World Story – the News and the Good News

Human beings make up stories. I don’t mean that the stories aren’t true, only that we make them up. We connect things. We make sense of things. We ask what is happening and the answer is a story. When we read a history book, we encounter a story. We do not examine the facts of the 5th century in the Byzantine Empire, for the events in a small town in a single day would more than fill any book. Our stories are a selection of facts, told together in a manner that produces a narrative. We like to have cause and effect. This thing happened which caused that thing to happen which is why we now have Cable TV (or some such story). But of course, the story is not the thing itself. And frequently the story is incorrect.

On any given day, with the lives of 7.4 billion people, many thousands of millions of things take place. In any given news cycle, less than one hundred will likely be cited as news. The “news” is an exceedingly selective narrative of a tiny fraction of daily events, deemed by someone, somewhere, to be worth bringing to the attention of the world. Those few events will form conversations of those who notice, produce 100 million postings on Facebook (along with cute pictures of cats and puppies), and seem “important” to many. But this is exceedingly irrational, no matter how it feels.

Near the beginning of the 1st century, Rome was a dominant force in the lives of some 60-70 million people. Its armies guaranteed a general peace and commerce prospered. In the major cities, and elsewhere, goods from far-away lands could be purchased. Chinese items have been found in Roman archaeological sites in Britain. Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, was the uncontested Emperor, having vanquished his father’s enemies and consolidated his power. His image could be found on coins throughout the empire. It is certainly the case that very little notice (if any) was accorded the birth of a Galilean peasant child, regardless of how the Scriptures tell the story.

It is almost comical (were it not so sad) to read modern critical historians suggesting that lack of contemporary non-Christian descriptions and accounts of Jesus raise questions about his historical reality. The truth is that you don’t notice events like that until well after the fact.

But this is paralleled in our own time. The vast preponderance of everything that happens to everybody all the time is not “newsworthy.” This says nothing about its importance. Indeed, what happens to you during your day is far more important to you than most of the content of the evening news. It is simply the case that most of reality is ignored by those who are telling the “public” story. These things are not essential to their narrative. The narrative says, “Unemployment rose last month.” However, reality is that Jill and Jack and Aaron and Jaquan, lost their jobs and don’t know how they are going to explain the lack of Christmas in their homes this year. And, indeed, next month employment might be “up,” but it matters little to Jill and Jack, Aaron and Jaquan if they’re still looking for work.

The public narrative (news and history) is like watching actors in a play. However, the actors have stumbled into the notion that the play is reality. They react to each other and the narrative within the play, but the reality off-stage (which is the rest of the whole world) is nowhere in sight. We might easily conclude that the entire idea of a public narrative is absurd (and it is, largely).

But people are story-tellers. If you ask, “What’s happening?” the answer will take some sort of story form.  Apparently, God is a story-teller as well. In St. John’s gospel we read:

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (Joh 1:18)

The Latin translation of this verse says that the only-begotten Son “narrates” Him (enarravit). And this is precisely the case. The Christian claim is that Christ Himself is the story of the universe. He is the author and the protagonist. He is the meaning of the true story. Every sub-story (my life and yours) gains its meaning and purpose from the greater story of which they are a part. This is not the story of the rise and fall of nations. It is not the story of cultural conservation. It is not the story of progress. It is not the story of increasing liberation and ever-increasing economies.

The universe is a story God is telling. It is the story of Pascha, that God became one of us in order to free us and all of creation from our bondage to death and decay. The resurrection of Christ is the end of the story, or at least gives us a peek at the end of the story that will be the end of all stories. St. Paul tells it this way:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death…. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:22-28)

This is the story that Christians should tell each other whenever they gather. Properly, all other stories disappear or are seen in the relative state of their unimportance. God doesn’t watch the news in order to find out what some small group of people think is important. His eye is on the sparrow as He calls us each by name. What might seem important to you now may very well never be spoken of in the age to come. There, all things will be revealed for their truth, and only those things that are true will remain.

Sadly, the largely fictional narrative of the public world has become the primary story for many people, including Christians. Who someone is, who we judge them to be, what interests them and forms their associations and so much else, are defined by their relationship to the public narrative. It becomes something of a public “gospel,” telling us what we should value, and establishing the arguments of our lives. The Christian gospel itself is often co-opted by this public story, allowing itself to become a subset of the other. This submits Christ to the world and distorts the truth as it is made known in Him.

