A fifth grade birthday party: I was a few months past ten years old, crammed into a school cafeteria with a dozen other pre-adolescent boys, toting sleeping bags and snacks, ready for anything. Everything about that night likely would have drifted into the ash heap of memory, but for one major reason: Indiana Jones.
Someone popped in the videotape, the fluorescent lights flicked off, and I was transported deep into the South American jungle. There he was, Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., fedora and five o’clock shadow, plucking the golden idol from its place atop the stone pillar in the bowels of the earth and running for his life from the giant boulder. Then came the natives, the Nazis, the bullwhip, the one-liners, and the face-melting. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I left that party changed. The world was wilder and bigger than I had known.
As I look back, Raiders of the Lost Ark seems not so much a match-strike as a flame charging down a fuse which had been lit years before. I was a boy with an insatiable hunger for adventure stories. By the time I met Indiana Jones, I had already trudged in heart-pounding silence through McDougal’s Cave alongside Tom and Huck. With the Hardy brothers I had ridden on speedboats and trailed crooks through dark alleys. I had visited Centerburg with Homer Price, hung out in Adenville, Utah, with the Great Brain, and stood beside Bilbo staring up in wonder at the Lonely Mountain.
Yes, adventure stories are in my blood. To this day, I’ll naturally slide an adventure yarn to the top of the stack, whether it’s Colin Meloy’s Wildwood or Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God—two recent reads. From a young age, stories like these have baptized my imagination, to use a phrase coined by C. S. Lewis. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes as an experience which showed him “the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live.” As with Lewis, the stories of my own youth revealed the world for its grandeur and wildness, guiding me to an awareness of the Great Story, in which I could live my own adventure.
But why? What is it about adventure stories that baptized my imagination?
Primarily, there’s the wonder of discovery, the spine-tingling thrill of exploration. Going Beyond has its own set of thrills, whether it manifests itself as creeping through a darkened house with a flashlight or yearning to uncover the secrets of deep space or the blank spots on the map.
Beyond the mystery-box thrills, however, a richer reward from adventure stories is the ability to live alternate experiences through alternate eyes. Lewis captures this as only he can: “My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others. Reality even seen through the eyes of many is not enough. I will see what others have invented. …In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.”
Adventure stories set us free from the prisons of our own experiences, our own viewpoints and ideals. They whisk us up and out, over the whirling dervish of God’s holy creation, washing the scales from the eyes of our spirits. Fresh eyes reveal a fresh appreciation for the physical beauty of the world, but also for its dazzling, diverse inhabitants. We are forced out of the “single-story” mindset, which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her beautiful TED talk about the value of stories in deepening one’s appreciation for humanity. We find connection points to those previously seen as “other,” guided by empathy to a fresh understanding of what life is like for those from other cultures and other backgrounds. Kerry Dearborn is a theology professor at Seattle Pacific and author of Baptized Imagination: the Theology of George MacDonald. She writes that when we surrender to stories, “the baptized imagination creates stories which confront the dominant ideology of our time and empower us to be people who plunge hopefully into the challenges of our day.” This sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps more worthwhile than simply plunging into a rainforest or desert cave for hidden gold. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, either.
My personal story has been one of gradual awakening to the wildness of the world, the goodness of goodness, and the truth of transcendent beauty, but this gradual process has been punctuated by sudden, abrupt plunges under the water as a result of my experiences with adventure stories. They’re not the only way to be baptized in this manner, but for me, they are the encounters which have guided me into opportunities to surrender my imagination to a new reality.
Thanks, Dr. Jones.
Glenn McCarty is a teacher of creative writing and the author of the brand new novel The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson, now the product of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. If you want to get in on the action, you have a few more days to contribute and get some stellar rewards.