I was recently watching a Google event where author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) talked with his friend Dan Stone about watching a crime movie called Adventurera. Stone commented on how outlandish some of the story is, and Handler replied:
“I think that when things are the most out-sized are when you can look at them better. It’s kind of like an exploded view, like what they do with Legos or with IKEA furniture where they have the exploded view… and that’s when you’re able to figure it out. I often think that out-sized, melodramatic stories are that way. If you really want to think about how your loyalty is if you’re in love, or you’ve been betrayed, or you’re marrying into a family who’s doing things that are not the things you would do – these are questions which are asked in this movie, but they’re asked ridiculously.
This poses an interesting question: do outlandish stories get to the heart of life better?
Often I think the answer is yes. In fact, we might say that for Christians this concept is central, because we believe that humans views of normality is tainted.
One of Christianity’s central claims is that human beings are broken. We are sinners, with moral consciences but broken desires that taint how we see right or wrong. We are also finite, which means we can’t see the full plan for how things will turn out. This means even though we have faith, all things work to the good of those who love God, how those things will work out good is a mystery. As John Piper writes in his book Risk is Right, we spend a lot of our lives taking what appear to be risks because we cannot see yet what God is going to do.
We also find that frequently the way God works out things is shocking to us. His ways are not our ways, and as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “God choose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”
As Bryan M. Litfin writes in The History of Apologetics, this verse doesn’t mean that God is irrational. Rather, it reminds us that “God tends to work through things that humans find repulsive, foolish or absurd.”
Thus, part of being a Christian is being humble enough to admit when our perspective is flawed and we need to take a new perspective that may feel a bit absurd at first. Outlandish stories can help with this process, because they shake up our perspectives and force us to see things in new ways.
These outlandish stories could be speculative stories that make us consider moral ideas in fantasy settings. Or they could be the sort of stories that Handler was talking about, stories that take place in realistic settings but have shocking twists and turns. Regardless, they have a capacity to talk about life in a way that is particularly Christian.
This idea has several ramifications for storytellers, one of them being that goodness is often best communicated in a way that feels a bit outlandish. Stories that make goodness feel too normal can miss the point, make it hard to see what the readers are supposed to aspire to follow.
As a book reviewer, I often get Christian Fiction novels to review. These are usually inspirational stories about normal people doing relatively normal things – renovating a home, buying a new businesses, moving somewhere new and settling in a new town. The story progresses, there are a few roadblocks which aren’t terribly shocking, and then there’s an upbeat resolution.
All very pretty, but it’s hard to say if these stories really have any spiritual ideas. Everything that happens is so normal that we can’t really tell if these stories are about God or just about human beings working hard and getting their logical reward for their efforts.
We know the writers are trying to say that the character’ victory is a sign of God’s goodness, but we know God’s presence by the fact that it’s a little otherworldly. When we have a dramatic experience of God, such as seeing a miracle, we are shocked because we know something has intervened in how our lives normally work. Even if we have a subtle experience of God, such as walking through the forest and feeling that something must have designed these trees, there’s something unusual in that experience. We feel like something good yet beyond our perception is present, which means something divine must be present.
So, inspirational Christian Fiction presents a problem. The stories are about normal people doing normal things. There are rarely any scenes that suggest something is intervening to help the characters succeed. Nor do the writers describe things in a way that suggests there’s some kind of divine agent working subtly behind the scenes. So really, it’s hard to say that these stories are about God at all. They could easily just be about having a good middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic: work hard, smile through the pain, and everything will turn out fine.
In contrast to that, there are stories like It’s a Wonderful Life which is light-hearted and inspirational, but gives you with a very different view of goodness. Yes, George Bailey works hard to help his town, but most of the time it feels like a sacrifice. He never gets to leave town, go to college and experience all the adventures he wanted to have when he was younger. He gives a lot of his identity up before he grows into a different person and figures out that new person actually had a pretty good life.
It’s also worth nothing that George doesn’t realize how good his life was until he meets a really outlandish person. Clarence is what literature students would call a holy fool, a character who could be a clown or a lunatic but he actually knows something none of the more “sensible” characters realize. He is a good influence, but he’s totally outside George’s normal experience. In short, Clarence is a divine agent who shakes things up for George so he can see a surprising truth.
All in all, George Bailey takes an odd and outlandish route to reach the inspiring conclusion that he actually had a wonderful life. Which may be what makes it such a great portrait of goodness.