I once had a conversation with a friend about monastic hermits in the desert. He dismissed them as of no relevance. “Who even knows that they’re there?” He asked. Of course, I could say the same about any number of average people anywhere in the world at any given moment. That they may be “known” by some tiny circle of friends seems hardly greater than the loneliness of a hermit. But that is only true if we use the false standard of the public narrative. God knows the hermit is there. The devil knows it and trembles at the sound of his prayer. For all we know, God withholds his judgement and extends His mercy at the urging of this unknown monk.

There is an unfolding story. It is not on your television. It cannot be googled. By it, the universe is moved in the blessed unfolding of the will of God.

Christ has made it known.

32 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Father! I have struggled with this “narrative” of late and with my irrelevance within it. This perspective helps immensely.

  2. This is one of the best things I’ve read this year. I watch the TV….and news and have seen how little it matters in God’s wonderful plan. Thank you…Fr. Stephen, so much!!!!

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    So much of life’s narrative is hidden to all, except for the small circle of friends and acquaintances as you mention. I am thinking of my wife’s mother. Had only a 2nd grade education. She raised on a farm 10 children, 3 others dying in childbirth. I never heard her complain in the 30+ years I knew her. I often heard her humming a hymn while doing housework. She lived with a very demanding husband, yet this martyrdom she faithfully accepted. She would write letters of encouragement in her childlike scrawl to a young man in prison who had been her neighbor. My wife says they always had a milk cow. Her mother would allow no one else to milk her, as she said this was her only time of being alone in her hectic work day. She did this twice daily between cooking, sewing, cleaning and everything else raising ten children entails. What a bright light! Hidden to most but now shining in God’s presence.

  4. Even the best modern Christmas stories, nativity plays, carols,… are put into the right perspective with this blog post. Thank you Father

  5. I have always been a news-watcher and watching the news always made me angry. So much injustice in the world! If only they would listen to me and do things my way! Then, last spring, on retreat, I realized that it was just a bunch of noise and I needed to turn it off. So I did, except, of course, for the election. After all, the election was “Important!” Well, that whole thing made me angrier than ever! Both sides! So, about mid-November, I shut it all off. Almost. I did follow the news about the fires in the Smokies, but that is about it. Ft. Stephen once said to try and get the news as locally as possible, so I have done that. By the grace of God, I am calmer and happier. And in all other respects, life goes on as before. Reminds me of an old friend of mine who once said that the only thing he watched on the news was the weather, because it was the only thing that actually had an impact on his life. Lots of wisdom in that, I think.

  6. Dean,
    Beautiful story of your mother-in-law. It is the illusion that we are doing important things, listening to important things, caring about important things that also contributes to the ongoing illusion that we are making the world a better place – when most people barely improve (if that) their own immediate space. Of course, all of this false importance nurtures a false spirituality. Christ has come to break us free of all delusion and bring us into reality. Glory to Him!

  7. Thank you for this interesting perspective, Fr. Stephen.

    I have very little contact with the public story anymore – and sometimes I have felt a bit guilty, as though perhaps I should. I find some validation in your words here.

    I haven’t watched TV in years. I seldom, if ever, listen to the radio. I do try to read over part of the Sunday paper and will look at a news story online if someone tells me about an event. (e.g. other – “Wasn’t that terrible about the mass shooting on the west side?” me- “Oh – there was a mass shooting?”) I suppose this makes me seem a bit clueless at times.

    However, I am not unconcerned about the events of the world, the individual lives that I know are out there. I try to pray for the world every day, knowing that at every moment there are people being traumatized, losing their loved ones, homeless, hungry (as well as rejoicing over births, bringing material assistance and the Good News to those in need, etc.). I can assume all of these things without watching video footage or reading commentaries.

    Given that the news stories are frequently incomplete at best and more often inaccurate, I pose the question – do I have a responsibility to follow them and be “informed” of what is going on in the world?

  8. I was saying this very thing to some folks on Sunday. getting caught up in the narrative about life through the lens of a television also has other trappings. You eat more in front of the television and then when something beautiful is presented to you to contemplate or even transcend your existence you’re too lazy to do anything about it.

    You then end up living your life like the end of the world is tomorrow and you buy canned beans for the long drought when really all that has happened is a single hair has fallen from a hairy head.

  9. Alas there are dear friends of mine who absent themselves from the Lord’s table because of the many false narratives we weave and idolize. I am not free of it to be sure.

    I found it both sad an evocative that the bombing of the Coptic Church in Cairo became a part of the news cycle for almost a nano-second only to be submerged immediately by the on-going political tsunami through which we have been living here in the US.

    The reporters could not even bother to put the bombing into any sort of context.

    Yet even the bombing yet one more example of my insanity pales in importance to the way I saw my son look at his fiance when he did not know I was looking. A look of such simple love, free of fear or shame or doubt. That look despite the many things with which they both struggle daily.

