First, a Story
Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image journal, tells a story about telling stories for his kids. He describes the memorable bedtimes when he attempts to concoct a series of original tales. “My kids are polite enough to raise their hands when they have some penetrating question to ask about plot, character, or setting,” he writes. “If I leave something out of the story, or commit the sin of inconsistency, these fierce critics won’t let me proceed until I’ve revised the narrative. Oddly enough, they never attempt to take over the storytelling. They are convinced that I have the authority to tell the tale, but they insist that I live up to the complete story that they know exists somewhere inside me.”(1) Children seem to detest a deficient story.
There is no doubt that our sense of the guiding authority of story and storyteller often dramatically lessens as we move from childhood to adulthood. And yet, regardless of age, there remains something deeply troubling about a story without a point, or an author not to be trusted.
In an interview with Skeptic magazine, Richard Dawkins was asked if his view of the world was not similar to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, namely, that life is but “a tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.”(2)
“Yes,” Dawkins replied, “at a sort of cosmic level, it is. But what I want to guard against is people therefore getting nihilistic in their personal lives. I don’t see any reason for that at all. You can have a very happy and fulfilled personal life even if you think that the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot.”(3)
His words attempt to remove the sting his philosophy imparts. And yet, it stings regardless—both with callousness and confusion. If I am but a poor player fretting my hour upon the stage of a tale told by an idiot, what is a “fulfilling” personal life? There is no basis in the naturalist’s philosophy for intrinsic dignity, human worth, or human rights. There is no basis for moral accountability, right or wrong, good or evil. There is no basis for the layers of my love for my husband, the cry of my heart for justice, or the recognition on my conscience that I am often missing the mark. There is no room for my surprise at time’s passing or my longing for something beyond what I am capable of fully reaching in this moment. This is not the story I know.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I had always felt life first a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”(4)
Could it be that our relationship to stories, our first love of the tale beyond us and the author beside us, conveys a deep truth about our own cosmic tale? Are not the very philosophies we carry attempts to make sense of the grand story of which we find ourselves a part?
The first words of Genesis 1 boldly claim that we are not lost and wandering in a cosmic circle of time and chance. There is a story that emerges from the beginning, and we have a place within it. Similarly, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith, where ultimate significance is aptly defined as being written into the story of God. God’s Word places us in the timeline of a coherent history, delivering us from the deceptions of the enemy, telling us who we are, and where we came from, what is wrong with us, how we are made whole, and where we are going. We are placed within a story of which we know and celebrate the outcome, even as we wait for it through time and trial. In Christ, history’s outcome—its ultimate end—is revealed. Dark days may follow, but the ending is known. It is a story neither deficient, nor untrustworthy.
C.S. Lewis fittingly describes heaven at the end of his Chronicles of Narnia as a place where good things continually increase and life is an everlasting story in which “every chapter is better than the one before.” His compelling reflection has often reminded me of Christ’s beloved disciple in the closing chapters of his testimony to the significance of Jesus Christ. Notes John, “If all of the acts of Christ were recorded, the world would not have enough room for all the books that would be written” (John 21:24-26). Like children, eyes widen at the thought. What a story to be a part of, a life to find touching your own.
(1) Gregory Wolfe, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (Square Halo Books: Baltimore, 2003), 81-82.
(2) Skeptic, vol. 3, no. 4, 1995, pp. 80-85.
(4) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 93.
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