We collect and share stories, we build cultures around stories, and we imagine and transform life in the world on the basis of these stories.
Nathan Campbell continues his two-part series on the Big History Project and what it means for telling God’s big story.
American novelist (story-teller) and philosopher David Foster Wallace once said:
We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.
We collect and share stories, we build cultures around stories, and we imagine and transform life in the world on the basis of these stories. This is part of what separates us from the animal kingdom. There are no animals who build libraries, and even if knowledge is somehow encoded and passed from one animal generation to the next, we don’t just transmit raw data to each other. We record history, but we also tell and pass on fictional stories that entertain us, move us to feel things, and sink into our imaginations so that we see life differently.
The stories we tell
Have you ever considered the stories we tell ourselves in our modern, western, world, and how they might be shaping the way you view your life? What they might be making you feel (and teaching you to feel) about evil and injustice and goodness and heroism? How they might be forming your imaginations so that, without realising it, you’re geared up to face challenges in your life in particular ways?
In part one of this series we looked at how the stories we now tell ourselves make it seem like the natural world is all there is, which ultimately makes us cogs in a machine, rather than characters in a story. Because we’ve changed our understanding of the world, culturally, so that God isn’t authoring a story, we’re left telling stories from this flattened, less magical, view of the world.
This becomes obvious when we think about the origin stories of most of our ‘epic’ heroes and compare them to heroes of old. Where once our heroes were demigods, or humans on the path to godhood (like Gilgamesh, or Hercules), and we once believed this was true of our real life heroes (like Caesar), now our heroes are created by scientific accident (like Spider-man), scientific experiments (like Captain America), or technological advancement (like Iron Man or Batman).
We still have ‘other-worldly’ figures visiting earth (like Thor, or Superman), but these are typically alien beings who are studied by scientists to explain their power, but who also bring new technology with them for us to harness to shape our world. Super-villains now emerge from the abuse of technology we don’t understand. It’s not just our fictional epics that do this. The Big History Project, introduced in part 1, is an attempt to tell the best version of the secular story — the machine story — in a way that seeks to stoke our imaginations by telling us we’re stardust. Our stories — fiction or non-fiction — have a machine-like view of heroism and villainy (the good life), and of the world itself.
Wanting better stories
C.S Lewis wrote an academic book The Discarded Image, that explored how the prevailing view of the world in a culture shapes the stories we tell. Our sense of the world becomes the ‘backdrop’ for our stories; the ‘organising story’ of our age. The view we have of the universe is like the black cloth a jeweller uses to make his jewels sparkle. He suggested this ‘organising story’ is not just the story that academics or scientists tell about the world, but a story that has some appeal to ordinary people and that for it to appeal to ordinary people it has to “make some appeal to imagination and emotion.”
The question is: does a view of the world as a machine actually achieve this? The answer is mostly no; which is why secular thinkers are turning to the story-telling of the Big History Project to appeal to our imaginations so that somehow life within a machine has meaning and purpose.
Obviously stories that depict the world as a machine — like our superhero movies — don’t sit well with the way Christians understand the world and the reality of the super-natural. So this presents a challenge for us as we live and tell the story of the gospel. But they also don’t necessarily sit well with what we want from the world as humans, not only as Christians. We want more than simply to be a very small and insignificant blip in infinite time or speck in infinite space. We want to matter; we intuitively want a purpose, we want to be part of something bigger. There’s some reason that we’re wired to explain and feel our way through existence using stories. There’s a good account for this desire in the Christian story, where God is a story-teller, but no great explanation for it if the world is a machine.
Philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age describes how we came to think of the universe as a machine. But he argues that we haven’t totally evacuated the ‘ghosts’ from the machine; we haven’t totally lost the sense of something magical out there. He says we’re still, as western secular types, haunted. We still long for something more. When we tell stories that merely treat the world as a ‘machine’ our art is emptier for this loss. Our imaginations aim low. But when we tell stories that speak into this haunting, or the reality we’ve lost, we can re-fire the imagination about what life can be, and re-enchant our view of the world.
Needing better stories
If it’s true that stories are fundamental to our humanity, and that the need for a story to belong to is part of flourishing as a human, then addressing this ‘haunting’ is a need and not just a want. Christians have good reason to believe this is true, but it seems to be the truth underpinning The Big History Project too. We need a better recipe for apple pie, and a better account than ‘stardust’ for the essence of our humanity.
If the world is a machine — like a computer — then we treat people like machines, or computers, and so think that the way to re-program the world, or people, is with the right data. What people need is a bunch of facts, propositions, bits of ‘data’, presented in a coherent argument, as though what we’re after is a string of verifiable code. However, if we create meaning through stories, rather than facts, then facts alone will be insufficient to answer our haunted longings. If the world is an enchanted cosmos where God is telling a marvellous story, what we actually need is better stories.