    I will cherish seeing that moment for a long time.

    God is good.

  10. Thank you Michael Bauman, for this reflection, having a son of my own who is in this phase of life — though not quite engaged to her — God is good ALL the time! (and I very much agree with your comment about the bombing of the Coptic Church, Lord have Mercy on Your Servants!)
    God is Good ALL the Time and I am so thankful when He helps me to live this reality. Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen and thank you so much for these words here.

  11. Wonderful post, Father!

    Like other commenters in this thread, for years I have watched very little news (the weather being what I also most frequently check out). Years ago, a wise, godly friend (may her memory be eternal!) observed that what was on offer as news on our mass media was little more than glorified gossip, and she refused to watch or allow her children to watch it. I would now characterize what passes for “news” in our culture as something far more destructive and dangerous even than gossip. I see it as blatant social engineering propaganda and an exercise in mind control manipulation of the masses serving a nefarious agenda that seems to me to have become more and more twisted and baldly deceitful with the passing decades. No wonder one of the contemporary Greek Elders urgently counseled his spiritual children with TVs to “turn off that means of mass blinding!”

    This election cycle (unlike the last) I had a smart phone, so I had the campaign news always at my fingertips. . . and I got sucked down the “rabbit hole” of mainstream vs. alternative (so-called “fake”) news via Youtube and such trying to make some sense of all the madness. It has been an extremely disquieting experience (to put it mildly) . . . very disturbing data coming to light while the spin and counter-spin on it all is positively dizzying! I have known for a long time our U.S. gov’t was corrupt and dysfunctional (just like the culture) and getting worse, but I didn’t realize how deeply rotten to the core the “fish’s head” is (and has been for long decades even) until now. Were it not for the Truth of the Gospel and my anchor in the Church, I would be in utter despair. As we read recently from Luke 21 in our daily lectionary:

    vs 28 “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

    Thank you for helping us all to “look up and lift up our heads” once more to contemplate the one Reality that matters–our Lord in His redeeming Incarnation. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. It may be “Friday” right now (the day of crucifixion) for the people of God and for justice and truth on the stage of world history (it certainly seems that way to me), . . . but Sunday’s coming! (Nod to a sermon popularized by Tony Campolo). I am grateful beyond words for the prayers of our holy Fathers and Mothers toiling away in obscurity. With traumatizing and catastrophic events being publicized to us daily and so many being perpetrated by human agency, how can we doubt that apart from such holy intercession, this world would have perished long ago? Our lectionary this week has had us contemplating Christ’s Second Advent during this Advent Season. In that spirit, I declare and pray, “Maranatha! Even so, come Lord Jesus!”

  12. Excellent ! I’m reminded of the song we sang in a Presbyterian church “This is my story, this is my song. . .praising my savior all the day long .

  13. This might sound off topic, but hopefully, it would make sense towards the end.

    I like to garden, and I make my own compost. I sometimes look at this compost as I would look at my own rotten sins. And I do wonder (and hope) could these rotten but confessed sins bring forth fruit with hard work ? It requires patience and persistence, much of God’s mercy and grace.

    In spring time, the seeds I plant look just like the weeds I can’t remember planting, so I care for all. It takes time and skill to differentiate the good from the evil, and so is with watching the news. The best possible thing to do would be to ignore the evil, but what if we don’t see evil? What if the devil is dressed up like an angel? Many times I deluded myself that the devil was not there! If we all knew how hated we are by the devil, we would probably pray for our enemies with a burning heart!

    Thank God for the power of the cross, and for our guardian angel, and thank you Father Stephen for allowing us to seeing again with your eyes! May God grant us all a watchful heart and mind!
    Dean & Michael thank you for your beautiful stories!

  14. Z, your story makes perfect sense to me. Weeds, as our sins, do camouflage themselves. There are weeds that come out easily because they are not deeply rooted while others require constant weeding and re-weeding because they are deep in the earth just as my besetting sins are deep in my heart.

    Lord forgive me.

  15. For me it is easy to remember to be distracted by the Gospel’s narrative (good news) when I’m looking at my plants or the trees or the moon or my wife or some other icon of God’s presence in my life. It is the artificial construcs of our culture and its trappings, from politics, to highways, to finances to movies that makes us tend to forget. It is the presence of multiple narratives in my mind that breeds confusion. To be single minded means rejecting the other narrative.

  16. Lately I have been struck with the music that often accompanies the network news shows, at the beginning. It seems to stir one to pride and a sense of importance. It is like music for presenting a king with something, and then they present skewed information.

