“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” — Colossians 3:16
I quoted Alisdair MacIntyre in the intro to this series; and though he’s a ‘great one’ I’m going to render his idea slightly differently in this post. He says, in After Virtue:
“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
I think we can understand that last question slightly differently by tweaking it:
‘Of what story or stories do I inhabit?’
There’s a link between inhabiting a story (or an identity) and our habits (just as there is between our environment, or habitat, and our habits). To know how we should feel and act rightly, or coherently, requires us to have some sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going; to have a story.
So, when it comes to habit forming the habit of reflecting on our story, and potential other stories we might inhabit seems to be ground zero. What might this look like?
We could spend a significant amount of time deliberately immersed and engaged in quality stories — most significantly, but not exclusively, the Bible.
We could try our hands (or minds) at telling or crafting stories as a spiritual discipline geared towards fostering our redeemed imaginations.
The message of Christ is a story; a compelling one. The ultimate ‘true myth’ or fairy tale that turns life into a comedy, rather than a tragedy. Understanding stories, the shape and power of stories, is pretty important if living in a story with some sense of what heroism looks like, the enemy looks like, and where we’re going, is what helps us develop character… but this means not only should we immerse ourselves in the Bible’s story by reading it, and finding ways to appreciate it (like a good kids story book Bible), but we should get better at understanding and appreciating good and beautiful stories. The more I get my head into mythology and its importance in shaping cultures and communities the more I’m sure the story of the Bible, centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus, has been so effective in shaping the world we live in because it really is the greatest story; and the more conversant we are with stories the better.
Also, the more we see our lives in storied terms as part of this grander story, the more we might be able to bring about change in our own spheres… if we’re able to imagine (or conceive) of a different ending for each little episode in our lives because of this big one, it might help set a course for us. Stories —whether history or biography or fiction expand our horizons and allow us to see the world differently. I think Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories should be almost compulsory reading for anybody enrolled at Bible college, but probably for all of us.
The way this plays out for me is in a commitment to reading good fiction and watching popular television (it’s fascinating to watch how basic narrative plot lines are used to over-produce or over-engineer even terrible reality TV), but also to be wary of the power of story for setting our desires towards things other than God (and the desires of our kids and congregations). Stories where the protagonist (or author) is not just like us also teach us empathy as we immerse ourselves in them.
Because stories are powerful I want to curate them for our kids and engage in them with them (and engage well with them with other adults). We read lots to our kids and want to encourage all of them to be readers; but I also tell an episodic, serialised, adventure story a few nights a week featuring the three of them bravely and imaginatively facing down monsters or baddies that they invent (mostly giant animals); I also turned our last big family holiday into a picture book using a couple of apps, and I’m keen to do that again.
Video games are a powerful medium for stories and imagination, whether they’re linear adventures or open world. Our son loves them (like I do), so my plan is to indulge that love, but to always join him in it, and to build and journey through different worlds with him, and as they get more complex using the games and their stories as a chance to talk about decision making and his imagination. It’s probably not a terrible thing to normalise the idea that he uses screens in my presence not tucked away in his room.
The best stories are the ones we imagine and then inhabit in an embodied way — not just a digital one (one of the things I love about the kindy we send our kids to), so, like many parents, we’ve got a full dress up box and a yard full of different bits and pieces the kids can improvise with (especially when they’re playing together)… I’m much more concerned that they do this as they grow up than that they do ‘homework’.
The way this plays out — though I’m wanting to get better at this — in my preaching is that I don’t want to devalue the arts or culture, or demonise it, but engage with it well (and sympathetically) as legitimate expressions of our humanity and our desires; and to recognise the way these stories shape the purpose of people around us because they connect with the stories our communities, cultures, and nation lives by. My rarely updated Like But Better, my review essays of the Marvel/Netflix universe (like this one), and my reviews of stories like Noah, Moana, and Wonder Woman are examples of me trying to do this… but my favourite place in all the virtual world for modelling this is Christ and Pop Culture… being a better reader, viewer, or audience member for stories helps us become better readers of the Bible’s grand story, and better participants in God’s unfolding story in history.
This means I want my talks to feel more like a narrative to live in than a set of propositions that I’m inviting people to agree to. When it comes to our embodied participation in stories, this has helped me recapture a sense of the providence and goodness of the sacraments, and to want to sacramentalise (or re-enhant) lots of physical objects and practices (not in an idolatrous way, just in a way that helps everything that has been made reveal the divine nature and character of God). C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image was useful on that front for helping me see just how much we’ve evacuated any ‘enchantment’ from mundane things (a concrete example of this is the way we preached about Hot Cross Buns over Easter; my hope is that people will buy them between Christmas and Easter next year, while they’re on the shelves of the supermarkets, and ponder their significance.
Christians could join — or host — book clubs — or even TV show clubs — in the community beyond the church (though even in the church is better than devaluing stories or seeing them as trivial distractions from the real deal of following Jesus). Failing that we should talk enthusiastically about stories with our friends online.
These could involve picking challenging and compelling (even just popular) stories that cultivate empathy and the imagination, or that pay attention to the world and invite you to do so in new ways; trusting that because of the storied quality of the Bible this is useful time even if it doesn’t produce conversations where you can draw out the parallels between a story and truths revealed about the world in God’s story. Also, in terms of cultivating the affections, instead of asking ‘what did you think about that story’ and breaking down its mechanics or execution, we should ask each other ‘how did that story make you feel’.