Story and Narrative

I plan to respond, at some point, more comprehensively to Bernard’s recent post found here.  But specifically, for now, here is something that, I hope, speaks to Bernard’s reference to story-telling and its importance to him.  I too share this love of story-telling.  Bernard writes:
“Agnosticism also elevates story in a way that I find deeply satisfying. If I can not know, then I must understand my world not through knowledge, but through speculation. Agnosticism frees me to embrace the essential romanticism of the story teller, loving the story exactly because of its pragmatic appeal, of the way it resonates, sings even, makes my life richer. It is to embrace that aspect of the self that is the inventor, loving the product no less because it is an invention. Indeed, perhaps loving it more, for how glorious is our capacity to invent?”
Just as an aside, Bernard leaves out another possible source of knowledge besides speculation.  Unless ruled out a-priori, there is also the possibility of revelation.  Indeed, such is at the heart of the entire Christian narrative.  The incarnation is the reflection that God came to us and was revealed in Jesus.  The experience is that of responding to something outside ourselves.  Yes, perhaps we are responding to nothing more than our internal psychology, but that just begs the question of God’s existence in the first place.  Besides, it is always possible the atheist and agnostic are also just responding to an internal psychology—and such an argument of “you too” goes nowhere.  It remains that knowledge or speculation are not the only two options.  I think a more complex understanding would show that all three are involved (knowledge, speculation, revelation) and they work hand-in-hand.  Unless, of course, one rules one of them out, a-priori.
From the essay:
“For Lewis, a myth is a story which evokes awe, enchantment and inspiration, and which conveys or embodies an imaginative expression of the deepest meanings of life – meanings that prove totally elusive in the face of any attempt to express them in purely abstract or conceptual forms. For Lewis, God authorizes the use of myth as a means of captivating the human imagination and engaging the human reason.”
“Lewis thus declares that human beings construct myths because they are meant to. They have been created by God with an innate capacity to create myths as echoes of a greater story or ‘story of a larger kind.’ Early Christian writers spoke of the logos spermatikos, a ‘seed-bearing word’ implanted within creation by God, preparing the ground for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Tolkien and Lewis both – though in slightly different ways – work with the notion of mythos spermatikos, a ‘narrative template’ embedded within the human soul as part of the created order. Once more, these prepare the ground for the definitive revelation of God in the story of Jesus Christ. This approach is not about Jungian archetypes (although they may perform a similar function); it is rather a fundamentally Christian insight about the deeper structure of reality, and the best ways of representing and experiencing it by those who bear the ‘image of God.’”
“The ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ are an imaginative re-telling of the Christian ‘grand narrative,’ fleshed out with ideas Lewis absorbed from the Christian literary tradition. The basic theological themes that Lewis set out in Mere Christianity are transposed to their original narrative forms, allowing the deep structure of the world to be seen with clarity and brilliance. A good and beautiful creation is spoiled and ruined by a Fall, in which the creator’s power is denied and usurped. The creator then enters into the creation to break the power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle against sin and evil continues, and will not be ended until the final restoration and transformation of all things. This Christian metanarrative – which early Christian writers called the ‘economy of salvation’ – provides both a narrative framework and a theological underpinning to the multiple narratives woven together in Lewis’s ‘Chronicles of Narnia.’”
“In one sense, the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ are just a story. Yet to the initiated, they are a retelling of the greatest story of all, which no human story can ever articulate adequately. Lewis’s remarkable achievement in the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ is to allow his readers to inhabit this metanarrative – to get inside the story, and feel what it is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story, and judge it by its ability to make sense of things, and ‘chime in’ with our deepest intuitions about truth, beauty and goodness.”
It is the Judeo-Christian narrative that has inspired and provided the themes for some of the greatest works of literature in the world.  The very idea of the king figure or the hero figure sacrificing himself (or herself) for the weaker, a theme so prevalent throughout the West both in popular culture and high culture, is a nod to the Gospel story.  The themes of redemption for the fallen and the hero who was thought dead but rises again to fight another day are clearly Biblical themes.  Most people forget that before Christ, in pagan culture, it was the strong, the mighty, the rich, and the powerful who were the hero.  The gods only blessed the “winners”.  The one who conquered the weaker was the hero and mythic figure.  That changed after Christ.  No one had ever heard something quite like, “Blessed are the poor, for they…”  The knight took up arms, not for himself or to conquer the weak, but to protect and defend the weak even if it were to cost him his own life.  This mindset was fairly unknown in pagan antiquity.  These themes are woven into the very fabric of Western Culture and are reflected in every conceivable form of artistic expression.
Something to consider: Where historically, or presently, is there a community of agnostics that have produced the amount of literature as the Judeo-Christian narrative or literally changed a culture’s mentality through story-telling or the specific story it tells?  The Christian narrative explains why we would love stories and tell stories in the first place.  It is hard for me to see how agnosticism would do (or has done) likewise.  And I don’t think Bernard is claiming that it should or does; I think he means it just does for him personally.  My reaction to that is, “Well…good for you.”  I’m not sure what to say beyond that.  However, if he is holding it out as something he thinks stems from agnosticism in general, and something he thinks it would do for anyone, then, again, I would have to disagree. 
This is to say nothing critical about the merits of agnosticism per se or whether it is the better philosophical approach to life.  It may be the better approach.  I just don’t see its influence or merit as far as helping us to appreciate story, or inspiring us to tell and write stories.  I think if we were to claim it did those things we would see a wide and significant body of work showing the connection—and I just don’t see that.  
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5 Responses to Story and Narrative

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Gosh, I'll assert that I have been throwing around that mythos spermatikos too. Now all my stories are true. Wow! That felt great!