We need a story that gives a greater meaning to our material existence than simply ‘you are matter.’ Deep down we want a story that says ‘you matter.’ We need a story that keeps us telling and valuing stories. Telling and valuing stories is part of what separates us from the animal kingdom, and thus part of what makes us human. If all we are is small and insignificant cogs in an infinitely large machine, then what is the point of stories? What is the point of living? Why do anything at all for anyone at all?
Because we’re storied creatures we need a ‘big history.’ We need a ‘big story’, or at least a bunch of small stories that appeal to our imagination and emotion. Otherwise, why bother?
The machine story doesn’t do much for our stories, nor does it do much for the lives we live fuelled by those stories. It’s not the way we see the world as Christians, or want our fellow humans, whom we love, to see the world either. Getting out of the rut created by this story will take the re-firing of our collective imagination, and a re-enchantment of how we see the world. It’ll take lifting our gaze from the material to the spiritual; from the creation to the creator—and this will take stories. Better stories. We need them. And as Christians, we have one. We have the story, a story that becomes a ‘backcloth’ that makes all other stories — the ones we live, and the ones we tell, more compelling.
Telling better stories…
We need to tell better stories that invite us to imagine and feel our way to a better world, and a better view of the world.
– Telling better stories means understanding the world (and the problem) better
Christians have lost our way in this machine-like vision of reality if we think the way back to real reality is operating as though the world is a machine — a computer — that just needs the right data.
We need to help people feel and imagine their way back to truth. And the way to do this is through story; God’s story, the gospel story, but also through art, and music, and stories.
– Telling better stories means understanding story better
We need to tell the gospel — God’s story — better; and doing this means understanding stories better; paying attention to the desires our world’s stories speak into, and the feelings that good or popular stories evoke. We need to tell not only God’s big story, but the many stories that help show the truth of God’s big story, and the hollowness and insufficiency of our world’s ‘machine-like’ stories.
– Telling better stories means valuing stories more
These are things that us modern, western, science-minded, data-driven, argumentative Christians have dismissed for too long. We’ve largely stopped investing in the arts, or seeing the arts as a calling for Christians. We’ve been too quick to dismiss stories and art as distractions or things for kids or the immature, instead of recognising their power.
– Telling better stories means thinking of our task differently; so we’re story-tellers not engineers
Engineers make machines work. Software engineers create the code that makes computers do what they should. We’re not engineers working with data as though facts are cogs that make the brain go around. We’re story-tellers.
We need to think of ourselves as Sub-creators (as Tolkien puts it)—people capable of creating ‘worlds’ with our words and pictures. People who can make art, and tell stories, in ways that help us see the cosmos as a creation of a world-creating God, not simply a machine. We have new imaginations given to us by God, through the Spirit, as we set our hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3), and these new imaginations allow us to live and tell new stories as we live in God’s story.
– Telling better stories means understanding God as a story-teller
It’s God’s ultimate creation, which is not just the world, but the story he tells in the world —his masterpiece — that will ultimately change the way people see the world and understand how to truly live in it. The world is beautiful and marvellous; but it’s only the stage for his epic story. It’s this story that is truly magnificent.
God is the ultimate, infinite, story-teller. He is not limited like we are. He is able to tell a story that spans many generations of people, through many places, and in ways that make time seem less important. A human author is able to stand apart from their novel, and create and speak of many lives across many generations, but we’re totally unable to do that in our own lives. Our ‘personal stories’ are autobiographies, limited as we are limited. God is able to stand apart from the story being told in space and time like an author stands apart from their book. The miracle of the gospel story – where Jesus, ‘God’s word,’ enters as a human to be ‘God With Us’ – is that the Author writes himself into his story in a profound way.
Not first as the ‘all conquering hero’ who has all his creations submit to his powerful rule, but as a baby who grows up to be scorned and executed as something worse than a slave. The end of the story does have every knee bowing to Jesus as people will be brought face to face with the author of their story, but we’re living in the middle.
– Telling better stories means knowing the best story; and having it shape the way we see the world (and thus the stories we tell)
Providentially, in God’s big history, the Bible, we have exactly that. We simply need to tell it.
A story that isn’t content merely with saying ‘you’re stardust,’ but ‘you are dust given life by the God who authors all of history’ – and not only that, but this God gave up his breath for you when he laid down his life on a barbaric torture device designed to humiliate him.
A story that says you matter; you’re not just a fleeting speck in an infinite ocean of time and space, but one who is known and loved by the infinite God.
A story that says heroic love looks like sacrifice, and that life together requires forgiveness.
A story that invites people to fire their God-given imaginations, and re-imagine life in the world as part of God’s big history — his big story.
Our challenge as Christian story-tellers is to tell our big story as a compelling Big History — a compelling account for the past, explanation of the present, and imagination of our future.
(This series was first published at the Creek Road Presbyterian Church website.)