This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, two of the protagonists, Frodo and Sam, are at the end of their rope in one of the darkest moments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo is discouraged and ready to give up, but Sam, ever the optimist, encourages him with the only thing they have left: the “great stories” they learned growing up. His words are among my favorite in all of literature:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”
Sam’s words have helped carry me through some of the darkest times in my life, because they ring with truth. Think of the great stories that have shaped you, the epics and fairy tales and adventures and romances and action movies that captured your heart when you were young. The stories that move us most often carry similar themes throughout them all, certain literary motifs that keep drawing authors back again and again, storylines we can’t seem to escape. The “search for home” propels stories as varied as Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Baum’s Wizard of Oz. The “unlikely hero” surfaces in nearly every Disney movie, as well as diverse novels like King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. “Restoration” storylines echo through The Return of the King, Star Wars, Hamlet, and The Aeneid.
Why do those themes grip our hearts and stand the test of time? Why do you tear up at the climactic moment of a movie, when victory is in sight but still seems so far away? Because something deep in our souls resonates with the subtle whisper coming through these stories, the whisper of a true Story, a real fairy tale, what Tolkien called “the true myth.” They stir up a secret ache deep down in our hearts that we have buried and tried to move on from, a homesickness for some place we’ve never actually been, a desire for something we’ve never truly experienced. C.S. Lewis, in his masterful essay The Weight of Glory, puts it like this:
“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you, the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter… But the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Coming through every book and music and movie that has ever gripped your soul is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” a longing ache for something we were made for but have never experienced.
The Bible is the “true myth” whispering through every story, the original song behind every echo, which unmasks that hidden ache and, in the end, satisfies it. As we have seen, the opening pages of the story set up our true home and identity: a paradise of fellowship and unity and joy with God, where we were made to rule over a world that bowed to our will and flowered with endless blessing. To walk with God, please God, and represent God, to exercise dominion and be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, is the life that the human heart was designed for. And this is the life that was ripped from our hands when our first parents, the king and queen of the cosmos, were overthrown and driven from their perfect kingdom.
Now every human heart finds itself homeless and crownless, yet unable to name or even identify the ache because we have never truly experienced the home and crown that we crave. Even in our most contended, restful moments—sitting on a beach, lying in the arms of a loved one, returning to a childhood home—the joy we feel is intertwined with a subtle homesickness that simultaneously makes the happiness sweeter and yet somehow also painful. And our moments of greatest achievement—crossing the finish line, receiving the award, completing the project—prick an inconsolable desire, stir a restless hunger, for something greater that we can’t quite articulate. It’s as if we were haunted by the memory of a dream; every joy and sorrow accompanied by a feeling that we don’t belong, a fear that we don’t measure up, a thirst that no home or accomplishment can slake.
Carl Sagan, a brilliant atheist scientist and philosopher, captured this sense of haunting, happy homesickness in the opening words of his television show, Cosmos:
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
As an atheist, Carl Sagan was perhaps closer to the kingdom than he realized. He was right in identifying the universal human ache for home and for significance, but he was wrong in identifying the source. We ache for home, not because this world “is all that is or was or ever will be,” but because we were in fact made for another world, a home that we have lost and yet lingers in our souls as an irrepressible memory. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Nothing in this world can satisfy the ache in our souls; nothing will ever be enough, because every place of rest we’ve ever experienced and every reward we’ve ever tasted is a dim shadow of the world we were made for. The story of the Bible is nothing less than the story of God recreating that lost world, and recreating us to live and reign there.