Unlikely Heroes Through Story
By Jonathan Rogers
I once saw a t-shirt that read, “Slow and steady wins the race — except in a real race.” Funny, right? I thought it was. Cold, hard reality smashes through an old, tired cliché, and the result is humor.
But the more I thought about that t-shirt slogan, the less convinced I was that “reality” had gotten the better of the old cliché.
Yes, it is ridiculous to suggest that slow and steady wins the race … unless you have heard a certain story about a tortoise who kept plugging away, slowly and steadily, and an overconfident hare who thought his natural ability excused him from putting in the necessary effort to win a race that was his to lose.
So, then, which of these statements is truer?
A) Slow and steady wins the race.
B) Slow and steady pretty much never wins a real race.
Statement B is true in a literal sense. But in many of the most important areas of life, Statement A is truer than Statement B. From schoolwork to relationships to investing, slow and steady always beats cocky and flashy in the long run.
The key phrase there is in the long run. What do we do in the meanwhile? We tell stories to teach ourselves and to remind ourselves and our children of things that are more deeply true than the obvious and flashy “truths” that press themselves so insistently on us every day.
One of the reasons we so desperately need stories — both fiction and non-fiction — is that stories give us access to paradoxical truths that aren’t at all obvious. One of the most perplexing things about Christian parenting — indeed, about all of Christian living — is the fact that the deepest truths of Christianity are counterintuitive:
- The first shall be last (Matt. 20:16).
- The meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).
- He who would save his life shall lose it (Matt. 16:25).
- God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
You won’t learn these truths from watching the news, where the rich get richer and the first get firster. You won’t learn these truths on the school playground, where the meek don’t even get a second turn on the foursquare court. If our children are going to grasp the paradoxes, the sheer unlikeliness of Christianity, they need to be bathed in story. They need holy imagination.
S.D. Smith, founder of storywarren.com, wrote, “Children see everywhere an upside-down world. Holy imagination is a crucial capacity to help them see it right-side-up. To help them appreciate the wonder and magic of the world that is and anticipate the almost entirely unimaginable glory of the world as it shall be.”
Holy imagination: We foster it through story. Jesus did so through telling parables.
Of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits seem the least qualified to deliver the Ring to Mordor. We love the fact that they do. The very pedestrian muggles who raise Harry Potter believe he’ll never amount to anything, yet he is the object of hope and wonder in the much more wonderful world of the wizards.
Why do we so love stories of unlikely heroes? Because they’re the truest stories. In our story, the Hero is a most unlikely one: the King of the Universe was born not in a palace but in a stable. His birth was announced not to the movers and shakers, but to shepherds on a hillside. He grew up in Galilee, a region so rural and backward that people used to say, “Can any good thing come out of Galilee?” When He grew up, He didn’t have a home or a steady job. He hung out with laborers and tax collectors and losers and misfits of every stripe. And when His time had come, He conquered death through a most unlikely means: He died the shameful death of the cross and rose again from the dead.
Yes, Jesus was the most unlikely of heroes — and the only sort of hero who could rescue a human race that was hell-bent on its own destruction. There is an upside-downness to our story that requires upside-down solutions.
When the gospel began to spread, it didn’t spread rightside- up but upside-down — not through the powerful and the influential, but through twelve poorly educated sons of toil, some of whom, like Peter, were of questionable reliability. The gospel that began by paradox conquered the world by paradox.
I love what Paul told the Corinthians: “Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:26-27).
That’s another way of saying that, in the end, the unlikely heroes turn out to be the real heroes. We look at ourselves and say “I don’t bring much to this situation,” but God says, “No, no, no; I use the weak things of the world to shame the mighty, and the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” We say, “We feel like orphans,” but God says, “No, no, no; you are sons and daughters of the Most High.”
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Wilderking Trilogy, The Charlatan’s Boy, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, and The World According to Narnia. He teaches literature and writing at New College Franklin in Franklin, Tenn. and is a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room (rabbitroom.com). He lives in Nashville with his wife Lou Alice and their children.
This article originally appeared in ParentLife Magazine (June 2016) ParentLife.