Sometimes I wonder if I like stories too much. It doesn’t matter what the format or genre, give me a good story and I’m hooked. Watchmen, Lost, The Maltese Falcon and Neuromancer are among my favorite stories despite the fact that they’re all very different. The first is a graphic novel deconstructing superheroes, the second is a television show that isn’t even finished yet, the third is a black-and-white film noir, and the last is a cyberpunk novel published more 20 years ago. I know I’m not alone in my insatiable appetite for stories—what is it that makes us humans love them so?
One obvious reason is that the story is the best way we know how to impart abstract ideas. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is a perfect example of a story that helps us understand concepts that are sometimes difficult to grasp. I remember the first time that I realized that Aslan was the Narnian Jesus. I was totally floored. Even as a preteen, I realized that something was clearly missing from the portrait of Jesus I had painted in my own short life.
Christians trying to be relevant often add story-telling to their “evangelism toolbox” because of how effectively it can be used to convey the gospel in an age without absolutes. They realize that stories are a universal form that allow them to communicate across philosophical and cultural boundaries. Is that it then? Are stories good only because they are a way to sneak the gospel into the postmodern conversation?
I’m not so sure about that. Last summer I read Lewis’ Space Trilogy for a class, and I believe that it was the first time I actually saw the destructive power of sin. If it took a work of fiction to show me reality, then it seems to me that stories must also be vehicles for all truth. And it’s not just works created by Christians that illustrate the truth. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors expertly shows the steps we are often willing to take to cover up sin. The Christians that would have us believe that stories by non-Christians are a form of escape from the real world have not been paying attention to what is being said in those stories.
I believe that stories communicate both the gospel and the truth about the human existence, but more importantly, they awaken in us something long repressed by our modern culture: life itself is a story. This may sound like metaphor, but it is more than that.
A few weeks ago, I was talking about how life was a big story and one of my friends leaned over and wrote “choose your own adventure” in my notebook. I think that statement is a perfect snapshot of our generation’s postmodern worldview. As a kid I used to read “choose your own adventure” books over and over, looking for the right path to the “real” ending. I was quite disappointed when I finally realized that there was no “real” ending and thus, there was no “main story.”
Existentialism tells us that there is no real ending to our lives, that there is no central plot to our story. This is why the postmodern discussion often centers on the deconstruction of meta-narrative, or the all-encompassing story. Even though existential philosophy was the prevailing philosophy of the modern era, postmodernism is the logical conclusion of modernism and so we have inherited most of its problems. We have succeeded in convincing ourselves that we each create our own reality, our own adventure. In the realities we have made, everyone exists in their own personal narrative, disconnected from the rest of humanity. This means that other people are only important if they intersect with our narratives.
This stands in stark contrast with God’s reality, in which we are all a part of one big adventure. His narrative weaves the collected lives of everyone, dead and otherwise, into one great meta-narrative.
The problem we face is that we are not writing or even reading the narrative. We are the characters in a story fashioned by God. We have very little idea of the plot, other than what we can see from our first-person view. It is hard to see the struggles of others in the story when we can only see with our eyes. Once in a while, people are given a third-person point of view and are asked by the author to act on that knowledge, but for the most part, we are stuck in first-person. This is why the stories we tell are so powerful.
Our stories are microcosms of God’s story. For a split-second we are allowed a view of a world where everything is interconnected and has a meaningful conclusion. This is why good stories can give us the faith to carry on; they are more real than the private universes we have constructed.
The choice we have to make is whether we want to be a part of God’s story. By choosing to live in the story, we are choosing the real adventure.