If a True Formula = Beautiful, Does a Beautiful Story = Formula?

Several years ago I attended Socrates in The City, a literary salon hosted by author Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace) and featuring many great Christian thinkers. The guest that evening was Rev. John Polkinghorne, a British theologian and physicist who was knighted for his role in discovering the quark.

Talk about physics and my eyes glaze over, but Polkinghorne said something that stuck with me:

When an equation is correct, mathematicians call it ‘beautiful.’ A true equation is beautiful because it is elegant and uncluttered with mistakes or unnecessary steps.

True math is beautiful.


I wondered if there was a corollary in art. Did true art have a math to it? For example, was there a form evident in a good story? Now, I knew this already on some level. I studied screenwriting in graduate school, and we were drilled on the importance of structure. Successful movies have a similar, discernible structure. But Polkinghorne’s statement stirred something deeper than how to write a good screenplay. I wondered if there was common journey to the stories I found inspiring? Were there steps a character must take to elevate that story from entertaining to transformative?

A couple years later Donald Miller took it a step further in A Million Miles in A Thousand Years: The elements that make a good story also make a good life: a main character wants something and must overcome conflict to get it. Conflict is part of the story. Conflict is the tool God uses to shape our character.

I don’t know about you, but that takes a huge weight off of me. If I’m struggling to realize a dream, it isn’t necessarily because God doesn’t think that dream is worthwhile. Conflict is part of the story. It might even be the catalyst that shapes my goal into something bigger than it was when I started. This is definitely true of a good movie. At the beginning of Casablanca, all Humphrey Bogart wants is to be left alone. By the end he’s rejoined the French resistance.

Growing up I heard a very different message about conflict: “Don’t try to force open a door; wait in God to open it. Want something too much and you make it an idol. Seek the kingdom of God first, and all these things will be added unto you.” Which I interpreted as: “Go to church five nights a week and God will bless your acting career.” Church made me a better Christian, or at least a churchier one, but not a better artist. Looking back, I realize I used church as a way to hide. Look: God will love you if you live a small life or a big one. He will love you whether you are an Olympic gold medalist or a file clerk. But don’t kill off your dreams for fear you want them too much. That’s not Christianity. That’s Buddhism. “Desire is the atomic energy of the soul,” said Henri Nouwen.

What’s the fire in your heart? What’s keeping you from pursuing it?

One Comment

  1. Love this Susan! Thanks so much and hope you are well!

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