Christianity and Pluralism (5): Christianity = Statement or Story?

In this final installment on how Christianity interacts with a pluralistic culture, I want to start with a story.

Many years ago, our human ancestors huddled around fires listening to shamans and elders telling narrative stories by which they made sense of their world and their lives in it. They told myths about the world’s origins, and about how they as peoples came to be….They recounted myths about fairies, spirits, gods, and powerful cosmic forces. By narrating such fictional stories, our ancestors recounted meaningful explanations of a world that was to them mysterious and dangerous….As primitives, telling such stories, myths, and legends was the only way they knew how to explain the world and contemplate how to live in it…

But all of that has changed. We moderns no longer have to huddle around fires telling fanciful myths about creations, floods, trials, conquests, and hoped-for paradises. Science, industry, rationality, and technology have dispelled the darkness and ignorance that once held the human race captive to its fanciful fables. Today, through progress, enlightenment, and cultural evolution, we now possess positive knowledge, scientific facts, rational analyses. We no longer need to be a people of ballads and legends, for we are a people of periodic tables, technical manuals, genetic maps, and computer codes….We have left behind myths and legends….Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.

Such is the story we moderns–huddled around our televisions and computer work stations–like to tell each other. This is the dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it. (Moral, Believing Animals, 63-4)

In this recounting of the contemporary Western narrative, Christian Smith captures nicely just how addicted we human beings are to story. In fact, Smith would say that stories are an essential part of our lives. We keep making them, and they keep shaping us.

We tell and retell narratives that themselves come fundamentally to constitute and direct our lives. We, every bit as much as the most primitive or traditional of our ancestors, are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is, who we are, and how we ought to live by locating ourselves within the larger narratives and metanarratives that we hear and tell…. (MBA, 64)

Enter Lesslie Newbigin‘s final point of preparation for Christians taking their message to others:

…the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear. (GPS, 12)

Faith isn’t so much about believing a statement, but rather believing a story.

Of course, as Smith points out, believing a story is not a uniquely Christian thing. At the end of the day, we all make meaning of our lives by telling some story. The story may be exciting or boring. It may be simple or complex (or both). It may bear more or less resemblance to reality. But one way or another, no matter how you slice it, it’s a story.

The Christian story, rooted in the Bible, is an interpretation of human history set within the history of the world. I happen to believe it is a true interpretation of that history. I also believe it is exciting, sometimes stunningly simple and sometimes confusingly complex. Every time I wrestle with it, it continues to ring true in my ears. It encompasses all other stories I have heard with elegance, grace, and clarity. But most importantly, it centers on a protagonist that I just can’t get out of my head.

God. Particularly, God as he came to us in Jesus Christ.

The entire story of the Bible finds its focus in Christ, is fulfilled and makes sense in Christ. If it has been a while since you heard the basic plot line of the story, let me briefly recount it for you.

God created the world, including us humans, and everything was so good. Part of that goodness in human beings was our free will. We could truly choose to love God, not like automatons, but like people. But tragically, we chose not to. We continue to choose not to. And the pain and evil we put out into the world sticks to us, and to each other. God kept trying to woo us the world back to him through the people of Israel, but they just kept choosing to run away from him out of selfishness and pride and laziness. Finally, God decided to take matters into his own hands.

He became a human being, in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus turned to God when the rest of us wouldn’t. As a human being with all the temptations you and I face, he chose freely to love and obey the Creator of the universe. Then, letting all the evil we put into the world stick to him instead of us, he died on the cross. Our rightful punishment and our justifiable shame died with him.

But he didn’t stay dead.  He rose from the dead, defeating death, and showing us what would happen to those who accept his record as their own. Ever since he ascended to be with the Father, we have been waiting for him to return and set the world right once and for all. In the meantime, he has sent his own Spirit to us so that we aren’t stuck in the evil that use to stick to us anymore. We can finally use that original gift of freedom to love God once again.

Christians don’t so much put their faith in a series of propositions. We put our faith in a person. The person of Jesus Christ, the center of the story of all human history, and the hope of our future.

We all have a story. And, I don’t know about you, but I find this person, and his story, pretty compelling.

4 Responses to Christianity and Pluralism (5): Christianity = Statement or Story?

  1. Daniel Baker says:

    “We have left behind myths and legends….Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.”

    This conflates things. Science and faith are both, in my view, technologies. Both technologies tell stories. Stories of our relationship to each other, the earth, history, and the universe. You could, in a limited sense, even call science myth. (True myth!?)

    “Christians don’t so much put their faith in a series of propositions. We put our faith in a person.”

    The problem is that the person is mediated through history, text, and culture resulting in an image. I’d go so far to say that language renders true relationship to Jesus impossible unless he directly appears in some form to the faithful. Of course orthodoxy grants this role to the Holy Spirit, but then, we’ve ran into another faith chain.

    • kbrooksy says:

      Hey Daniel,

      To your first point, I’m not familiar with your use of the word technologies. Sounds like you’ve studied something or someone I haven’t. Nevertheless, it sounds like you are critiquing here the story told by Smith, which is both facetious to some degree and not my own accounting of events. I tell a somewhat different story as you know.

      Second, I also don’t have a pessimistic view of the possibilities of relationship through communication. Indeed, how could I? When I received love letters from my wife while we were separated, was I in a closer or more distant relationship with her at that moment? I would tend to say closer. What distance there was between us was a given, but I do believe that (whatever mistakes I did make in interpretation) I could interpret the basic thrust of the message, internalize it as something intended by my wife, and use it to build our relationship. Her presence would have been much better than a letter, of course, but even then there are some things about her and about our relationship that I would only know through her verbal communication with me.

      God of course, has abilities we don’t. As you mentioned, the Holy Spirit is usually said to be able communicate to us directly, even without the use of language if need be. If he in fact does do this, then whether I believe he does it or not is inconsequential. He does it or he doesn’t. Therefore, his action in the world is independent of my faith in his action.

      I hope you are doing well, my friend. Tell Amanda “hi” for me and Steph.

      • Daniel Baker says:

        Will do, and hi and love to you both!

        I’ve enjoyed reading this series and it seems that we’d probably agree on truth processes to some degree. Most of my issues with your points lie in arguing against the dated, at least academically, system of positivism. Then we could get into “good faith” vs. “bad faith” but that’d go on for quite awhile before we could adopt mutually acceptable language. Thanks for the reading suggestions, I’ll have to check them out. Apart from Tillich and situational ethics I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to contemporary theological developments. As for what’s influenced me and what I recommend, brainwashing by the post-structuralist Ronell and Hegelian-Lacanian-Marxist Zizek has done much for my primary “faith” position and the structuring of my philosophy/ideology. In relating your thought to post-structuralist thought I highly recommend Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, especially for it’s work on totalized history without a totalizer, which directly relates to issues of being and the mediation of language (here Derrida takes the cake).

        Look forward to more mental dancing to come. Much love!

        • kbrooksy says:

          Thanks my friend, for the comments and suggestions. It’s the second time I’ve heard of Zizek in the last couple of weeks, so I guess I need to pick him up! Love right back to you.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: