Show, Don’t Tell: Good Friday and the Power of Story
One of the key components to writing successful creative literature—poetry, drama, fiction, even creative nonfiction—is specificity. There’s a long history of evidence for this. And some of the most compelling evidence, maybe surprisingly, is theological. Stay with me.
Concrete, sensory specificity is particularly important—appealing to the senses, to the physicality of our human natures. That’s what makes a story, for example, come alive. In countless creative writing textbooks, like the one I’m currently using for my own course, “Show, don’t tell” is the famous catchphrase. Even if not in those words, something of the kind is always advised. It’s meant to remind writers, and listeners, how the best stories take advantage of the unique power of their form.
This is something I always cover in creative writing courses, but I was struck anew with it this semester as the discussion happened to coincide with Holy Week.
I usually put it to my students this way: The strength of “creative” literature over “expository” literature is its ability to give readers an experience. And it does this, largely, by engaging the senses.
I ask them to compare lines like these:
1) John was excruciatingly hot.
2) John wiped a hand across his dripping forehead and felt a bead of sweat roll down his spine.
1) Tom had never seen Jill so angry.
2) Jill clenched her fists, face turning a deeper shade of red than Tom knew existed.
Then I ask my students: Which is more powerful? Which makes you remember the idea, and the character, more fully?
I’m certainly not saying expository writing is worthless, or even inferior, just different. Each form has its strengths and its limitations. I wouldn’t want to say of writings like theological texts, philosophical inquiries, lectures, or Paul’s epistles that they have some kind of secondary status in terms of communication power. Rather, creative and expository writing are like the right and left hands of the same communicator. He needs—or in God’s case, he’s at least decided to use—both hands to give the intended knowledge to the intended recipients. Together they’re like a sword and a shield. A bow and an arrow. Sure you could probably hit an attacker over the head with a bow once he was close enough. Or you could try to poke at him with an arrow. But you could stop him much easier by loosing the arrow from the bow while he’s still a long way off.
Even that little illustration is an example of what I’m talking about.
I could have put it this way, instead: It is far more effective to use implements that were designed to work together in conjunction with each other rather than using each of them separately to try and achieve the same result.
You can see the difference.
Some people, perhaps, soak in more understanding of things through expository statements of the kind I just gave. And maybe others absorb knowledge better through creative examples of the kind I gave before that—the bow and arrow example. It would seem, though, that no human person can gain fullest knowledge of a thing without learning from both sides.
On this occasion of Good Friday, however, it seems especially relevant to draw attention to the creative side of communicating a truth—i.e. the specific, concrete example, rather than the abstract statement; the visual representation, rather than the theoretical explanation; the experiential rather than the purely mental.
At this time of year, I’m reminded of why God chose to tell his people about himself, first and foremost, through a story. I recently heard an illuminating sermon on the opening of Genesis, the account of creation. The minister pointed out that while this is the beginning of the written Word, the actual beginning of God’s using the written Word to communicate something to His people is when he gave it to them.
Picture this: The ancient Israelites have been wandering a wilderness, following their leader to some end they know not. They’re fresh out of the House of Slavery. Newly redeemed by the God they’ve worshiped for centuries. Yet they haven’t reached any Promised Land. And God comes to give them something. They stop and listen. It’s a story, one that shows them what he’s done, and also what they’re a part of. God comes to them—through Moses—first with the account of creation. The act, itself, (coming to give them a story) is the actual beginning of God’s communication with his people through the written Word. They soon hear the words. But first they experience the act. And when they do hear the words, they’re given another experience: a story. One that places them in the middle of a grand narrative that started long before they were here.
Profound. But God’s strategy of communication gets even more interesting.
Today, when we reflect on the death of Christ, we’re reminded of this unique power of narrative: the experience.
We’re also reminded of why it has such power. The Creator and Storyteller of all designed it that way—but not arbitrarily. It would seem that this twofold manner of expression is somehow rooted in his very nature, and thus in how he interacts with his people from beginning to end. God does not merely give his people lists of rules. He does give those. But even those are always firmly ensconced in the narrative they’re attached to: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. [And now, here are my commandments.] You shall have no other gods before me,” etc. It’s only after God reminds his people of who he is, by showing them what he’s done in relation to them, that he proceeds to give them the Law.
Coming back then to what the Church reflects on during Good Friday, we’re compelled to remember what this turning point in the story means, first, about God, and then, second, about us. God not only gives us the written Word, to tell us who he is and what we mean to him. But he makes the Word become flesh. He, the invisible Word, becomes a person, like us in every way (but without sin), a man we could see and touch. He even tells Thomas, in his resurrected body, to touch him, to touch the holes in his hands and his side—tactile evidence showing both what he had done for his people and who he is.
We are told: “God is love,” and, “Greater love has no one than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.”
We see: Jesus on a cross, suffering an earthly and heavenly judgment he doesn’t deserve, so his friends don’t have to.
We are told: “God is compassionate.”
We see: Jesus giving bread and fish to a crowd like sheep without a shepherd.
We are told: “The Lord loves his people.”
We see: Jesus, “greatly troubled” in spirit, weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, such that those around say, ‘See how he loved him!’ Then we see Jesus raise him from the dead.
We are told: “God is holy,” and, “Zeal for [his] house will consume [him].”
We see: Jesus making a whip of cords and driving out money-changers from the temple, pouring out their coins and overturning their tables.
We are told: “God will gather the outcast.”
We see: Jesus eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors, laying his hands on lepers.
We are told: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
We see: Jesus healing the blind and the lame, forgiving sins that weren’t directly against him.
We are told: “God has opened a door of faith to the gentiles.”
We see: At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain being torn in two, from top to bottom.
We are told: “God is powerful.”
We see: Jesus rising from the grave.
How then does God love us? He loves us as a man who is willing to give his life and suffer Hell for people he adores, even when they’ve merited the judgment—and he hasn’t. Even when they flee from his side in his moment of greatest distress. How do we know God loves us this way? Because as Christ hung, laboring for breath, naked, wondering how his Father could have abandoned him to this, speared, pierced in hands, and feet, with a crown of excruciating mockery having punctured his sacred head, bleeding in the pangs of death, he cried out to God, the Father whose face was so bizarrely turned from him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That’s how we know God loves us.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston-Downtown, Houston Baptist University, and elsewhere. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.