He who knows the story
All my life, I’ve been fascinated by stories. Whether it was told in the form of a book, a movie, a play, or through some old relatives sitting on the front porch on a hot day sipping cold bottles of beer, I’ve always been captivated by the almost magical power a story has to make you feel more human, more alive.
As a kid, I used to write my own tales incessantly. When I was eleven I finished up a 100-page novel about an awkward loner girl who was ostracized by the popular kids, only to have them falling at her feet and begging for her approval and forgiveness after she solved a great mystery (no idea where I got that plotline). By the time I graduated from high school, I had five or six more unfinished books tucked away in dresser drawers. But a funny thing happened as I got older: I lost my passion for stories.
At the time I was a strict atheist materialist, and the more I thought through this worldview, the less room I found for the human story. Every time I had ever felt moved by some epic tale of heroism or glory, I had been moved by a sense of the transcendent, that something had transpired here that was more than the sum of its parts. I was touched by the idea that even if every single character on the staged died, with nobody knowing of anything that they had done in their final glorious moments, they would still have had an impact on the universe in some lasting way. Yet my atheist materialist belief system did not account for that. In a worldview that said that all of mankind’s experiences ultimately go no further than the chemical reactions in the human brain, concepts like heroism and glory and honor, as they had classically been defined, did not exist.
In college I briefly explored Buddhism, and found it to be wisest among the godless philosophies. I was drawn to Buddha’s ideas about the cessation of suffering being possible through letting go of passion. And it was another blow to my love of the story: whether it was a thriller or a mystery, a historical epic or a nonfiction how-to instructional, what made reading or moviegoing electrifying was the thrill ride of death-defying victories and breathtaking losses, and the transformation of the individual that took place along the way. Yet if Buddha could have heard me, he surely would have cautioned me against all these passions, and perhaps even counseled me not to think of “me” as doing anything at all. There is nothing permanent in this world, he would say. Even my concept of “self” was merely an illusion — a dangerous illusion that I needed to let go of, because it would keep me clinging to all those passions. In a sermon to his first followers, the Buddha said that the best path is to get wearied of feeling and perception and consciousness, until you’re finally wearied enough that you let go of passion. Then you’ll be free.
“Well, that’s unbelievably depressing,” I thought when I first read it. I wanted to jump on a tabletop in defiance, shouting that not all passion is bad and that the instinct to seek triumph and joy and love and the wild ride that comes with it is something to be toasted, not something to intentionally grow weary of and discard. But then my rational brain would kick in, pat me on the hand and remind me to get real. Everything in this world is destined to decay, including yourself, and there is no individual life beyond death, so you might as well let go of it all.
And then I discovered Christianity, and everything changed.
First of all, Christianity preached the soul. It said that, wrapped up in all those chemical reactions that fuel our emotions and our experiences, there is a non-material aspect of our being, one that unites us to a realm beyond the fleeting material world. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton fabulously connected this concept to the concept of the story when he took aim at atheist materialists who see history in purely economic terms, who assume that we humans make our decisions based on cost/benefit analyses rooted in instinct alone. He wrote:
Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing-grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading. Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration.
I was still researching Christianity when I read this, and I actually got chills when he went on to say that a true story only begins “where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off.”
That is what I had been looking for all those years as I wandered through the wasteland of dead materialist thought. Immediately, I recognized that the eternal soul is the necessary component to the story. It clicked into place that stories — as well as all art — are secret handshakes of beings with souls, the very calling card of the only members of the animal kingdom who are made in the likeness of God. “It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south,” Chesterton wrote. And if you do try to remove the mysterious movements of the human soul from the human story, he warned, “it will not only cease to be human at all, but cease to be a story at all.”
I still had a million questions about this odd belief system. I’d only read a couple pages from the Bible at this point, and still could not imagine setting foot inside a church. But I began to see something here, something that sent a shiver down my spine, something that left me with an exciting and terrifying premonition that told me that I would end up giving up everything I had for this belief system because everything it said was true: It was that here I saw no sins against the story.
“All the other philosophies avowedly end where they begin; and it is the definition of a story that it ends differently,” Chesterton wrote. “From Buddha and his wheel to Akhen Aten and his disc, from Pythagoras with his abstraction of number to Confucius with his religion of routine, there is not one of them that does not in some way sin against the soul of a story.”
Only Christianity understood it. What it said of who we are, why we’re here, what we really want, and what is truly good in life all resonated with everything I’d ever known about what makes a story. To read the Catechism was like watching the stage get set up for a great epic. It said that the material world is good, but will not bring us lasting happiness. It taught that life is to be cherished, and that we should live each moment to the fullest. It said that resentment leads to slavery and forgiveness brings freedom. It warned that indulging your carnal pleasures to excess will lead to death, spiritually if not physically. And it loudly, boldly proclaimed that in order to achieve anything worthwhile, you first must be willing to sacrifice everything.
There were a lot of reasons I ended up converting to Christianity. It was a years-long process in which I searched and asked questions and read a couple of shelves full of books. But one of the key turning points in my journey was that moment when I realized that this belief system understood the human story better than any other. When I realized that I was looking at an uncannily thorough knowledge of what it means to be a player in the grand drama that we call the human experience, I had to consider that it may have all come from the One who wrote the script.
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