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Student Spotlight | 5 Minutes

From the Classroom: Pathos and the Power of Story

Written by Suzan Cumings
From the Classroom: Pathos and the Power of Story

In Composition II, students learn to form a quality thesis and develop it in an argumentative essay on a topic of their choice. Below is an example of one student’s essay. To learn more about our Live Online Classes click HERE.

Pathos and the Power of Story

Some scenes in literature truly come alive. Think of Aslan on the Stone Table, willingly offering his life for Edmund. Picture Frodo on Mount Doom, failing at the end of his journey only to be saved by the pity he had shown his enemy. These images of sacrifice and redemption have appealed to readers for half a century and more. Even though these fantasy stories could not actually take place in this world, they ring truer than the most factual lecture and preach louder than the most rousing sermon. As J. R. R. Tolkien put it in his poem “Mythopoeia”:

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls Him. Though now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind. (qtd. in Carpenter 190)

This living quality of story constitutes its primary strength. In fact, despite the superior clarity of other types of writing, story is a more powerful tool for an author to share his Christian worldview because of its beauty, emotional appeal, and accessibility.

A skeptic might argue that while expository or persuasive writing fleshes out the author's meaning, the characters and plot of a story gaudily embellish, or even conceal, the essential truth. After all, a reader cannot intuit the gospel from a story alone, nor can he be sure of the author’s beliefs. Although this idea deserves consideration, story actually displays the innate beauty of truth for all to see. For instance, The Chronicles of Narnia do not explicitly spell out the way of salvation like some of C. S. Lewis's books on apologetics, but Aslan’s sacrifice of His life for Edmund (and, ultimately, all of Narnia) symbolizes it in fresh allegory for those familiar with - or weary of - the gospel story. Lewis himself attributed part of his motivation for writing stories to a desire to inspire children with awe for the glory and power of God that he had missed as a child (47). In short, God is truth, goodness, and beauty united, so isolating one of those attributes weakens it. Therefore, a well-written story with a Christian worldview more fully embodies the gospel than a theologically sound but dry essay.

Another reason for the superior power of story flows from the three modes of rhetorical persuasion - logos, ethos, and pathos. Stories fall into the category of pathos, persuasion that appeals to the emotions. C. S. Lewis said of the effect of story on the reader: “It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (38). When a great book hooks a reader, when a reader falls in love with the characters and plot, he begins to adopt the author's beliefs in the way he views everyday life. When reading literary trash, he is like a clueless fish that swallows a juicy worm hiding the fatal hook. On the contrary, a book written by a Christian, even if it never mentions God’s name, will contain certain themes: sacrifice, death and resurrection, and hope. These themes define the Christian faith, and stories communicate them in a way that resonates with the whole person.

Sacrifice and hope stand out in other genres of Christian writing, too. Nevertheless, few people, and perhaps not the people who need hope the most, will pick up a book about theology. However, Christian stories are accessible to the most hope-starved individuals: children figuring out how the world works, and unbelievers enjoying the fruits of Christian creativity. Many people of all beliefs read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, and those who do notice the fundamental difference between them and secular literature. In short, Christian stories are lights in a dark world. They are also weapons, both penetrating into enemy territory and engaging the foes that constantly sneak up behind faithful Christian soldiers. In this way, their power exceeds that of other genres more limited in their approach.

Stories are weapons for good or evil. Wielded by Christians, they strengthen and heal readers more than any other type of writing. Moreover, the beauty of story is not a facade, but rather truth’s natural accompaniment, and the emotional appeal of story makes it less daunting for the average person to read. Consequently, watch out for deception: every story has a worldview and not every worldview is true. The very advantages that empower Christian authors embolden atheists, letting subtle heresy slip into the reader’s mind unnoticed. Intentionally seek out great stories where evil is vanquished, which inspire the reader with courage and hope and pave the way for real-life evil to be conquered.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien, a Biography. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1977.

Lewis, C. S. On Stories, and Other Essays on Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Suzan Cumings was a 9th grader at the time of this writing and lifelong Veritas student. She lives enjoys dancing, exploring the woods, and reading stories.