Stories may be the most powerful tool we have for communicating our core beliefs. Those things we value most highly aren’t always easily described except in story. Think of the great truths imparted in Aesop’s Fables on topics such as perseverance and humility and patience. The knowledge that love requires sacrifice is at best an unformed, dry, intellectual statement until it has the power of a story – truthful or fanciful – behind it. Children learn this in beloved books like Charlotte’s Web and The Velveteen Rabbit. The best sermons are ones that use stories which draw us in and allow us to make connections to our own stories.
Music doesn’t need a story attached to it to be enjoyed, but I have found that people do seem more appreciative and more deeply involved in a piece of music when it’s telling a story (opera!) or when a story about the music is known – how something came to be written or what the composer’s frame of mind was at the time of composition. One of Sunday’s anthems is the story of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, told near the end of John Bunyan’s 17th century allegorical tale Pilgrim’s Progress. Mr. Valiant-for Truth has been bloodied in an attack by Wild-head, Inconsiderate and Pragmatic (I pauses for reflection on that last attacker…), but Truth had won that battle of 3 against 1 when he is found by the other Pilgrims. Some time later in the story he “crosses over” and the trumpets sound for him on the other side.
We may know intellectually that truth does eventually win every battle, but how much more interesting to be reminded of Truth’s triumph in story. There is as well a greater sense in Bunyan’s tale that Truth’s victory happens in God’s time, much to our chagrin when faced with injustice and untruth in our daily life. And would it be a useful bit of information to know that the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, was writing this setting of Bunyan’s text during the darkest days of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War?
This coming Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday. Beyond acknowledging Christ’s place as the head of our faith, it is more practically marking the final Sunday of the long season of Pentecost and the end of our liturgical year. We begin anew with Advent the following Sunday, and with that our storytelling also begins again. Waiting for a savior, the birth of that savior, his life and death…It’s a really good story, though Mr. Valiant-for-Truth gives away the ending.