teacher and storyteller, I am called to help others understand the road from broken story to whole story. What a privilege it is.
I’m eager to hear what value, if any, you place on broken stories. Feel free to post below.