what kind of story are we in?

Peter Kreeft (philosophy prof at boston college) addresses the formative role of stories in societies and cultures in a lecture in his CD course (with Barnes & Noble) titled “What Would Socrates Do? The History of Moral Thought and Ethics”.

In a lecture on Aquinas and ethics, he asserts, “The most universal form of all human art is storytelling. This is because we know stories are like life, and if stories are like life then life is like a story–a play or a novel. So, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ is a way of asking ‘what kind of story are we in?’ This is the question that Sam asks Frodo as the heroic hobbits enter Mordor castle. Sam means, ‘is it a happy or a sad ending story?’ but there is a deeper element to it because both comedies and tragedies are meaningful. The first question is whether our story is meaningful–does it have an end, a purpose. Or is it just ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’?”

The dimension of ethics refered to as the summum bonum (greatest good, the purpose, ultimate end) is compared with the theme of a story. Kreeft continues, “If a story has no theme, then the characters cannot be heroes or villians. A life with no purpose can have no villians or heroes either. Thus, the rarest and hardest story to write in modern America is the serious heroic epic. The only sin or evil in modern America is to call someone a sinner or evil. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ we say, thus judging judgmentalism. We don’t believe in heroes or villians anymore because we don’t believe we’re in the kind of story that allows for them.”

We do have to be careful about what sort of story we think we are in because that will determine the options that are available to us as we live with God and others. Is life really the kind of story in which sacrificial love is ultimately victorious or are we in the kind of story in which physical violence is the only guarantee for conquest–and that conquest is the point? Are we in the kind of story in which one’s will is imposed on another by physical or psychological force or the kind in which one’s values infiltrate enemy territory through grace?

I find that the most difficult thing about taking my role as a pastor/theologian for the church seriously is how incredibly difficult it is to be consistent theologically in everything. This is especially the case when it comes to the reality that content and form are not as easily separable as we’d like to think. It takes rigorous theological reflection and tremendous discipline to become consistent in representing that story faithfully in our churches.

Living the Christian Story means not only reaching the true end, but getting there using the right means. Jesus seems to hint at something like this when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Redemption and Jesus-following is not merely a destination. Jesus is also the way; the true way, the life-giving way.

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7 thoughts on “what kind of story are we in?

  1. Thoughtful thoughts Guy. I love the opening lines of the Fellowship of the Rings: “Much that once was is no longer for none now live who remember it.

    I find that the most difficult thing about taking my role as a pastor/theologian for the church seriously is how incredibly difficult it is to be consistent theologically in everything.

    This is a complex reality you describe here— however, I think the secret lies in the quote above— memory. We have bought into an interpretation– application model which is helpful and yet not that natural. I am inspired by the memory–imagination paradigm. I think it truly unfolds the Hebraic vision of life which is organically God-centered and it leads to an inside-out approach whereas the former tends toward an outside-in approach. The former is the corseted principled, programmed living approach. The latter is filled with story immersion practices.

    your thoughts?

  2. Guy Says: “I find that the most difficult thing about taking my role as a pastor/theologian for the church seriously is how incredibly difficult it is to be consistent theologically in everything.”

    Stories about heroes and villians are highly selective. They only show short segments of the hero/villian’s life – those that fit the theme of the story. Even within the time of the story, not everything is mentioned, but only those things that bear directly on progressing the storyline.

    I’ve argued many times that narrative/story is essential to Christianity and Christian practice. But not everything we do as Christians – not even everything we do in obedience to God – advances the story line (and even when it does, we may not be aware of its role in doing so). For the other activities – what we might call ordinary life – we can defer to wisdom. Biblical wisdom is parasitic on the narrative: certain acts and ways of being fit with who God is, what God has done and is doing. These actions then are not so much acts within the storyline, but find their ultimate intelligibility within it.

  3. JD, I’m following your point but would love to find where I can learn more about the “memory–imagination” paradigm specifically, especially for biblical interpretation and proclamation. I hear in that description echoes of Eugene Peterson. Am I correct? As far as inside-out vs. outside-in, how is discipline related to this–is there not some mixture of what a friend who worked with drug-rehab folks said (“get your butt in the seat and your head will follow”) in relation to spiritual growth?

  4. Richard, I seem to remember a post on your blog about biblical wisdom being parasitic on the narrative. I think I’m jogging alongside your comments. Could you flesh that out a little more or direct me back to that post?

  5. i really like this thought about wisdom being parasitic in the narrative– i would tend to think more in terms of wisdom being a fruit of the narrative; however, this would mitigate toward the tendency of picking the fruit and leaving the story behind. the parasitic idea maintains the essential connectivity and dependence of wisdom to the story.

    how about this: what if we thought of wisdom as the flower of the story and authentic Love as its fruit. In this way the flower must retain its connection to the Story-Source in order to flourish in living beauty. The Fruit of Love, on the other hand, always has a life of its own. it’s life, though growing out of narrative soil, is not conditional on narrative connection but can be freely enjoyed by anyone. However, good fruit will always draw one back to the tree.

    guy– you know Eugene is one of my primary mentors. his ideas in Leap Over a Wall have influenced me a lot. You could see that first chapter to get more on this idea of inside-out vs. outside-in conversion. This book i refer to is really what I would call a theological-poetic commentary on 1-2 Samuel and the stories of David. I keep going back to it.

    you’ve stirred up a good conversation here.

  6. Flowers & Fruit certainly are more attractive than parasites. I’m probably retaining too much of my polemicism agianst the modern tradition that has jettisoned narrative (“accidental truths of history”) for “wisdom” (“The necessary truths of reason”). Flowers/Fruit are certainly better at showing the natural depth of connection between the narrative and the “ordinary” Christian life of wisdom.

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