There Is Truth in Our Great Stories

Great stories can lead us to the destination of truth, all the while inviting us to enjoy the journey.

John Gilbert, “The Plays of William Shakespeare,” ca. 1849
John Gilbert, “The Plays of William Shakespeare,” ca. 1849 (photo: Public Domain)

I had the fortunate occasion to get together with some old friends from high school this past winter. We’re a fairly diverse bunch. I’m the lone Catholic, while two of them are Protestants (non-practicing), one is Russian Orthodox (non-practicing), and the other an atheist (practicing). Though our lives have taken quite different paths since our formative teen years, we always enjoy those rare opportunities when we can all convene. I suppose shared history can be the stuff of strong and lasting bonds.

David (one of the Protestants) offered the use of his parents’ place, located on a sizable property that serves as a llama farm, with scenic views of the rolling hills of northwest New Jersey, and the twinkling lights of a ski resort in the distance. The five of us sat around the dining room table, sharing our latest tales and a bottle of Chartreuse. (For those who have never heard of Chartreuse, I recommend looking up its history. I daresay it could be considered a Catholic beverage.)

At one point, my friends congratulated me on the publication of my first book, a work of historical fiction based on the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of persecuted Christians in 17th-century Japan. I had lived there for four years, close to the site where the actual events took place. I was inspired by the history of the Church and by the small but devout Catholic community I encountered. Richard (the other Protestant) asked why I had chosen to write a work of fiction, as opposed to a straightforward nonfiction account. Indeed, when I first sat down to start writing, just around the time the pandemic kicked in, I had considered taking that route. But I soon discovered a desire to do more than report facts. I wanted to tell a story.

There is something about storytelling that is innate to our human nature. We all know someone who is a good storyteller. As with music or any other artform, some may be more adept at it than others, but we all enjoy the telling of a good story for its own sake. And just as with the other arts, there seems to be something about storytelling that connects to the very core of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. As the five of us sat around that table sharing stories we’d all heard a hundred times before, still we told them with fervor and listened with childlike anticipation, as though relating events of only the day before.

Historical fiction has long been my favorite literary genre, and the decision to employ it for my own work was quite a natural choice. In my youth, an uncle had once given me a novel called The Silver Pigs, a mystery crime thriller set in the Roman Empire of AD 70. As the author takes us on a guided tour of ancient Rome, pointing out the nuances of everyday life at that time, she weaves a suspenseful story of an undercover agent’s attempt to bring killers to justice. Some years later, I had a similar experience with The Alienist, a tale of the efforts to stop a serial murderer in the New York City of 1896. Books such as these offer up a fruitful marriage between history lesson and stimulation of the imagination.

Back at the dining room table, Tom (the atheist) made a rather astute point. (Atheists as intelligent as he is can be very frustrating, but I pray daily for his conversion.) “You know,” he said, “it’s often through fiction that we come to better understand history.” As an example, he reminisced about our study of the Vietnam War in high school U.S. History class. “We weren’t really moved by the facts on the pages of the textbook. But seeing films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon gave us a real sense of the realities of war, and even moved some of us to learn more about the actual events.” I certainly had to agree.

It’s hard to deny the art of storytelling touches and connects us. While the study of history informs about the particulars of people and events, it’s through stories that universal truths of the human condition are revealed and explored. The most excellent example of this is arguably the plays of Shakespeare. We continue to read (and hopefully see) these plays, some four centuries later, not because of some notion that it’s what educated people do, but because they reveal timeless truths about the nature of man — and even the nature of God. After seeing several of the plays at the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario (an experience I highly recommend), I am convinced that the Bard of Avon was secretly a Catholic. In any case, the study of Shakespeare should hold a much higher place of primacy in the world of Catholic education.

Much of the 15 years I taught Theology at a Catholic high school included the study of Sacred Scripture. Particularly when reading, say, the book of Genesis, students would sometimes ask, “Are these stories or are they true?” I would reply with the confident claim that these stories are indeed the truest ever told. And I hope subsequent discussion led to some understanding that, regardless of whether a particular passage is meant to be understood as literal or allegorical, all the stories of Scripture are true. Our Blessed Lord himself taught in parables, and we know that these stories, grounded in the things of the natural world, reveal truths about the things of the supernatural order.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a wealth of great historical fiction in the collective treasure chest of literature. However, I would make the case that we could use more of the Catholic variety. In a market so saturated with dark fantasy and erotica, let’s offer alternatives that are stimulating and uplifting, while simultaneously offering lessons on the various chapters of Church and human history. After all, great stories can lead us to the destination of truth, all the while inviting us to enjoy the journey.

 

Michael Thomas Cibenko writes from New Jersey.

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