(This is a classic article from Answers In Action that complements our new article on Johnny Appleseed below: the power of story to communicate eternal truth.)
Analogy, parable, metaphor, symbol, icon, myth, epic, type — all of these words relate to the idea of communicating intangibles by means of the tangible, and all are used in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, to communicate many times in many ways the sublime truth of God’s love, justice, and redemptive plan. All too often, however, Christians today seem afraid of imagination, afraid that if we speak an eternal truth in the transitory words of human stories, we somehow betray God’s Word. Nothing could be further from the truth. Think of the images God uses as he describes Himself as a lover wooing his estranged spouse (Hosea 11), a pillar of fire guiding His people (Exodus 33); a mother hen protecting her chicks (Matt. 23), the Sovereign from whom come a tree and river of life (Rev. 22).
We rob ourselves and our children of a profound experience with the divine when we retreat from imaginative ways of communicating God’s truth. There is nothing unbiblical or untruthful about stories that, in the very vehicles of imagination, bring us to the truth of God. C. S. Lewis remarked, “The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode . . . [that] has the same power: to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it” (On Stories, 48).
For more than five hundred years English literature has celebrated and proclaimed the truth of God in imaginative stories that have provided unforgettable scripture lessons to millions. From the transformation of Beowulf as Christian epic to the realms of Middle Earth as Christian myth, stories captivate readers of all ages and bring us spiritual insight, experience, and challenge like nothing else. Take the following example from children’s literature. The Spider and the Fly, composed in the nineteenth century by a remarkable Christian author and apologist, Mary Howitt, has provided countless children and adults with an indelible understanding of the seductive power of self-centeredness and pride. (Thanks to CRI librarian Valerie Julius for finding the complete text of this currently unappreciated story.)
The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt (1799-1888)
“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Will you rest upon my little bed?” said the spider to the fly.
“There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I’ll snugly tuck you in!”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,
They never, never wake again who sleep upon your bed!”
Said the cunning spider to the fly: “Dear friend, what can I do
To prove the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that’s nice;
I’m sure you’re very welcome — will you please to take a slice?”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “kind sir, that cannot be:
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!”
“Sweet creature!” said the spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings; how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
“I thank you gentle sir,” she said, “for what you’re pleased to say,
And, bidding you good-morning now, I’ll call another day.”
The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again, and merrily did sing:
“Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple; there’s a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!”
Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes and green and purple hue,
Thinking only of her crested head. Poor, foolish thing! at last
Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast;
He dragged her up his winding stair, into the dismal den —
Within his little parlor — but she ne’er came out again!
And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words I pray you ne’er give heed;
Unto an evil counsellor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.