Wednesday, October 4, 2017

By Marybeth Davis Baggett and A. Chadwick Thornhill

Some books are indelibly tied to their historical moment. For readers, they conjure images of the past and bring to mind impressions of a bygone era. The glory of Rome’s Golden Age emanates from the pages of Virgil’s Aeneid; Anglo-Saxon heroism, from Beowulf. The Divine Comedy captures the political tensions of early fourteenth century Florence while Uncle Tom’s Cabin highlights the systemic injustice and personal toll of slavery in the Antebellum American South. These stories and myriad others were born from the events, trends, and attitudes of their respective periods.

Often these books and their cultural fodder are so closely united in the public imagination that the line between fictional story and historical fact is blurred. Our vision of the past is filtered through the lens of story, where events are centered on conflict, heroes and villains are driven by ethically-charged purposes, and details are imbued with significance provided by the story’s end. Dwelling a bit on this distinction — between brute historical fact and meaningful story — highlights a fundamental human drive, deep at the heart of who we are as people. We are inveterate storytellers, a trait evidenced by myth and fairy tale, classic literature and memoir, theater and television. Where there are people, there too are stories.

At their best, stories are entertaining, and the pleasure they provide is undeniably part and parcel of their overall value. But they also do more than offer mere diversion. The value of story both embraces and surpasses amusement. Stories delight and teach, to modify Horace’s classic formulation.1 Or to channel Jonathan Swift, they deliver “sweetness and light.”2 At least that is what we hope for. Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin explain that in telling stories, “we struggle to discover what we have been, who we are, and what we ought to be.”3 This explanation dovetails with N. T. Wright’s argument that human life is anchored in and shaped by the stories, both implicit and explicit, we tell ourselves.4

For this reason, Wright contends that worldview and narrative are not separate modes of thought but interwoven ones. Contra an Enlightenment approach to knowledge, Wright suggests that worldview is not simply a set of interconnected beliefs, propositions we espouse or reject; rather, a person’s worldview is made up of many facets of human existence. Through story, these disparate elements are woven together in a coherent whole.5 Worldviews tell stories of where we have come from and where we are going. Stories both articulate and illuminate relationships: they position individuals in community, highlight the ways in which we are shaped by our environment, and trace the often invisible bonds between cause and effect.

Samuel Coleridge identifies this activity as the work of the imagination, finding patterns and unifying them into a coherent whole. The human imagination, for Coleridge, nds its source and ideal in the creative processes of God. While Coleridge’s theology often verged on the heterodox, this connection between man’s imaginative activity and the creative work of God parallels J. R. R. Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation, that writers of stories generate for their readers what he calls secondary worlds; to do so, they must draw on ultimate reality, spinning transcendent truths into literary form. For this reason, the act of storytelling is bound up with our spiritual and moral standing. What we find in the world around us, how we arrange those findings is dependent on our expectations and will. And so the products of this imaginative activity — the stories we hear and those we tell — provide a glimpse into the respective author’s conceptions of the world.

Worldview and the Stories We Tell

Nineteenth-century American author Stephen Crane, for example, wrote stories populated with people in dire situations, ill-equipped to survive, let alone overcome, the life-threatening challenges they faced. His characters in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets live in slums and fight — literally and figuratively — for limited resources. “The Open Boat” depicts shipwreck survivors facing the open sea with only an insubstantial dinghy between them and certain death. Representative of the naturalistic vein of American literature, Crane’s tales begin and end in despair.

Much of Crane’s work draws on his own experiences and actual conditions he witnessed in the tenements of the Bowery district of New York. But the conclusions he draws about these experiences, the doom and gloom, is the work of his worldview. We can imagine a story that might highlight its characters’ dignity and human spirit despite such conditions and find unexpected reason for hope. This seems to be Deborah Hopkinson’s goal in Shutting out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924.

We might be tempted to understand the import of this connection between story and worldview along radical postmodern lines, that we should jettison notions of objective truth, goodness, and beauty and instead embrace the pluralistic idea that we create our own realities. Who is to judge whether Crane or Hopkinson has the right take on Bowery life? The uneasiness this question stirs up might encourage us to retreat to the traditional ways of understanding worldview—as a checklist to be ticked off. However, Wright offers the following criteria by which to evaluate stories: the sense they make of the world, both in broad-brush and specifics; how simple are their outlines; how well they handle details and explain the data on offer; and whether they can be translated beyond their immediate contexts.6

Narrative Apologetics

Pitted against Crane’s story, with no outside assistance, Hopkinson’s understanding of Bowery life seems Pollyannaish. Looking only at material circumstances, life does indeed appear “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes described it.7 But the Christian has access to another story, one that accounts for and reinterprets all that Crane identifies. The gospel acknowledges the injustice and tragedy of life in the Bowery and offers hope for redemption, not an idealistic, unreliable optimism but a substantive promise made good in the incarnation, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus Christ.

As we engage with those whose worldviews differ from our own, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind this dual function of stories, how their personal histories have shaped their belief systems and how their belief systems in turn attempt to tell a story about the world. Using Wright’s framework, we can examine not only the facts which undergird these stories, but the stories themselves and their explanatory power. If the story a worldview offers does not make sense of the world, of good and evil, justice and injustice, love and hate, it is too thin. And in doing so, we can point ourselves and others toward a truer, thicker story which makes sense of our world. Christianity is both sweeping in its scope and intimate in its practice, rendering everything meaningful and nothing expendable.

We learn and rehearse this story through our participation in the life of the church. The sacraments of communion and baptism, remind us of our place in this story. For Christians are not merely characters at the mercy of the cosmic plot; we are actors and storytellers ourselves, tasked with sharing in word and deed the story of hope and redemption to others. This is the grand story which is the measure of all others, the story we must proclaim and embody in our encounters with the stories around us each day.

1. Horace, The Art of Poetry, in e Critical Tradition, edited by David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 91.

2. Jonathan Swift, “A Tale of a Tub,” in Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books (New York: Modern Library, 1931), 532.

3. Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, Literature through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989), 35.

4. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 123.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, 42.

7. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Produced by Edward White, and David Widger, Accessed May 27, 2017. les/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm, XIII.9.