When I was twenty years old, I decided it was time I wrote a novel.
I was on exchange, studying in Paris that semester, so I took myself off to Gibert Jeune and invested in one of the Moleskine notebooks that were not quite yet de rigueur for faux-starving writers the world over. I dutifully did the rounds of cafés once frequented by the likes of Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Hemingway, and now recognisable chiefly by the ability to induce dutiful tourists to pay €6 for a glass of Coke.
From memory, the projected novel centred on two (male) characters, one old, one young. The older man was a writer—no, scratch that. They were both writers. (Sigh.) The older man had written a book that had set the world alight, in an unspecified but Nazi-Germany, madness-of-the-nations kind of way. The young writer—of the aspiring variety—encounters him in an out-of-the-way café (think Eichmann in Buenos Aires).
The book (my book) was then to consist of a series of conversations between the two, no doubt covering such themes as Regret, Ambition, Guilt, and Redemption, and addressing the unspoken question: to write or not to write? (Facepalm.)
Even had it progressed beyond a few dense, laboured-over paragraphs, my abortive masterpiece could only have become a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad novel.
Here’s why. I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t care all that much about story. For me, the clutter of times and places, events and characters, mantelpieces and weather and what kind of coat someone was wearing were incidental at best to what I saw as the point: the Ideas.
There are novels, historically, that share my impatience with details and get away with it. Voltaire’s Candide, for example. But they tend to be anomalies. Milestones of intellectual history, as novels they get more of a grudging free pass than a place of honour.
My preference for the abstract—the pure—over the concrete was built into my character and temperament. Even as a kid, I was notoriously unobservant of my surroundings, spending more time in my daydreams than my backyard. I found descriptions of place in the novels I otherwise devoured tiresome. I was always seeking to lose myself—the constraints and particularities of my own person and circumstances—in something larger.
In short, I felt keenly the gap between reality as it was in my head—as it was always, I felt certain, just on the edge of becoming—and the frustrations, the redundancies, the routine and woefully inadequate pacing of actual daily life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, as an undergrad I planned to major in philosophy. The more abstract the material, the better. But by the time my semester in Paris rolled around, by virtue of a timetabling quirk and an old, re-awakened instinct, I had dropped my philosophy courses in favour of a new focus: English literature. Though it clearly had yet to work its magic on me, that choice would mean, in the coming years, devoting myself far more to the particular, the concrete—to abstract ideas fully enfleshed in story.
At the same time as my literary studies were tethering me more closely to contingency, my affections and habits of attention were being retrained to the same end in a quite different school: the reading of the Bible, in Christian community.
I’d been doing that for several years at this point—in Bible study groups, in personal devotions, sitting in the pews of a ‘Bible-believing’ church week in and week out. And nowhere in my life, perhaps, did I feel that gap between the ideal and the actual more keenly than in my encounters with Scripture.
The stories of the Bible—the patriarchs, the annals of Israel, the gospels, the accounts of the early church—struck me as far more ‘spiritual’, in any and every sense, than my own story. The experiences of Abraham or Peter were maybe more struggle than mountaintop; but they had a narrative shape that my life manifestly lacked. Life as relayed in Scripture seemed glossier, far less ragged and uneven. It might be tragic, but never merely depressing; terrible things might happen to these people, but their days were never simply messy or chaotic, as mine so often were. There were highs and lows, but everything had meaning. Their lives were epic.
And when they were good, they were very, very good. What church member has read those passages in Acts—‘All the believers were together and had everything in common’, ‘the Lord added to their number daily’, ‘they were one in heart and mind’, ‘much grace was upon them all’—and not thought, really? what’s wrong with us?
How did I manage for so long to see almost exclusively what I expected to see when I opened up the Bible? It’s not uncommon, I suppose; we spend a lifetime learning to peer round the assumptions that hover between our eyes and the page (while at the same time working hard to keep them from slipping).
I think the change, for me, came first and most decisively in the book of Acts: a shock of connection. Yes, miraculous healings and the conversion of thousands and graceful defiance of power were par for the course. But so were setbacks and interpersonal conflict, and seemingly pointless frustrations.
