In a World of Stories
"You can't stop stories being told," Dr. Parnassus tells his relentless foe with religious assurance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The world of belief-systems and worldviews is indeed a complicated playground of stories, storytellers, passions, and allegiances—and this is one film which certainly attests to that complicated dance. What makes the interplay of story most complicated is perhaps what is often our inability to name or even to perceive these interacting powers in the first place. That which permeates our surroundings, subconsciously molds our understanding, and continuously informs our vision of reality, is not always easy to articulate. The dominate culture shapes our world in ways we seldom even realize, and often in ways we cannot realize, until something outside of our culture comes along and introduces us, and the scales fall from our eyes.
Further complicating the great arena of narratives is the fact that we often do not even recognize certain systems for the metanarratives that they are, or else we grossly underestimate the story's power on our own. Whatever version or versions of the story we utilize to understand human history—atheism, capitalism, pluralism, consumerism—their roots run very deep in the human soul. This is why Bishop Kenneth Carder can refer to the global market economy as a "dominant god," or consumerism, economism, and nationalism as religions.(1) These deeply rooted ideologies are challenged only when a different ideology or imagination comes knocking, when a different faith-system comes along and upsets the imagination that powerfully orders our world.
This is perhaps one reason that the biblical imagination presented in Scripture calls again and again to remember the story, to tell of the acts of God in history, and to bear in mind and vision the one who is near. For into this world of belief-systems and worldviews, God tells the story of creation and the pursuit of its redemption, and then Christ comes in our own flesh and proclaims a kingdom entirely other. The narrative imagination we discover in Scripture introduces us not only to a new world but a world that jarringly shows us our own.
The signs and scenes leading to the incarnation alone challenge many of our cultural norms, turning upside down ideas of authority, power, and glory, presenting us a kingdom that reverses everything we know. What kind of a king crouches down to his subjects to feed the masses or wash their feet? What kind of a leader tells those under him that the way to the top requires a dedication to the bottom? What kind of God comes as child and leaves on a cross? What kind of meal lifts us to another kingdom where we are brought into the presence of the host and asked to taste him? Yet these are the stories he told and Christians tell; this is the imagination he gives us to see him, the world, our selves and neighbors. "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'" (Luke 22:19). Not long after their meal, his physical body was broken, too.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple, oil on canvas, c. 1666-69.
The story of the Christian is one that remembers the very first and the very last moments of a rabbi and his disciples—a child born, a teacher present, a meal shared, a lamb revealed, feet washed by one who claimed to be both king and servant. It is a story that invites its hearers into a kingdom entirely different than the many stories before them, connecting them with a God who somehow reigns within a realm that is here and now, and also approaching. In the Lord's Supper, Christians are literally "taking in" this biblical imagination, which unites followers with Christ in such a way that helps us to live as he lived in a world of stories.
When the apostle Paul called early followers of Christ not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they might discern what is the will of God—"what is good and acceptable and perfect," he was reminding them that there are overlapping and contradicting stories all around them, but that it is the story of God that earns the role of orienting narrative. In other words, Christ does not leave his followers with the option of living unaware of all the subconscious ways in which we are formed by the world of stories. Living into the kingdom of God means recognizing the power of God's story beside every competing narrative—not necessarily shutting each one out, but interpreting every other story through the Story. Living further into the biblical imagination presented in Scripture, the Christian's very life, like that of Christ's, shows the world the subversive power of an imagination that moves far beyond the systems of "postmodernism," "consumerism," and "nationalism."
Whether Christian, atheist, or Hindu, no one can avoid being in the world. We cannot escape the world's formative stories, nor should we want to escape the particular place where we have been planted.(3) Yet, nor do we want it to become so much our home that we cannot see all the dust on the windows or feel the draft of a roofless shelter. For the Christian, the more we find ourselves living into the imagination of this different kingdom, a world breathed by the Father, proclaimed by Christ, and revealed by the Spirit, the unchallenged, unseen storylines of our worlds come sharply into focus. And the more we taste and see of the goodness of God, the more we taste and see of Christ in the land of the living. Like Paul, at times something like scales fall from our eyes and the Spirit compels us to get up and re-experience our baptisms, going further into the biblical imagination, where our voices regain strength in telling and retelling the unstoppable story.(4)
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Kenneth Carder, "Market and Mission: Competing Visions for Transforming Ministry," Lecture, Duke Divinity School, Oct. 16, 2001, 1.
(2) Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995), 95.
(3) Jesus himself prayed, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but I ask that you protect them from the evil one" (John 17:15).
(4) "And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength" (Acts 9:18-19).