For years, I'd devour self help books, trying to discover whatever I lacked, so I could fix it. I was the sort of person who believed I never measured up to whatever high standards made a person acceptable. It shook me up when I came across a list experts had compiled of the best self help books ever written. I'd read many of them already, and sincerely tried to take their advice on board, yet there I was still searching for more. At that point, I decided that my sense of self esteem had to come from Jesus' words about me, and from looking within. I had to decide that I was already worthy, rather than wait for all these authors to convince me to jump through hoops before I would believe it.
Since then, I've come across many people who avoid self help book altogether. 'If you don't think there's something drastically wrong with you before reading these books, you surely will by the time you finish,' is their philosophy. The most cynical among these critics may add, 'It's the mission of self help books to make people believe they're deeply flawed and need fixing. If you don't want to buy into the restless premise that you must forever work on self-improvement projects, just stop reading all that stuff and be kind to yourself. Stick to fiction stories instead.'
I'm certain this advice is far too reactive, since many self-books on the market are absolute gems. And is their point even valid, that sticking to fiction stories is the solution? For they may help convince readers that we're flawed in a far more emotive and subtle way than self help books ever can.
In his book, 'Waking the Dead', John Eldredge makes the following observation.
'The phoenix rises from the ashes. Cinderella rises from the cinders to become a queen. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. Pinnochio becomes a real boy. The frog becomes a prince. Wretched old Scrooge becomes "as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old city knew."'
Wow, stories of transformation really are prolific! If we live and breathe this sort of literature, if we were brought up on it, has it really been good for us? Doesn't it convince us, in a very palatable and surreptitious way, that we need to become something completely different in order to be acceptable? That we're not good enough as we are? Are transformation stories the feel-good treats we consider them to be, or unhealthy food-for-thought which damages our self concepts and make us discontent with where we are? I hate to think that we put ourselves on a treadmill of frustration whenever we open up any book, whether personal development or engrossing fiction. Isn't that enough to make you wonder whether non-readers are onto something?
Eldredge thinks transformation stories have always comprised part of the fabric of literature because they mirror the essential Christian gospel message. The sin-steeped, darkness of the human heart is such that we need to be completely transformed. That's what being 'born again' is all about, and humanity has always known it deep inside.
I agree with him, but after lots of reflection, would take it a step further. Rather than advocating complete change to become someone totally different, transformation stories aim to ignite the innate value that lies in our hearts all along. Although our human natures may indeed be too dark to change without celestial help, God doesn't desert us. He knows the value of what He created. He probes to stir up goodness which has been lying there latent, so deep we've missed it. And he uses stories, particularly transformation stories, to help do it.
The term 'character development' is often applied to a good novel. When you think about it, it's simply part of the transformation process. When the circumstances of the plot bring out the best in characters, it's like excavating what was already there. It isn't making something brand new from dross, like alchemy. It's highlighting what was within the heroes already. If stories can do this with characters, then readers' hearts are often pulled along for the ride.
There are Bible precedents. Gideon was greeted by God's angel as a great and mighty warrior, while the young man himself was busy threshing his grain in a wine press, to hide from the terrifying Midianites. Peter was given the appellation 'the Rock' even before he lost all his courage on the night of Jesus' crucifixion and denied that he knew him three times. God sees attributes in us which we don't even recognise ourselves yet.
This is biblical history, but our fiction stories follow suit. Snow White was a princess at heart, which was evident in the gracious way she behaved in her humble forest home with the dwarfs. The Scarecrow and Tin Man really did have a brain and heart respectively, for they were using them all along the Yellow Brick Road. And when Harry Potter first met Hagrid, the lovable half-giant told him, 'You are a wizard, Harry.' Not, 'You will be.' Only then did Harry understand some of the weird phenomena which had happened occasionally in his life.
I'll never stop reading wonderful stories, and transformation tales are some of the best around, but maybe that's only if we read them with the ideal mindset. If we aim not to think, 'What do I need to change?' but rather, 'What attributes of mine should I celebrate and highlight?' then they really are like friends, and not foes.
Paula Vince is an award winning South Australian author of Christian fiction who lives in Adelaide's beautiful coastal suburbs. She has been a homeschooling parent and a cleaner, and is currently studying for her Master of Divinity.