    This may be familiar, but I wanted to share this quote from The Monk of Mt. Athos (page 47). It relates to a conversation among monks about the news. It begins with another person asking St. Silouan a question about something in the news.

    St. Silouan replied

    “Batioushka, I don’t like newspapers with their news.’

    ‘Why not?’

    ‘Because the reading of newspapers darkens the mind and hinders pure prayer….When the soul prays for the world she knows better without newspapers how the whole earth is afflicted and what people’s needs are. She can pity men without the help of papers…Newspapers don’t write about people but about events, and then not the truth. They confuse the mind and, whatever you do, you won’t get at the truth by reading them; whereas prayer cleanses the mind and gives it a better vision of things.’

    Here in the DC area three members of an Orthodox family suffered violence at the hands of an intruder and were killed. The news covered this very intensely but only briefly mentioned that the father and mother of the family had worked to call and text the nanny who was not yet at their home. They were able to prevent her from coming to their home and walking into danger. Like the centurion who cared for his servant, these suffering servants of Christ thought of the welfare of another in their own time of distress.

  17. All those whom I love grow weary with this quote from Hamlet, I find great wisdom in it, but forgive me.

    “If it be now, ’tis not to come, if it is not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

    Or as our Lord reminds us: watch and pray.

    Or yet again: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching and unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware therefore, oh my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep lest thou be given up to death and shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourselves, crying, Holy, Holy , Holy art though oh God, through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”

  18. Yes, Deacon James, so true. Here’s a recent experience of mine: I was watching the sunset from my window and an interesting dark cloud caught my eyes. My eyes were glued to it because of the interesting shapes it was forming, and foolishly, I even tried to guess what those shapes are. It turned out it wasn’t even a cloud, it was smoke from a fire. When I looked in the background, I realized I almost missed the sun who was now setting down in a blazing fire. I almost missed the best part because I was so focused on a cloud that was actually smoke!

  19. Nicolas from VA,
    I was always fond of those words of St Silouan (ok, of all of his words…)
    Our problem is that we are quickly distracted from our efforts to find peace in the Prince of Peace inside of ourselves and see the problems in others, the world, the politicians, those who further the spirit of the Antichrist etc… yet irrespective of the truth and soundness of our judgments regarding everything outside of us, we cannot change the world – and it cannot. St Seraphim would rather have us find the change and peace inside before hoping for any overflow to the thousands around us. Besides who can judge what is a futile and meaningless distraction and what isn’t? If there is one thing that is definitely not futile it is only God , and the remembrance of God is the beginning of meaningfulness.

  20. “Remembrance of God is the beginning of meaningfulness”

    Thank you Dino.

    Only this year have a realized anger is some of the rocks that fill our heart and make it poor soil for the Good News.

    Over the years I have often thought ‘what you look at you reflect.’

    When I focus on chaos or things that make me angry I can feel my body change for the worse. For years my mom has been pointing out changes in my face when my attitude changes. My husband would point out my sighing. Thankfully I have begun to notice myself and have begun to, with grace, turn a bit more to my guardian angel for help and turn to prayer a bit more when I sense the physical ‘early indicators’ of being off track.

    I noticed a beautiful quote in Metropolitan Tikhon’s comments to the Church World Service Meeting in November
    “So it is not only important for us to always seek the face of Christ, but also to become like Christ ourselves, to change our own heart so that our very face reflects His glory….”

    He also noted

    “The most important fact,” Saint Tikhon continued, “is that the Orthodox Church conducts her missionary work quietly, with humility and reverence, being conscious of the powerlessness of man and the strength of God.”

  21. This comment might risk stretching your post beyond your intention Fr Stephen. Could one also view the Resurrection as not so much the end of the story but rather the fulcrum on which it all pivots? Or maybe also the window or portal through which the creation, of which we are of course a part, is beheld and experienced as its Author intended?

  22. I am visiting my native country and cannot but notice how people are preoccupied with the news. I stopped watching TV many years ago and listen only to select videos and lectures making sure that I learn something useful every day.

    And most people comment that it is unnaturally quiet in my flat.

    Allowing noise 24 7 to interfere with your thoughts can be highly destructive to one’s soul.

  23. Fr. Stephen,

    I have a suggestion for a blog topic: people fear the end. I don’t in particular mean the of their lives or the end of the world. I’m talking about the end of the party or of a good time.

    I’ve noticed this with my children. They reach an age where they instinctively know that whatever they’re looking forward to will happen…and then they’ll be depressed because it’s over.

    Surely there is a blog post in this anticlimactic phenomenon.

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