As I noted in my previous article, stories are essential in the formation of character. We do not simply exist, we think about our existence and are driven to make sense of it. The sense we make takes the form of a story. For people in the contemporary world, this is simply problematic. Stanley Hauerwas states the essence of the problem:
The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story.
I will rephrase Hauerwas’ observation: In America, we have rejected the stories of tradition…so we have to make up our own stories.
Here is a tragic vision. Imagine a child who hears no stories from his/her parents. Instead, they have to play alone and invent their own tales.
The cultural phenomena of fashion and fad should be understood as a struggle to create stories. Modern culture is “branded.” The music we listen to, the clothes we buy, the slang and jargon we speak, the way we vote are all “brands” with which we identify. Together, such allegiances reveal stories we tell ourselves. They are our “identity.” But these stories are not handed down to us; they are not the stories of previous generations. The vacuum created by the absence of earlier stories (“they should have no story”) creates an existential emptiness. Human beings cannot exist without an identity. We need names and a sense of who we are in relation to other things.
It would seem obvious that most people are unable or unwilling to create their own stories from whole cloth. Despite all of our vaunted individualism, modern people still enjoy having shared stories and stories told to them. Quite often, however, those stories lack transcendent meaning. The sports fan can derive a deep sense of belonging and a story of shared sacrifice, victory or defeat. He may experience a deep catharsis when his team wins a championship. But as a story that gives meaning, sports are simply banal and empty. “Heroes” who are paid multi-millions to “sacrifice themselves” stretch the meaning of “heroic.”
We consume stories, or rather we approach stories like consumers. And like most consumer choices, the larger part of the “decision” is unconscious. And like a child at the dinner table, we rarely choose what is, in fact, good for us. Angry teenage angst has become a standard feature of our cultural landscape. But many of the stories in our culture, generated by the music industry, game companies and other purveyors of cultural mythology, rarely offer anything useful. The anger and confusion endemic in our modern invention of adolescence is merely exploited for profit. The occasional addictions and suicides that may result are simply the price of doing business. It is a price paid by the customers.
Being human is not a task for amateurs. Throughout history, stories have been handed down; they are traditioned to us. The reasons the stories survive and continue to be told is that they work. Of course, some stories that are traditioned have a darkness within them, and the corrective of time and experience alters or eliminates them. But there are some stories that, rightly told, are transformative, both of people and of whole civilizations.
The story of Christ (which has the benefit of having actually taken place) changed the world. The notion of human dignity, individual worth, forgiveness and redemption, the solidarity of the human race are rooted in that story. The story of Christ elevated slaves and brought evil empires to their knees. In the darkest moments of subsequent history, those whose lives have been shaped by His story have whispered and kept faith and hope alive, and sometimes lived to see their hope vindicated and their oppressors swept into the dustbin of history.
The story of Christ, rightly told, creates beauty and raises civilizations and cultures to new heights. Those effects are simply collateral creations. In general, the whole of what we count as good in our present world is the fruit of such benefits.
It will be objected by some that Christianity has also been a source of evil – crusades, inquisitions, persecutions and pogroms. But those are the result of false stories, interjected in order to distort and misdirect. The Christian story is in no way one of endless, absolute triumph and perfection. It is the story of a deeply flawed and broken humanity that would destroy itself unless it was rescued. It is the story of repentance and forgiveness – and always the Good-Creating hand of God redirecting our false starts and deviations to return us to the path of wholeness and resurrection.
The greatest and truest fairy tales are those that “rhyme” with the story of Christ and His saving Pascha. For this is the primal story, told before the foundation of the world. It is the origin of all happy endings, including “happily ever after.” You can’t make up stories like this.