Where Do People Without a Story Go?
There are alternatives to living without a story. As the Christian story began to decline in influence, other stories emerged to vie for people’s devotion.
There is the success story, in which life is about accumulating wealth, power, and pleasurable experiences. This story’s primary slogan is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
A lot of people have lived into the nation story. In the nation story people find their primary identity within a certain culture, race, or language. The things that matter most in that story are the wealth, power, expansion, and stability of one’s nation. That story has been quite persuasive over the last couple of centuries. Many people have lived and died embracing that story.
The humanist story has also become quite pervasive. This story’s plot says that the point of life is to keep helping humanity become better. There is much to admire in this story. But in the end when the humanity story isn’t part of a larger narrative of meaning, it, too, usually ends up in some form of Nietzschean despair.
Another possibility is that people live out many stories at once. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is convinced that most people live out their morality today using fragments from a number of different narratives.
While I was in seminary, my wife, Debbie, worked at Warner Bros., and many of our friends were connected to the television and film industry. Two of our dear friends—I’ll call them Doug and Rachel—were television writers and close friends with Debbie. In addition to work, Debbie and Rachel were both pregnant at the same time. We would often go to dinner and talk Hollywood and baby furniture. Neither Doug nor Rachel professed to be Christian, but we nevertheless grew to become good friends.
One night at dinner Debbie and the two friends were talking about people who were getting advanced at the studio. In particular they were unhappy about a person who had the reputation for being quite deceitful and ruthless and who had just been given a significant promotion. In the midst of their complaining Doug commented, “I wish that I could lie and backstab people. I’m sure I would be much more successful today if I could be more ruthless, but I just can’t.”
In the midst of their conversation, Rachel looked at me and said, “Scott, as a pastor and an ethicist, this conversation about the underside of the ‘industry’ has to be driving you crazy.”
“No,” I responded. “It is actually quite interesting. But I do have a question for you, Doug. Earlier you said you would be much more successful if you could cheat, lie, and backstab your way to the top. If that’s the case, I’m curious why you don’t do just that? Why don’t you cheat your way to the top?”
He looked at me with a great deal of exasperation. “I can’t believe my one pastor friend, and the only person I know getting a doctorate in ethics, would ask me that kind of question!”
“Wait,” I replied. “I know why I can’t do those things. I have a whole bunch of reasons why I wouldn’t cheat my way to success. But you don’t share any of my faith convictions. I know why I couldn’t do it. I’m just curious to know why you can’t do it.”
My question ruined the rest of dinner for Doug. I could see him wrestling with the problem all the way through dessert. Just as we were about to leave, Doug interjected, “All right, Daniels! I know why I can’t cheat and backstab. My grandmother was a very good Catholic. And every time I’m in a situation where I am tempted to lie or cheat, it’s like the ghost of my grandmother pops up on my shoulder and whispers, ‘Doug . . . don’t do that.’”
On the way home Debbie laughed and remarked, “It was funny to watch you catch Doug with that question tonight. Isn’t it interesting that he feels like much of his moral compass comes from his grandmother’s Catholic faith?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But the question I didn’t have the heart to ask was, ‘What will be the reason their new child will give someday for not cheating his or her way to the top?’”
The point of the story is not that Doug and Rachel are bad people. They are actually very fine people. But my sense is that the story that shapes and informs their moral life—like most people— is a complicated patchwork of religious fragments, citizenship fragments, success fragments, humanism fragments, and lots of other pieces. But it is very hard to live well out of a fragmented story. And it is very difficult to pass on a fragmented story that will guide the next generation. People living in exile have to have a coherent and cohesive story.
A STORIED PEOPLE
In a world without a coherent story, the church exists as a people who not only tell but also live into and out of a truthful story. The people of God in exile know that what they need is to come each week to submit their lives to the authority of the Scriptures’ story and to be formed again and again to live out that story in the world.
I love the eleventh chapter of Hebrews—the “by faith” chapter. The beauty of this chapter is certainly found in the recounting of the great lives of trust lived out by our ancestors in the faith. But I also love the way the chapter begins. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of
God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (v. 3, NRSV). The emphasis on the word we is mine. By faith the church (the “we” in this text) understands and accepts this story of God as true and beautiful and good. Not everyone has embraced God’s great story. In fact the majority of the culture around the church may be living out of very different stories than the story of faith. But this is our story. It is the church’s story. “By faith we understand . . . .”
To be a storied people is to live the story. I love an illustration given by Bishop N. T. Wright in a paper he presented on the authority of the Scriptures. He writes,
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
What a beautiful picture of what it means to be a storied people. For Wright, the first four acts of the divine drama are “(1) Creation,” “(2) Fall,” “(3) Israel,” “(4) Jesus,” and the missing fifth act is the church. His powerful illustration invites the church to so immerse itself in God’s saving story in acts one through four that the faithful then know how to live authentically in ways that carry the great story forward.
If I could make one adjustment to Wright’s illustration, it would be that I think the Scriptures point in hazy yet profound ways to what the great sixth act—we might call it eschaton or eternity— will look like. The storied people of the church dwell so fully in the first four acts, and their imaginations have been so shaped by the story of Christ’s resurrection power and the Spirit’s healing of creation, that now in act five the church lives as faithful witnesses to God’s great story.
Taken from Embracing Exile ©2017 by T. Scott Daniels, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Mo. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.