Stories: How We Perceive the World
The concept of “story” is something that has gained considerable legs in today’s theological discussions. From Rob Bell to Tim Keller “story” has become an “it” word. For many in the reformed camp of the Christian world, hearing Rob Bell talk about “story” makes us uneasy, “It’s probably another ploy to sell more books!” we say (which in his case is probably true. I hear Oprah loves stories). But just because the likes of Bell and other liberalizing voices are attracted to the word does not mean we should throw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, the idea that stories play a foundational role in the way we relate to the world has sustained substantial attention from many corners of the scholarly world, including those who take the Bible seriously!
One such scholar is N.T. Wright. In his seminal work The New Testament and the People of God Wright spends a considerable amount of time lauding the merits of “story.” Wright believes that stories are actually foundational to the formulation of a worldview (another hot topic in the Christian world). In fact, Wright goes so far to say that humans perceive the world via story before worldview.
This line of thinking comes across as foreign to many conservative ears in the reformed tradition. The reason is due to our blind acceptance of Enlightenment thought. In a desire to boil everything down to neat ideas and doctrines, promoters and heirs of the Enlightenment see stories as fanciful and unnecessary. At best stories should be used as examples of reality; reality itself consisting of abstract truths. What this line of thinking disregards is the fact that stories are prior to every “boiled down truth” the Enlightenment project is so adamant in protecting. Put another way, before we are even able to articulate abstract truths, we are already assuming stories about the way the world is that allows us to do so. Wright encapsulates things well:
Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about ‘bare facts’. An equally unsatisfactory alternative is to regard the story as a showcase for the rhetorical saying or set of such sayings. Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview. (pg. 38)
We tend to believe these ‘bare fact,’ as Wright puts it, are the foundations of our world and worldviews. What Wright brings to our attention is that its the stories we believe that give us the ability to create abstract truths in the first place. The following few sentences from Wright demonstrate how stories are the real foundation to our distilled worldviews:
When we examine how stories work in relations to other stories, we find that human beings tell stories because this is how we perceive, and indeed relate to, the world. What we see close up, in a multitude of little incidents whether isolated or (more likely) interrelated, we make sense of by drawing on story-forms already more of less known to us and placing the information within them. A story, with its pattern of problem and conflict, of aborted attempts at resolution, and final result, whether sad or glad, is, if we may infer from the common practice of the world, universally perceived as the best way of talking about the way the world actually is. Good stories assume that the world is a place of conflict and resolution, whether comic or tragic. They select and arrange material accordingly. And, as we suggested before, stories can embody or reinforce, or perhaps modify, the worldview to which they relate. (pg. 40)
Stories are the undercurrent of our very existence. They give our worlds meaning and life. They are the building blocks of our worldview and, thus, deserve a lot more attention then we are probably giving them. Further, if stories are foundational to life, we must then read approach the stories (and story) of Scripture with this in mind. All too often we come to the Bible with that Enlightenment/worldview perspective discussed above. In doing this we sterilize the Bible and the rich tapestry of its story. When we learn to read the Bible as God’s story of redemption then we can actually begin to see plot lines extending beyond the pages of scripture and into the very worlds we inhabit. In doing so we allow the rich and beautiful complexity of the Bible pervade our lives rather than forcing the sterility of our modern minds onto the Bible.
Food for thought.