(first published on November 17, 2011)
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 or to move a listener, but I have found that people can sometimes be 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. At the 11:15 service this Sunday at St. Alban’s, the story of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth will be sung in Ralph Vaughan Williams setting. It’s a story 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 paused for reflection on that last attacker and wondered if Relevance might be Pragmatic’s cousin…), but Truth wins the battle of 3 against 1, and when he “crosses over” some time later the trumpets sound for him on the other side, exulting in the grave’s lack of victory over us.
We may know intellectually that truth does eventually win every battle, but how much more stirring 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. God’s time is nearly always quicker or slower than we want. Would it be useful to know that Vaughan Williams was setting Bunyan’s text during the darkest days of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War? The story he tells in this piece, and the story about the piece’s creation both give context to those bits of knowledge that are sometimes factual, and sometimes simply truthful.