    It never ceases to amaze me the absurdities you let yourself in to believe in something that makes no sense, yet you want to believe in it anyway. Salvation? Why ever do we need to be saved, either from our own intrinsic natures, or from the errors god made in setting up the system in the first place? Doesn't she have better things to do that get into some passive-aggressive drama with her created beings? As for us on our own terms, we have transcended plenty in the last few millennia, and trashed the earth to do it, indeed. But we have to save ourselves if we want to. No one comes down from the sky to do it.

    Again, I am reading some of Robert Bellah, and will devote several blogs to his sociological analysis of all this, eventually. I can tell you it is far more insightful to look at religion analytically / psychologically than to enter into one of its many addled myths, however pleasant and enjoyable. That is what Bernard may be saying.. that religion is pleasant to visit, but he wouldn't want to live there, since that would amount to making a philosophically impossible committment to the (analytical) truth of one of its tales.

    As for the historical merits of agnosticism, you have only to look around. The modern world is the axial age on steriods. Another axial age, indeed, when all traditional religious myths come in for critique and, typically, fatal disassembly and disposal. And we all become two-minded, able to participate in the criticism even if we “believe” in / participate in a myth of modern or ancient vintage with some other part of our heads. Our contemporary novelists / movie makers / TV dramatists deal with the real ideas and myths of our day, and they are very rarely religious. Instead, they are agnostic.


  2. Hi Darrell

    I think I'd just point out that the correct from of your challenge would not be 'can we find a comparatively significant body of narrative work stemming agnosticism?' but rather 'is the body of story telling emerging form agnosticism proportionately less than that stemming from, say, the Christian tradition?' And that would be tremendously difficult to establish, I imagine.



  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    That is an interesting question. I guess I am unaware of “the body of story telling emerging form agnosticism…”

    And is such a body emerging specifically from agnosticism or is it just agnostics writing stories—stories that really have nothing to do with or were inspired by agnosticism?

    Even more, if the stories are directly related to agnosticism, what is their impact culturally? For instance a modern example would be Marilynn Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of President Obama’s favorite authors. The themes in her works are directly related to Biblical themes.

    The two differences noted are huge.


  4. Hi Darrell

    The question of the way literature arises from traditions is a complex one, and if we oversimplify it then the risk is of retreating to the banal conclusion that all literature springs from hunter gatherer story telling or some such. (In film, night not one be tempted to conclude that Judaism is the fount of all art?)

    Yes, there are literary traditions that spring directly from a questioning of traditional, God-based narratives. Consider Satre, Camus, Beckett, Pinter et al, and their response to the existentialists, and in many ways the modern literary tradition is a response to them. If you look at some of the themes of the great US moderns, be it Roth or Franzen, you again see this direct consideration of the unweaving of the old traditions and its impacts. Booker prize winner Ian McEwen responds directly to modern understandings of evolution and neuroscience to question the definitions of humanity, in children's literature Philip Pullman is the obvious example, winner of the Hans Christian Anderson medal, Margaret Mahy, was not only an atheist but took her love of science as a kicking off point for developing her magical tales for children. Clearly a more carefully considered survey would throw up plenty of others.

    None of this is to suggest one is more likely to create great art as an unbeliever, I'd just caution against concluding the opposite without a very thorough knowledge of the literary traditions, and a serious attempt to calculate proportionality.

    For me, it's certainly true that agnosticism is a great way into story.



  5. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Those are fair points. I wasn’t saying there hasn’t been some great works by agnostic writers. There have been. I was thinking more along the lines of some of these following quotes. My point is just that, I’ve never heard anyone attribute the same sort of impact on literature or story-telling to agnosticism. But, perhaps you have.

    “Christianity has been so foundational for modern literatures and its influence so pervasive that, if it became even half as trendy as deconstruction, the whole Modern Language Association could sprout a second time and duplicate itself in its entirety…” (Rene Girard)

    “Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address.” (Alister McGrath)

    “The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.” (Marilynn Robinson)

    “What has Jesus Christ to do with English literature?” ask David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet in this insightful survey.”

    “First and foremost, they reply, many of the world's best authors of literature in English were formed–for better or worse–by the Christian tradition. Then too, many of the most recognized aesthetic literary forms derive from biblical exemplars. And finally, many great works of literature demand of readers evaluative judgments of the good, the true and the beautiful that can only rightly be understood within a Christian worldview.” (From the book- Christianity and Literature)

    But if agnosticism does this for you personally, great.


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