We spent four wonderful years in Charlottesville, Virginia. There at the Covenant School, I was privileged to be part of a school faculty that was driven, resourceful, passionate, and eminently professional. One of my dear friends from those years was my department chairman, Tom Foley. Tom was not only a helpful mentor and spiritual director; he really had his pulse wisely on the world around him. He taught senior-level Bible and was known for his clear teaching and probing questions. One question in particular is so specific to Tom that I suggested he should copyright it.
Several times each year, Tom would ask his classes: "What is the answer to every human question?"
The answer? "The Fall."
Not the season known as autumn. Tom meant the biblical event labeled as the Fall into sin. The point when Adam and Eve--the initial humans--literally bit off more than they could figuratively chew, violating God's specifications for submission and delight, thus plunging the world into the disfigured and vandalized planet we experience every day.
Yes, I know that "the Fall" is not literally the answer to questions as specific as "Should I get my oil changed at Firestone or Jiffy Lube?" But in response to queries such as "Why are there days I don't enjoy my job?", "Why do my parents/children/acquaintances annoy me?", "How is it that someone can walk into an elementary school and kill children with a gun?", or the poignant "Why did Grandpa have to die?", the ultimate answer is "We live in a fallen, ruined world." Life on this planet isn't as bad as it could be, but I think we can all agree there is something in the zeitgeist that just isn't right. An alien presence has invaded our home and has been here for some time. And that presence not only affects us and wounds us. It also enters us and causes us to wound others.
What does this have to do with literature and writing? Simply that stories that are effective will often show how ruin, fallenness, sin--call it what you will--penetrates the normal world order that the story assumes implicitly (or displays explicitly) at the beginning. Like the scope of human history, creation is followed by ruin.
Examples abound (and perhaps you have many of your own) but several come to my mind. In the epic poem Beowulf, the thanes' celebrations at Heorot is cut short when the monster Grendel comes forth in his destructive rage. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the vast economic potential of the American industrial enterprises find resistance from an insidious, interfering federal government (although one could just as well say that unrestrained, secular individualism will eventually bring about its own ruin itself). George Jonas' Vengeance, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel and was the basis for Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich, opens with the gathering of nations at the 1972 Summer Olympics but quickly moves into the Black September massacre of eleven Israeli athletes.
Certainly, ruin and human fallenness plays a literary role; one could hardly expect to have a decent plot without it. A story usually is not all flowers and smiles, and readers practically cry out for some sort of conflict to build the tension. But all that, I believe, is due to the fact that we innately recognize there is something abjectly wrong with the world around us and we practically expect to find some level of that brokenness in the stories we read. And it's not just that we see those cracks in our wider environment, but if we're honest we see streaks of that ruin within us as well. St. Augustine once said that evil passes one's door as a stranger before entering as a guest but finally installing itself as master. Maybe that's what makes us shudder: the brokenness in a story is our story, too, even among the greatest saints. The words of Dwight Moody are instructive here. Moody was asked once if he as a Christian was filled with the Holy Spirit, to which he replied, "Yes, but I leak."
People leak ruin. Stories reflect that brokenness of a fallen world. The good news is that the enduring stories we love don't leave us there, but point to redemption and restoration. But that is a post that is yet to come.