When I was in my early teens one of our church youth group leaders told us the most incredible story.
“… that you are in a cave,” he said. “You were born there, as were your parents and grandparents before you. There has never been a time when any of you have left the cave because you are chained to the floor. As far as you know, the cave is the beginning and end of the world itself. There is a wall in front of you. Shadows dance upon it. You don’t have the right knowledge to understand what is creating those shadows so you begin a tradition of telling stories based upon they types of shadows that skim over the wall. Now imagine that your chains are loosened and you stumble out of the mouth of the cave into the real world.”
He continued, “It is painfully bright and it takes you some time to grow accustomed to all of the new sights and sounds. Eventually you realize that the shadows you used to tell stories about belong to all sorts of things that you never could have imagined while you were trying to understand the meaning behind their shadows. You want everyone in the cave to know the truth about their shadow-stories and so walk back into the darkness to find them. The people in that cave are those who don’t know God. It’s your job to show them the truth behind the shadows they follow.”
I’d never heard a story like this one before. As I listened to what he had to say I could feel the gritty surface of the cave floor, hear the creak in my joints as I stood and walked away, wince with pain as my eyes adjusted to unnatural brightness outside, and drink in all of the unimaginable sights and sounds outside of the cave.
Five Years Later
I was sitting in a philosophy class at community college when the instructor mentioned Plato’s cave allegory.
“Cool, another cave story!” I thought. “I wonder how similar it will be to the other cave story I know?” And then she proceeded to tell us the same story that my youth group leader had shared years earlier. The only real difference: Plato’s story was about the difference between reality and our perceptions of reality. It was never intended as a metaphor for Christian witnessing.
Having assumed that this was either a story that our youth group leader had made up himself or something written specifically to explain the importance of witnessing as a Christian I felt deceived. It was a brilliant story on its own in my teenaged mind; it didn’t need to be portrayed as something that it wasn’t originally meant to be to hold our attention.
Sometimes when I write short stories I weave niblets of truth into them. Maybe the scene is based on a building, landmark or piece of property that exists in real life or a somewhat similar event once happened to me or someone I know. I take these niblets and build something new with them, though. If someone who knew the geography or event that loosely inspired the story was to read it, though, they’d never confuse it with a factual account of that place or event just as I would never attempt to pass off my imagined worlds as anything other than fiction.
Context matters. The origin of a story matters. It would have been so much more thought-provoking for my youth group leader to tell us that his story was a re-telling of a far more ancient one. To quote Anna Quindlen:
Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.