The Story God Tells Us About Ourselves (2)
The “primary plot” that underlies all human storytelling is that God created the universe as a place of abundance, filled with goodness, plenty, marvels and beauty. And that God created humanity to enjoy this abundance; to be creative, to generate an even greater plenty so that all could rejoice in abundant life. However, at some point and by some means, this original purpose became twisted out of shape. A blight appeared in the land. It corrupted human hearts. It produced distorted forms of life - hatred, violence, fear and all sorts of dis-ease.
And so this is the world in which we live, battered by suffering and undermined by despair. But there are those who still dreamed of abundant life for all, men and women whose talents, faithfulness, journey, struggle and sacrifice enable them to engage with the blight in its most virulent forms. They encourage the hero in each one of us, the person who finds a way forward through the forces that oppose us, cancelling their power, transforming the world, making the dream come true.
Everyone sets out on their own quest, and pursues their own goal, but in the end, all quests lead in the same direction, and all goals are aspects of the same treasure - the power to heal harm, refresh the spirit, renew the land. We may venture out alone, but we are soon surrounded by friends who provide gifts, companionship and guidance. And although we may be drawn into conflict with those forces in the world that oppose the dream, our final and lasting battle is with the blight as it is at work in the human heart, in each and every individual soul, especially our own.
The road is long, the goal recedes, the treasure remains beyond our sight. There are many defeats and the outcome is uncertain. And yet while the dream remains, and we can see how dream is turned into reality, if only on a small scale, then we can live and die undaunted, because we see how it can be that, while God’s intentions might be thwarted for a time, in an ultimate sense, they cannot be denied. There will be a reckoning, and a cosmic renewal. We have come from God, who has formed us for abundant life. We will enjoy abundant life in God forever.
All “good” stories are echoes of this story, God’s story, a tale that is often overwhelmed by other voices, but which is always rediscovered and retold, ancient but ever new. The stories we enjoy hearing or reading, that remain in our minds, that form us, and that we enjoy passing on to others, are the stories that echo some part of this primeval tale. They are the stories that are part of every faith-tradition, and the tales that have been told for generations around the campfire or over the cradle. They fill our bookshops, cinemas and TV screens and pervade our conversations as personal anecdotes, urban myths and snippets culled from newspapers, the radio or magazines.
We all know a “good” story when we hear one, but rarely do we pause to consider what makes a story “good,” even though we also know that not all stories make the grade. I want to suggest that the stories that we consider “good” are in the end satisfying because they fit a particular plot that is hard-wired into our psyches. If they are also well-told, with evocative descriptions, appealing characters, a variety of action, enjoyable incidents and a convincing resolution, then that is a bonus. But we have all read many books, or watched numerous films, that had none of these advantages and yet which held us for a time because the plot followed a particular sequence of moves.
A reviewer would say: This is tosh, but enjoyable tosh. We sit it out, despite our better judgement, because we want to know how the story ends. We read on, even though we know how the story ends. We know, because we have read this type of story before, many, many times. But we want to know how this particular author achieves that end. We want to know what happens to each of the characters. We want to know how it all turns out.
In short, we want the reassurance of knowing that this story conforms with the plot we already have fixed in our minds. We expect it to reflect and reinforce the universal story. But we also enjoy the variations and specific details that this author has built into this particular version of the story. These twin expectations underpin most fiction written for children, most genre fiction and most best-sellers - the most popular books, TV dramas and films.
At its worst, this is storytelling by numbers, “formula” fiction, tales that are fashioned, like any other product, to fit a specific genre and to appeal to a particular market. And yes, it is true that the best stories are much more than a plot. And the best book or film or play can do so much more than tell a story. This has led to a phenomenon in our contemporary culture that is unique in human cultural history - works of creativity that aspire to excellence but have no interest in storytelling at all.
This is a new and startling development because all art forms have their origin in storytelling. All music, drama, poetry, song, dance and painting originated in the human ability to follow a feeling, express it and give it a shape, and as soon as we begin to do this, we are beginning to tell stories about ourselves and each other. To say, “I am angry,” raises the question as to why I am angry, and as soon as I ask that question, let alone answer it, I am into the realm of story. “I am angry because he did that……….” or “I am angry because she said this…………” What am I going to do now? is the next question. Action, feeling, reaction.
Whatever the impulse that sets us singing or dancing, or writing a poem or pouring out our soul in oils on canvas, there is a story at the root of it. My story, that is also your story and our story. Our common ground. While the art form stays in touch with this root, it can both aspire to excellence and retain its broad appeal. This is because it refers back to the story latent in our subconscious, ready to be awakened, so just about anyone is able to respond to the work at some level. Not everyone will catch all the subtleties or understand all the detail, but that does not matter. There will still be enough, in the broad reference to our common cultural story-ground, for the work to communicate, for an ordinary person to feel that the work is speaking to them, that it has meaning for them, that they have “got something out of it.” In short, that this poem or song or play or film is worth our attention.
