As far back as we have written records, humans have used stories to figure out their world and to help them understand what it means to be human. We are story-telling creatures—from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter.
In previous posts we spoke about how individuals, families, and nations use stories to create identities and to provide meaning—that ways of relating, thinking, motivation, and behavior are based on stories. We also talked about how the gospel message is a story that is distinct from the biblical text, and how this distinction enables Christianity to remain good news today.
A question that remains is, “why this story?”
Why choose this story to live by? Why privilege this story? This is a non-trivial question. For one thing, if we were raised in a different time or place—Morocco, Sri Lanka, India, China, or Greece—we would have likely accepted a different religious story—be it Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or the Roman and Greek pantheons. And we would have likely used similar reasoning to explain why we prefer and privilege our particular religious story.
In addition, many look at Christianity and find it repellent. Why choose this story in light of recent examples of evil and disregard for truth? As two examples: the terrible child abuse and its subsequent cover-up, and the widespread suspicion of and hostility toward modern science. And when many look at the Bible, they see, in the words of Steven Pinker, “one long celebration of violence.” Is this story morally and intellectually bankrupt? Can this story give us something valuable that we can’t get elsewhere?
It is unsurprising that some argue for accepting the findings and story of science as a sufficient narrative for humanity. For them, science is unlike various religions—a mass of contradictory stories, where people appear to choose what fancies them and make stuff up.
If, however, we compare religion too closely to science, then religion does seem to be a free for all, not bound to anything. Inevitably, religion will be ruled out because it doesn’t agree with the scientific method. But what if religion is closer to music than science? In music, the approach is unlike the scientific method, but there are still rules, traditions, and frameworks within which people compose and perform music. And cultures have different music—unlike science, where an experiment in Philadelphia should give the same results in Timbuktu. Furthermore, music can communicate information, meaning, truth, and have a transformative influence. So why not religion?
If religions are more akin to music, this opens up a number of similarities. First, like music, religion is different from science and the scientific method. Second, like music, there are different expressions of religion. Third, like music, some religious expressions are better than others. Forth, like music, religion can communicate truth, provide meaning, and have transformative value. Fifth, like music, religious awareness, imagination, and discovery have been with us at least since the appearance of Cro-Magnon.
Both religion and music can inspire and enlighten. And both can have superior forms of expression. Classical pianists may argue, for example, that Liszt’s B Minor Sonata is one of the greatest works in piano literature. Is it superior to much other music? Yes. Does this music communicate well? Is it transformative? Does listening to it make us more fully human? Does it contain more truth and beauty than many other musical expressions? I think so.
Some music is glorious. Some is lousy. Some is repulsive and destructive. Same with religion.
Why do I continue to live by this gospel story? There are many reasons. In part because of my culture. In part because it still makes some sense to me, provides meaning, structure, and community. In part because as I understand the story, it has considerable resources for transformation—that although Christianity has often promoted a tribal insider-outsider mentality (see the post on “a just life”), the story subverts and defies tribalism. In fact, the view that one group or tribe has the understanding and a monopoly on truth is to move away from the gospel. And if this story critiques religious expressions, then Christianity is included.
One point that needs emphasis: the gospel story contains a radical inbuilt critique. At the center of the story is Jesus of Nazareth whose main conflict is with religious leaders. The Judea-Christian religion has a long history of leaders and religious experts at cross-purposes with the gospel story. Christianity has its good and bad. For every sinister Cardinal Grand Inquisitor (Dostoyevsky) we find a kind, generous, and redeeming Bishop Myriel (Hugo). Having just finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller, Unbroken—the remarkable, inspiring, and true story of Louis Zamperini who in World War II survived all kinds of hardship, cruelty, and torture—I am struck again by the transforming power of the gospel story as exemplified in Louis’ life.
In addition, I choose this story because I prefer to live with trust, hope, justice, love, and life. Of course, non-Christians also live with basic trust in life, hope, justice, and love. The evidence is clear—many live transforming lives. But the gospel story provides something more. It gives these things a lasting reality. When I read the words of the 19th abolitionist and preacher Theodore Parker—“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”—I prefer to live with the commitment that this arc of justice continues without collapsing into nothingness. Likewise with love. I accept that love is more than oxytocin flooding my brain. I prefer a story where justice, humility, and forgiveness are encouraged. I choose a narrative that encourages giving up of power and having goals lofty enough that require a “dying to self.” I prefer hope to hopelessness or to a hope that finally fails. I want to live with the framework that life has the final word rather than death.
Paul writes in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” All people live in this reality. It is a reality similar to gravity or evolution, in that grace is there whether we accept it or not. Every human being lives and grapples with this reality. The quest in response to this grace and love is a shared human quest.
Camus writes in his opening lines in the Myth of Sisyphus, “To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy.” What story gives a positive and satisfying answer to this question?
Why do you live by the gospel story? If not, what story makes sense to you?