How Stories Do Their Work On Us

Reading with my children has reminded me of a truth that years of adulthood had almost caused me to forget: that “story” is truer than “precept.” We adults tend to think that we arrive at the truth of a story by reducing it to two or three abstractions that the narrative embodies. The parable of the Prodigal Son is “about” grace and forgiveness.The Lord of the Rings is “about” courage and friendship. We listen with half an ear as the preacher reads the scripture lesson, because his sermon is going to boil it down to three basic truths anyway.

But our children know it’s the story that does the work on us, not the disembodied precept. If you don’t believe it, open up a book of Aesop’s Fables; skip the fables, and just read the morals at the end of the fables. You might just as well tell punch lines instead of telling jokes. The moral may summarize the story and bring it to a point, but the moral isn’t the point.

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Guest Post: Growing Peas

In the comments section of this blog she’s known as BuckBuck, but her real name is Rebecca Reynolds. Besides winning the recent clerihew contest, BuckBuck/Rebecca writes beautifully and thoughtfully at a blog she calls the little boots liturgies. Today’s post, about gardening and quadratic equations and the hymnal that is nature, is so good

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The Artist and His Country

When my dad was in eighth grade, there was an art contest at his school. The winning picture would be displayed in the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was only 137 miles from Chester, Georgia to Atlanta, but it was a lot further than that. I don’t imagine very many of the students at

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Chesterton on Levity

GK Chesterton, not Teddy Roosevelt

I’m a big GK Chesterton fan. I especially love his book Orthodoxy, which is surely one of the most quotable books ever written. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs from that book:

The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird

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The Singing Bush and the World of Wonders

At breakfast this morning, a friend got on the subject of that scene in The Three Amigos in which Dusty, Lucky, and Ned encounter the Singing Bush. They’re trying to find El Guapo, and, in classic fairy tale fashion, they get vague instructions: go to the Singing Bush and there summon the Invisible Swordsman.

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Ramona and Beezus: A Movie Review

This may just be my low expectations speaking, but I saw Ramona and Beezus the other day and was quite delighted with it. It had the makings of a very cliched children’s movie. A puckish little girl feels misunderstood at home and at school, and her every effort to straighten up and fly right

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Andrew’s Goat, Flannery O’Connor, and the Uses of the Concrete

Last night a reader named Andrew made a comment that I thought merited more attention than it might get as the fifteenth comment in a thread. He told the story of a goat to illustrate the idea that we can’t really think of abstractions except in terms of “concrete, observable phenomena that we have

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Symbolism and The Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number–”a hundred and twelve” or “thirteen” or “seventy-eight”–and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. “Jokes,” the old prisoner said. “Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here–along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?”

“Yes,” said the new man.

“Well, we’ve all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time.”

Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, “Forty-six!” Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, “Some guys don’t know how to tell a joke.”


I taught my way through Vanderbilt’s PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” Here’s how Eliot himself explained it:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: “What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?” Steps 2-14: “Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he’s trying to get across here?” In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion.

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Flannery, Milton, and Me

Most of you probably don’t know that I’m working on a biography of Flannery O’Connor to be released in 2012. This will be part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series of short biographies. (My 2010 Saint Patrick book is from the first round of the same series).

Flannery O’Connor, like me, was a Middle

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Unsolicited Writing Advice: On the Real World

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow–a writer of espionage-action thrillers–who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a

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