All of us love stories about transformation.
Whether it’s an inspirational account of someone’s weight-loss journey or the Cinderella story of an athlete who against-all-odds reaches the pinnacle of their sport, the penchant for tales of metamorphosis appears to be something that is deeply human. And the subject of change with which we appear to be most inveterately intrigued is human character: who a person is, or becomes, at the deepest level of their nature and personality.
Consider for a moment just how wide this idea of character transformation is within storytelling. Sometimes that change is a tragic tale, where we follow a protagonist’s character arc as it degenerates hopelessly into psychological and moral catastrophe – think Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Tolkien’s Gollum, Jack ‘Here’s Johnny’ Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining, or Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen.
But our most beloved stories are often those that depict radical transformation in the opposite direction. These are the tales of redemption, where a formerly corrupt and detestable character emerges transfigured, born-again as a now morally-virtuous, admirable individual:” think of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, or everyone’s favourite festive conversion: Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Why does the concept of transformation resonate so meaningfully with the human heart?
Might the reason why these stories connect with us so profoundly be because of their plausibility? Does their power resides in the fact that, as we observe them, we are in some sense looking into the mirror of our own very real faculty for change in either moral direction?
The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that: “…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Could it be then that these kinds of tales connect with us, not simply because they are the story of a fellow human being, but because they are the story of every human being? As we read them, they read us; they imaginatively remind us of our primal capacity for both evil or good, a fall from grace or glorious redemption.
But beyond our mere love for the idea of transformation, how achievable is change in the real world? Is transformation just a romantic pipe dream or a realistic hope?
When it comes to physical alteration at least, it would appear that the promise of change is incredibly believable. The multi-billion dollar success of the fitness, weight-loss and cosmetics industries are testament to just how marketable the promise of transformation in this area actually is.
But what about character change?
I wonder if real change appears dubious to many of us is largely because of disappointing personal experience. Perhaps we once put our faith in the assurance of change vowed to us by another person – a spouse, a father, a child – only to painfully discover there was no change. Leopards cannot change their spots. Or perhaps the frustrated change is in some area of our own lives and we have wearily resigned ourselves to the fact that we can never be different.
In an article entitled, ‘Why Most People Don’t Really Change’, author and psychotherapist Joseph Burgo offers three reasons why people often fail to change. We find character transformation so difficult, Burgo says, because: a) most people don’t have an accurate view of who they truly are and, therefore, don’t recognise where they might need to change, b) we have a human propensity to blame other people for our short-comings (e.g. family or political systems), and c) effecting change involves hard work and making difficult choices.
If Burgo’s diagnoses are correct, it would seem that our only hope of true change is to find a meaningful source of light, love and power. We need a light that can accurately and indiscriminately illuminate the reality of who and what we are; we need a love that will patiently continue to believe in us and pursue our ultimate good, despite the ugliness of what the light may reveal; and we need a power that can authentically change us to be and live differently from the deepest levels of our humanity.
What is so interesting is that in many of the tales of transformation we often enjoy, this light, love and power is discovered not by an individual’s introspection or conjuring of personal willpower, but via an external – often supernatural – agent that intervenes in the course of their life. This is certainly the case for old Ebenezer Scrooge. It is the painful, yet loving supernatural light of what the ghosts reveal that awakens Scrooge to his true condition and empowers him to transform from a man who lives in darkness at so many levels, to become “… as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew.”
I wonder if that is why many people also find Christianity so compelling. After all, Jesus claimed not simply to provide light, but to be the Light of the World (John 8:12). He promised that whoever followed him would never walk in darkness but would have light that empowers life as it is meant to be lived. At the heart of the Christian faith lies not an exhortation to try harder to do better, but rather the promise that when we put our faith in Jesus, then God’s power makes us “new creations” – new at the very deepest level of our nature – so that we then can think, act and feel from this place of transformation.
This promise and power of Jesus to truly change us is a claim that is testable, for it is a promise that has been personally verified by millions of people down through history. For example, ask my friend Thomas A. Tarrants, a former violent Klansman once consumed by hate, but who upon following Jesus was transformed and became a champion of racial reconciliation and one of the most loving men I have ever met. Or think of John Newton, the eighteenth-century slave trader who was radically converted to Christianity and became a clergyman and abolitionist, penning perhaps the most famous song about character change ever written:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
T’was blind but now I see.
Now there’s a story of transformation. And it’s not fiction, but biography.
So if you’ve ever wondered if real change is possible – possible even for you – perhaps Christianity might be worth looking into. For as the atheist journalist Matthew Parris once confessed in The Times: “Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth real. The change is good.