Maybe I wasn't so off-base for finding what is essentially a ghost story one of the most spiritually significant books I'd read this year.
The book journeys into the dark and supernatural as the nameless "hero" revisits his childhood home where he encounters two mysterious women—unchanged in age or appearance—he befriended in his youth. Maudlin wrote:
I love how the plot leaves open so much—what really happened, who the three women really are (a female version of the Trinity), and how these events shaped the main character—but the open space is pregnant with all the great mysteries: of life, death, tragedy, hope, meaning, and identity.
I nearly cried. That was what I loved about the book, too, the open questions and unanswered mysteries. The longing I felt after one member of the story's Trinity leaves for a spell was nothing short of, "Come Lord Jesus." As a reader, I felt eager for her to return, to solve the mysteries, to end the questions and the aches left in her absence.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane exemplifies what draws me to all great ghost stories: These stories allow us to suspend our disbelief and surrender our emotions to the big and small frights, to the rushes and chills, to the unknown and unexpected, and to feel them, sit or jump at them.
When well-written or well-told, a ghost story's characters and settings and plot become real and transformative, and we sink deeply into its world. Realizing we have survived the frights, the adrenaline rushes, the unknown and unwelcomed, we find that we made it and can keep right on breathing.
This is exactly what I love about faith in Jesus. As we go through life and faith, as we enter into the mysteries, experience the thrills and anguish, the hopes and the fears, and as we keep—through God's grace—right on breathing, we grow; we form more into the likeness of Jesus.
Because they offer this emotional, spiritual growth "coaster" in tiny packages, ghost stories have been wonderful spiritual formation tools in my life. I realize not all Christians will appreciate this. Plenty will be alarmed and appalled.
Consider, however: my love of ghost-stories or my love of exploring ooky-spooky spaces (as I did two weekends ago when I wandered through the back passages and dark rooms and dim-lit basements of the beautiful, old "haunted" hotel I stayed at) come from the same part of me that loves God stories, the same part that sends me exploring God in the bright and the beautiful as well as the creepy crevices of his world.
Far from harming my psyche as some folks worry, ghost stories do my Christian heart, mind, and soul a world of good. By suspending disbelief and embracing the other- or outer-worldly while lost in the pages of a good old ghost-story or in the campfire yarns spun to scare, I not only face fears and embrace mystery, but I also exercise the same belief "muscles" needed for my faith.
After all, faith is the suspension of disbelief. It requires us to surrender our thoughts and emotions to what seems irrational and embrace that which makes little sense. Faith is sinking so deeply into the story of God at work in this world and present in our lives that any notion of an all-knowing, all-present totally loving, infinite Creator of the Universe being unbelievable, gets suspended itself. It's ludicrous that this present and active God isn't real. And our curiosity to know him—to unlock the mysteries of God and of our faith—only grow with the suspension of disbelief.
This is the same curiosity that keeps me turning pages of The Ocean at the End of the Laneor Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the same willingness to listen to tales of Bloody Mary or recitations of The Raven at school-girl sleepovers is what keeps me rambling through this world with eyes open, waiting to jump in delight at what God's got around corners.
Of course, still, many argue: the differences between ghost stories and our Christian life are legion. Not the least of which, many say, are that ghosts are of the devil, of the dark. And they may be. Sometimes. But they're also of the Bible. Samuel, Moses and Elijah haunt the pages of Scripture. David wrote about phantoms. And the disciples believed in ghosts—thinking Jesus was one.
While I don't condone soliciting spirits the way Saul did, I am saying that the Bible believes in ghosts. Apparently. And that ghosts have a place in our faith. So long as the Bible does.
But I do admit to one big difference: experience. No doubt, God has used characters and stories to move and change me in ways I could never count. I've heard God's voice whispered through talking animals and young girls and old men and goolish ghosts in the pages of the books I've read. But no matter what good these stories have done in my life, no matter how ghost stories have shaped my love of the mysteries of our faith and our God, my suspension of disbelief closes with the book covers. I take the stories and characters with me. But their work is done at The End.
Quite different from when I suspend my disbelief and my faith sinks into the Story of God. Though it waivers from time to time, at the different twists and turns of the story, it's held tight and secure by the Holiest Ghost I know.