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.