Into the perpetual beatitude of the church in Jerusalem creeps a note of discord. People, being people, begin to resent one another over seemingly minor things: our widows aren’t getting as much food as your widows. There is murmuring, complaint. The gospel does not buoy everybody above such banal trifles. The apostles need to meet, consider, find a practical solution.
Paul and Barnabas disagree over whether John Mark makes a good intern. They get so worked up about it that they decide to break up the band, the evangelistic dream team, and go their separate ways. Paul appears before kings, survives an assassination plot and a shipwreck, only to have a snake emerge from a bit of firewood and bite him. For crying out loud! Whose plan is this?! God does redeem the situation for good. Maybe. But these guys clearly weren’t exempt from the chaos and apparent randomness of the world I know. Life came to them as it comes to us, one thing after another, narrative shape an act of faith rather than a halo bestowed.
I had claimed to believe the Bible was true; that these people really lived, and did and experienced the things it said. But I hadn’t been reading it that way.
I’d been reading the narratives of the Bible in much the same way that certain translators of the New Testament once read the Greek of the writers. As any student of biblical Greek knows, the language the text is written in is koine Greek—the common tongue, the language of the people and the streets. But most of the literature that otherwise survived the New Testament period was written in classical Greek, the literary language.
Eugene Peterson tells the remarkable story of Oxyrhynchus, an unprepossessing archaeological dig that took place in Egypt at the very end of the 19th century. He writes that, up until its discovery, some scholars had maintained that the five hundred or so words unique to the New Testament—those not found in any contemporary Greek literature—represented a kind of ‘Holy Ghost’ Greek: unique terms, uncorrupted by common use, supplied by God’s Spirit in order to match the uniqueness of the message. Not below the classical standard, but rather far superior.
In 1897, two Englishmen excavated an ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus, on the Nile, and discovered that almost all of these ‘spiritual’ words were to be found among the refuse of the time: letters from husbands to wives, shopping lists, petitions, receipts. As the philologist James Hope Moulton wrote a decade later, ‘The Holy Ghost spoke absolutely in the language of the people, as we might surely have expected He would’.
As for the language, so for the content. Gradually, I began to read the narratives and the dialogues of the Bible not as lofty, super-spiritual scenes of biblical life, but as real events, taking place in the same world to which I’d spent the last couple of decades orienting myself. I felt Abraham’s bewilderment as years turned to decades in expectation of an ever-more-unlikely son. I puzzled over all that lay beneath the surface in Jesus’ exchange with his mother at the wedding in Cana. I came to read in the spare restraint of the crucifixion accounts, not the solemn elegance of a plainly world-changing event, but the brutality and shivering horror from which my Lord was not exempted.
This was a win, clearly, for my devotional life. It also had implications for what I unconsciously thought of as the burden of the everyday. Discovering the obstinate concreteness of real life in Scripture validated it in a way that, for me, was deeply counter-intuitive, and strangely comforting.
Of course, what it should not have been was surprising, seeing as I worshipped a God who had chosen incarnation. Jesus’ birth, to a particular family in a very particular time and place and culture; his apparently quiet first thirty years, living each day all through; his patient embrace of the people he encountered, and the haphazard circumstances that came to him: all declared plainly that my preference for the abstract and sublime over the ordinary—at its heart, an embrace of ideas over people—was in no way shared by my God. As C. S. Lewis has noted, ‘Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.’ It is people that matter. And people are always particular.
This is how it is, to be Christian. I recently came across this remark, made by Sir Walter Raleigh (the nineteenth-century scholar, not the Elizabethan adventurer) in a letter to his sister: ‘It seems absurd to subordinate philosophy to certain historical events in Palestine—more and more absurd to me.’
And it is strange, not only our constant return to a hill outside Jerusalem on a Friday around 30AD, but the way we bend so much of our imaginative energy and our time and scrutiny on the up-and-down narratives of a minor Middle Eastern people over a couple of thousand years, distant from us in almost every respect. How strange, yet how rich, how right, to sink ourselves into the particular, as God has done in and for his people over history. We are human, and nothing good comes to us except by the limitations of our time and place, the people and things actually around us. There is no philosophy apart from the synapses that fire, the books off the press, the teachers who mediate, the cultural context that operates, to produce it. The abstract is always, for us, conjoined to the physical, the concrete. We are hybrid creatures in a hybrid world.
