A strong contender for the four most well-known words in the English language must arguably be: “Once upon a time …” Whether we are children or adults, we love stories; indeed our love of stories is something uniquely human. From the earliest recorded cave paintings to the most modern movie, across time, country, and culture, humans are a storytelling species.
As a child, I loved nothing better than to lose myself in a novel. Now I am a parent, I’ve passed on this love to my children—they don’t care (that) much for television, but their rooms are lined with books. Shortly before writing these words, I was curled up in bed with my six-year old son reading him the first volume of the brilliant Wingfeather Saga; there were mighty protests of “Dad! Just one more chapter!” when I closed the book.
Some stories are here today and gone tomorrow, but others become classics, retold to generation after generation. When a story is first written, it’s hard to tell whether it will become a classic but I would suggest that one thing most of the great stories, the classic tales, all have in common is they are built around a common theme: the triumph of good over evil.
Whether it’s Frodo and the Fellowship’s struggle against the evil Sauron in The Lord of the Rings; or Harry Potter and his friends and their fight against Voldemort; or the epic battle of the Rebellion against the Empire in Star Wars; or Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist with the angelic Oliver up against the wicked Fagin; or T. H. White’s epic retelling of the Arthurian legend in The Once and Future King—the list could go on almost endlessly. Our most loved, most classic stories concern the battle of good over evil.
But have you ever wondered why we love stories? After all, if we live in a godless universe, all that matters is survival and reproduction. The only truthful story in this kind of world would be something like The Little DNA Molecule That Could, which I suspect would be somewhat lacking in the plot department. What kind of bizarre trick has nature played upon us, messing with our genes in such a way that humans—and only humans—seem to think that story matters? We’re more deluded than the craziest power-mad wicked step-parent in a Grimm Brothers’ fairy story.
But it gets stranger, because not merely do we love stories, despite their total uselessness to the whole he-who-passes-on-his-DNA-the-most-successfully-wins game, but as we’ve seen, the stories that have the greatest longevity are stories where good triumphs over evil. For sure, there is some pretty dystopian fiction out there; but in most of the classic stories, evil always gets a kicking.
But in a godless universe, that’s a load of old rubbish, isn’t it? First, because “good” and “evil” are meaningless categories in a world which is just atoms in motion. Morality is just a nice story for children—but grown up atheists are those with the courage to say “Bah, humbug!” to all that. On top of which, even if you don’t have the courage as an atheist to go quite that far, the grim truth is that good doesn’t triumph. It simply doesn’t. Chaos wins in the end: suffering and death await all of us, await even the universe itself. The story of your life is the same as everybody else’s: “Born. Suffered. Died.” So our love of stories where good wins is merely delusion, wish-fulfilment, or brilliant marketing by publishers.
Yet have you ever wondered if maybe there’s more to it than that? Could it be that the reason that we’re drawn to these classic stories is because deep in our very bones we know that they resonate with reality? That in some way (part instinct, part common-species-memory, part something yet deeper still) we sense they are reflections of the one true story?
The theme of good triumphing over evil is, of course, profoundly Christian. It is the theme that runs through the whole of the Bible culminating in the story of Jesus and his victory over the forces of darkness. That Christian storyline is reflected in many of our favourite stories, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidently. For example, Tolkien wrote:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.
Whilst in a 2007 interview, J. K. Rowling described herself as a Christian and explained how the Harry Potter books were deeply influenced by her faith. Even the Star Wars stories, for all of George Lucas’s interest in Eastern religion, are saturated in Christian ideas: think of the sacrifice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, or the existence of life after death that runs through the movies.
If Christianity is the true story of how a good God created a good world and placed human beings in it; of how we were corrupted by our love of greed and power; but how God then stepped into creation to rescue us, even at the cost of his own life, then it should not surprise us that when human beings engage in our God-given role of “sub-creation”, of creating stories of our own, that these should reflect the One True Story.
But one last thought. It’s been suggested that you can divide most of the world’s stories into two types: comedies and tragedies. A tragedy is a story which begins with all going well and then ends in catastrophe for somebody. (Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the titular character’s downward spiral into murder and insanity). If you graphed the trajectory of a tragedy, it would look like a frown ☹️. By contrast, the graph of a comedy looks like a smile ?: at first it seems all has gone wrong, but then comes a dramatic turn of events and the story climbs up to victory (or what Tolkien called eucatastrophe).
If atheism is true, if we live in a godless universe, then we are living in a tragedy. No matter how high humanity may squirm up the greasy pole of existence, everything ends in wrack and ruin. But if Christianity is true, then no matter how dark things may look, as they looked for Jesus as he hung on the cross, we know that this is not the story’s end, but that evil will be ultimately defeated and that after the last tear has fallen, there is love. As Sam Gamgee said to Frodo in the film adaptation of The Two Towers:
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 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.
I believe that our love of stories was wired deeply into us by the God who created us, as one more clue, one more pointer to who we really are and for what—indeed for whom—we were really made. And so the question becomes, will we follow Ariadne’s thread, the trail of the stones in the wood, the light from the lamppost—will we follow these clues where they lead? Or will we slam the book shut, close our eyes, stop up our ears, and mutter: “I’m just a 1% bit of pollution in the universe” to ourselves until the lights go out. Now that really would be a tragedy.
 And even in dystopian fiction, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, as a reader you’re meant to protest; not cheer at the triumph of Big Brother.
 Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 172.
 See Jonathan Petre, ‘Christianity Inspired Harry Potter’, The Telegraph, 20 October 2007 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3668658/J-K-Rowling-Christianity-inspired-Harry-Potter.html)
 A term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien.
 That was the atheist Lawrence M. Krauss’s memorable description of what he thought human beings were; cited in Amanda Lohrey, ‘The Big Nothing: Lawrence Krauss and Arse-Kicking Physics’, The Monthly, October 2012 (http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2012/october/1354074365/amanda-lohrey/big-nothing).