Unfortunately, in Western society since the end of the Second World War, the combination of relatively high levels of peace, prosperity, political stability, education and leisure have allowed practitioners the luxury of losing sight of storytelling as the reason why their craft came into being in the first place, and the source of its creative and regenerative life. Divorced from this root, artists, composers, novelists and poets have created art that is either popular but shallow, or intelligent but elitist. Sensing that their work lacks a regenerative creativity, they have pursued originality as an end in itself; sensing that their work lacks transformative power, they have settled for making an impact instead.
The cost to both the artists themselves and to society as a whole is beyond calculation. For it is the vocation of artists and people of creativity to remind society of the story that shapes us, feeds us, heals us and sets us free. Without the most wonderful story, we do not know where to find the resources that will help us meet the challenges we face - indeed, we do not even know that such resources exist. Consequently, the artists, writers and composers who are not interested in telling the story, or who smother it with cleverness, are not only killing their own creativity in the long term; they are also contributing to the demise of the society that supports them.
Because I need the story. We need it. Need it in order to communicate effectively with one another. About abundance. In order to see abundance, appreciate abundance, talk about abundance. Share abundance. Generate abundance. Ensure that abundance is for all. The story helps us to imagine abundance and go and find it. See it where it already exists. Ensure that it is shared. We need the story in order to ensure that everyone has access to abundant life.
Without the story, we are like the people in the market square - surrounded by abundance, but unable to buy as much as we want because we cannot afford it. Or we find that the abundance we have does not satisfy us, because the value of it does not last. Or we do not see the connection between the abundance we can see and the abundance we cannot see, between the abundance that feeds the body, and the abundance that feeds the soul. Or we ignore this second type of abundance because we do not understand its practical value. We may recognise our longing, but cannot give it expression, cannot reflect upon it, talk about it, follow where it leads, work through the fear that arises to lay our hands on what we need.
Without the story, we are left with bread that does not satisfy. With food that tempts us, teases us but remains always beyond our reach. With nourishment that gives us an existence but not the fullness of life for which we feel, instinctively, that we are made and to which we sense that we are entitled, just because we are human beings made in the image of God.
The most wonderful story is the key to imagining - and realising - abundant life for all. It contains all the clues we need. But it takes a lifetime to learn them, internalise them, and teach them to others. Because we are working constantly against the blight in all its forms. Within us and without us. So we need to hear the story loud, clear, often and at regular intervals.
This need is described, precisely, by Katherine Hankey, in an old hymn:
Tell me the old, old story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory,
Of Jesus and his love.
Tell me the story simply,
As to a little child;
For I am weak, and weary,
And helpless, and defiled:
Tell me the old, old story,
Of Jesus and his love.
Tell me the story slowly,
That I may take it in -
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning
Has passed away at noon:
Tell me the story softly,
With earnest tones and grave;
Remember, I’m the sinner
Whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always,
If you would really be
In any time of trouble
A comforter to me:
Tell me the same old story
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear.
And when that next world’s glory
Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story -
Christ Jesus makes thee whole!
I read genre fiction because in my weak, weary, troubled and forgetful state this is the only way that I can absorb the story. True, it only gives me broken fragments of the whole. Pieces of a broken mirror. But those pieces are better than nothing, especially when the great books ask too much of me. Genre fiction gives me fragments of the story in a form that I can digest quickly and easily, again and again. In that sense, it is comfort food for the soul. The fact that these books sell in vast numbers suggests that I am not the only person who feels this way.
Rather than rail against the production and consumption of so much dross, perhaps we should be working on retelling the most wonderful story in forms that enable it to be more easily consumed. Because when I cannot heal myself, I need people to reach out to me.
The story gives life, so any art that is too far divorced from it is dead, dying, deadening. Storytelling is the basis of all the richer forms of human communication. A community is a group of people who communicate. We need artists to help us communicate with one another. Lack of communication will kill us. This is not to say that all art has to be imprisoned by narrative, but rather, that art which has no connection to the story that gives us life is art that no society can afford. If artists feel the old forms to be restrictive, then they need to look more closely at that which has made them artists, or turn to something else. We need the old, old story, retold in rich formats and lush language.
The one thing I will not do is give up the story. The story is non-negotiable. It is my basic food. My daily bread.
God’s wonderful story is the bread of life to me.
Cancer - anti-biotics - into my hand. We need to hear it more clearly. We cannot afford to remain spectators at the feast. We need to eat. And to get other people eating. The prospect of a feast no longer satisfies. We need the feast itself. We need art that will feed the story straight into the vein.