To be like our Father in heaven is to embrace, not resist, incarnation. Part of what that means is to embrace story—in defiance of what Eugene Peterson calls ‘our contemporary unbiblical preference … for information over story’. In Eat This Book, Peterson warns us against trying to reduce story to more manageable forms, to formula or principle or slogan:
Stories suffer misinterpretation when we don’t submit to them simply as stories. We are caught off-guard when divine revelation arrives in such ordinary garb and mistakenly think it’s our job to dress it up in the latest Paris silk gown of theology, or to outfit it in a sturdy three-piece suit of ethics before we can deal with it. The simple, or not so simple, story is soon, like David under Saul’s armor, so encumbered with moral admonitions, theological constructs, and scholarly debates that it can hardly move.
Story is not a sop to the simple-minded or the short-attention-spanned. It’s not a rhetorical flourish, a way of packaging the ‘real’ message, a mere stepping-stone to where we actually want to go. Lewis has written of myths that we have an impulse to seek explanations of them, to take their power and codify it—but that story eludes all such efforts: ‘after all allegories have been tried, the myth itself continues to feel more important than they’.
This is true of (good) story more generally. It does not exist for the sake of the commentary we make on it; our explanations are not useless, but they serve us best by illuminating the story itself in new ways. To seek to disembody story—to engineer a kind of reverse incarnation—is to impede its working. The parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of David and Goliath (or, for that matter, of Hester Prynne or Dr Jekyll), is more than the sum of its parts. It engages us as whole people—mind, body, spirit—in a way that information or analysis alone can rarely rival. Story takes root in us in ways we don’t entirely understand, to be activated in ways we can’t predict.
This is rather a long way round of explaining why that novel I resolved on penning at the ripe old age of twenty could only have been stillborn. I wanted to explain more than I wanted to tell; I was the helicopter novelist, stymieing the independence of my progeny, and of my reader. It would have been, at best, the exact sum of its parts—not inviting the reader into something larger, the way stories should.
In what would become a foundational statement for the realist novel, George Eliot-as-narrator muses in Adam Bede (1859) on the relation of narrative to life as we experience it:
I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields— on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
I don’t mean to imply that realist fiction is the ‘real’ or even the best kind; let alone to denigrate philosophy, or abstract thought generally. Information, doctrine, theory, formula are all proper and potentially beautiful objects of human attention and labour.
But I do want to suggest that Christians are in no position to dismiss story, or treat it as an optional garnish to life. We are committed to incarnation, and incarnation constrains what we can value or dismiss. We cannot treat with distaste what God has honoured.
This is a foundational principle, I suspect, for a Christian novelist, but also for a Christian reader, not to mention for Christians as sisters and fathers and friends and workers and players. As we encounter stories in Scripture and out of it, as we encounter the apparently disordered circumstances of our daily lives and the stubborn concreteness of the world around us, the goal is not be lifted free of the mess but to cherish it, and so to see it redeemed, transfigured. As the poet-narrator announces in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s narrative poem Aurora Leigh (1856):
… ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small,’ has said a poet of our day …
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And, (glancing at my own thin, veined wrist,)
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes …
 Natasha Moore has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, and is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age, and editor of 10 Tips for Atheists … and other conversations in faith and culture.
 Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A conversation in the art of spiritual reading. (Eerdmans, 2006), pp141-147.
 James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (T. & T. Clark, 1908), Vol. 1, p5.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and other addresses (HarperCollins, 1976), p46.
 Letter from Sir Walter Raleigh to his sister Alice, 22 May 1899, in The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh, ed. Lady Raleigh, Vol.1 (Methuen, 1926), p209.
 Eat This Book, p41.
 Ibid., p43.
 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p44.
 George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. Carol A. Martin (Oxford University Press, 2008), p160.
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Norton, 1996), 7.809-23.
Comments will be approved before showing up.