17 Jan 2004
Last night I saw Big Fish, Tim Burton’s beautiful new film about finding your place in a larger-than-life story.
In the movie, Albert Finney plays an old man with a penchant for tall tales. His son, as a child, engages wide-eyed with his father’s fanciful stories; they spark his imagination and shape his idea of what’s possible in the world. But slowly, he begins becoming inured to them. As an adult (played by Billy Crudup), he has grown out of, and grown tired of, his dad’s fish stories. He is numb to their retelling, and hardened by their incompatibility with “reality.” Eventually, life teaches him that his father’s fantastical narratives must be mere fairy tales, amusing but useless. He is a disillusioned believer, a skeptic.
Years later, he finds himself estranged from his father, living in a just-the-facts world as a journalist. When he hears his dad is dying, he returns home in order to find out who he “really” is, to learn the true story of his father’s life, to separate fact from fiction.
To his frustration, he doesn’t get what he is looking for. His father maintains that his stories are the true him, and that dissecting them into facts only kills their truth.
At his father’s deathbed, Crudup’s character is finally ready and able to relate to his father on his own terms, accepting his mythic story. His acceptance, though, is deeper than just mental assent or a suspension of disbelief — his means of acceptance and reconciliation is participation in the storytelling itself.
For me and many others, that’s the story of our faith. We are born into a fantastic world, where we’re told people can be swallowed alive by huge fish, they can stand in the middle of a furnace fire, and walk across water, and live to tell the story. The Sunday school anthology is a sprawling adventure, where floods cover the entire world, where kings act like wild beasts, where boys fight giants, tame lions, and fight tirelessly to win the hand of the girls they love. The story of our faith is captivating, huge, big enough to get lost in. It’s that kind of story.
But as we grow up, it gets harder to see the story for what it is, and too easy to dismiss it as amusing fairy tales, or worse, try to dissect it into cold facts. Either temptation only serves to kill the story in our lives — it eliminates participation, the retelling of a living story. There’s a mythic element to our life in God that we lose sight of when we spend all our energy on the facts. That’s not what the truth is.
The truth is, we are all potential players in a grand narrative, the endlessly weird tale of our Father’s creation. And He is dying to write us into it. Being part of that story requires a leap — and the leap requires our participating in the story, wading in and becoming co-authors with the master storyteller. Our stories are merged with His, our very lives becoming His very story.