By Their Goodreads Ye Shall Know Them

The stories we read shape what we recognize in the world around us

When Eustace encounters a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the narrator comments, “Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books . . . They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 84, 87). Lewis was poking fun at modern education, but he was also making a point about reading. Since books are a window into areas of life beyond our immediate experience, they have the power to shape our expectations and understanding of the world.

“I thought he was a Darcy, but he turned out to be a Wickham!” the meme wails. Girls who grew up steeped in Jane Austen know exactly what that means because referencing the characters and the implied context convey a fuller meaning than just saying “I thought he was ‘the one’ but now I despise him.” George Wickham is a “type” (think, archetype) of a particular man that women try (and often fail) to avoid. (Maybe men have a secret stash of similar memes about trying to find their Elizabeth Bennett amid all the Lydias? Anyways.)

I thought of this while learning about typology in an Old Testament Survey class — a way of Biblical interpretation that explores how Old Testament events and symbols foreshadowed Christ. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were archetypes of Christ’s sacrifice. The Passover foreshadowed the Lord’s Supper. Old Testament prophets are types of Christ — their words often point to the current context of God’s people, but their lives and signs are foreshadows of Christ’s life and signs.

Jesus chided the Pharisees for studying the Scriptures but not understanding that they point to Him. “For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Moses never mentions Jesus’ name, but Moses’ entire life was a typological foreshadowing of Christ. (The “basic story” of Moses’ liberation of the Israelite slaves was repeated when Christ liberated us from sin.) When the disbelieving Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, He did not give them a miracle, nor did He lay out an argument with bullet points to prove Himself. He just referred the Pharisees back to the Old Testament and informed them that He would follow Jonah’s story (Matthew 12:38–42). At His arrest, Jesus tells the disciples not to resist — He has to fulfill the prophets. He tells the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26).

Jesus is constantly asking, “Did you do the reading? You’re telling Me you know the stories and still don’t recognize what’s going on here?” He’s pointing to the “narrative necessity” — of course His story would follow this pattern. Just like Aslan had to die, Harry Potter had to confront Voldemort, and Aragorn had to take the Paths of the Dead — those are the rules. And as C.S Lewis said in “Myth Became Fact” Christ’s story united ultimate story with ultimate fact (Lewis 343).

The Pharisees’ problem was not lack of scriptural knowledge, but a failure to fully ingest God’s story and see it emerge in the world around them. To be cliché, they missed the forest for the trees.

The Bible is, more than anything, a story of how God works in the world. Steeping ourselves in those stories until they shape our perception of the world may do more to keep us fixed in our identity as God’s people than memorizing catechism (although that’s also important). Regardless of what conclusions we come to in the endless wranglings over whether God “really” created the world in six days and whether Jonah was “really” swallowed by a fish, to an extent, whether or not every aspect of the stories is literally true isn’t as significant as whether or not we understand that these stories are God’s stories and that they should seep into us and create the pattern (archetype) through which we analyze the world.

Jesus is fundamentally revealed by His fulfillment of story. He only said a handful of words through His trial, death, and Resurrection, but His silent reenactment of the age-old story of innocent sacrifice, death, and resurrection spoke more eloquently than sermons. Many can say the right words, but to live the pattern of story is much more difficult to fake. It’s an interesting discussion topic: how have the books we read shaped the way we process the world? What do they nudge us to recognize or miss?

Further Reading:

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Hannah M Langdon

I write to develop my thoughts on the intersection of story and art with theology, philosophy, and politics.