Geheimnis) is strange to us (unheimlich) because we are not at home with it (daheim)." -- Bonhoeffer, Predigt am Sonntag Trinitatis, May 27, 1934
A GOOD STORY
There are two basic elements to any good story and they are this:
1. That your audience keeps asking the question "What happens next?"
2. That the characters in your story, whether "man vs. man" or "man vs. society" or "man vs. self" (as per your 8th grade English class), are marked by substantial and believable wants in conflict. What the "man" wants is in conflict with what the "machine" wants. What you want is in conflict with what your destiny wants for you, which both "nature" and "supernature" play a role in determining.
A story that possesses neither of these elements is a story badly in need of rewriting. Or of scrapping altogether. Or it's simply a very, very bad story that somehow got published. A story that possesses only one of these elements will bore its audience. And a story that possesses both finds itself at the starting point of a good story, though nothing more. Between a starting point and a "classic" of storytelling is a lot of hard work, insight into the world, trained skill, generous but austere feedback, patronage, talent and a little bit of luck.
18-minute talk J. J. Abrams gave at the TED conference in 2007 (see below). It's a pretty funny talk, too. I do recommend it. But the piece that captured my attention was Abrams' repeated emphasis on the importance of mystery to a good story. All good stories, he suggests, involve some component of mystery, some sense that a deeper reality lies beyond the audience's capacity to grasp yet leaves the audience feeling fuller rather than emptier because of it--fuller both because of the audience's encounter with mystery as well as because of its inability to finally or comprehensively grasp it.
A GOOD MYSTERY
His comments remind me of a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer once gave on the Trinity. He says:
"Mystery is not about things we do not know. It's not the star that is farthest away from us that is the greatest mystery to us, rather the opposite, the closer something comes to us, the more we come to know a thing, the more mysterious it becomes for us. Not the person who is furthest away from us is the biggest mystery, but rather the nearest one."
"The dearth of mystery in our modern life," he writes, "is our destruction and our poverty," and for Christians who allege to worship a God who exists mysteriously as three persons in one essence it is a shame that both our worship practices and our artistic practices resist or reject the mysterious character that marks our lives as creatures made in the image of this God.
This is a generalized broadside, I recognize. It does not describe all conservative Protestants. I happily acknowledge the many exceptions.
EXERCISES IN MYSTERY
The more interesting point for me, then, is a practical one. If the large majority of our life as Christians is engaged in practices--whether liturgical or artistic, whether occupational or relational--that habituate us away from mystery and towards the pragmatic, rational and technical, how will we become a people who indwell the mystery of Christ, as saint Paul describes it? How do we become a people at home in the mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit if the habits of our lives build muscles that make us averse to this mystery?
It is for this reason that stories like the kind for which J. J. Abrams is responsible, such as LOST, ALIAS, "Cloverfield" and "Super 8," can be, quite literally, good for us. Whether he self-consciously seeks to accomplish this goal, Abrams' stories, which (often maddeningly) keep us asking the question, "What happens next?", serve as exercises in mystery; small "m" mystery perhaps but never far from large "M" mystery. In the talk that he gives at TED, Abrams both winsomely and perhaps again unknowingly serves as witness to the patterns of God's kingdom, and for that, as I plow through season 5 of LOST, I am grateful.
(Here below I include a video of Abrams' talk as well as two other artworks that caught my attention over the past week.)
1. J.J. Abrams' Mystery Box
2. A very funny take on artist's statements.
3. Malcolm Guite's "Love's Choice: A Sonnet for the Feast of Corpus Christi"
This is a beautiful sonnet by my British friend Malcolm Guite, who also happens to remind Phaedra and me of Tom Bombadil. The last line of this sonnet is especially stirring. Do yourself a favor and click the audio link so you can hear Malcolm reading the poem himself.