By David Baggett
My wife’s an English professor, and she’s helped me realize I’m late to a game, or a party—or an awkward social occasion; whatever! I’m late—that of seeing the power of stories, the way they shape us, how we define ourselves by and see ourselves in relation to them. It makes sense, but as a philosopher I’ve heretofore tended to be more interested, when it comes to something like “worldview,” to think in terms of what’s true and what’s false, what we have good reason to believe and what we don’t. It’s why my philosophy stuff, as much as I love it, sometimes seems so thin and dry in comparison with the richness and thickness of her literature.
Today is Easter, for example, and the evidential case for the resurrection is important to me. I am confident there’s a nondiscursive way of knowing, via personal experience, the truth of the resurrection, and it may be the most important knowing of all—but though that may be good for those who have it, it doesn’t much help those who don’t. Fortunately the historical case for the resurrection is amazing; my colleague Gary Habermas is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. For those interested in wondering whether the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is actually true, whether there’s evidence for it historically, I’d encourage them to read Gary’s books.
That sort of thing is a fun intellectual exercise, and it appeals to me as a philosopher. But suppose we establish the truth of the resurrection, or at least the credentials necessary to believe in it rationally. It’s hardly the end of the story, but just the beginning. Even devils presumably believe in the historicity of the resurrection. That it’s true is extremely important, but its truth doesn’t mean we’re conducting our lives according to that truth. This is where seeing worldview as more than a set of propositions one believes to be true can come in so handy, and seeing the power of stories can help.
We are all of us inveterate storytellers. We love a good yarn—to hear them, to tell them. And the most important stories are the ones we most closely associate with our identity. On a garden-variety note, but one that rings with significance for me, I think of a few years ago, when my mom was still alive. A brother, my mom, a sister, and I met in Kentucky—and for a few hours one afternoon we reclined in a room together and endlessly rehearsed stories that make up our family lore. They were stories we’d told and retold a thousand times, each recounting as delightful as the one before, tickling us all to no end. We didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the details; the canon’s already fairly established; too much deviation isn’t even allowed. The same stories, yet still rife with significance. I remember that afternoon, while regaling my family members with stories, and being regaled by them, I felt what I can only describe as unbridled joy. I was with people who’d known me my whole life, and we were relishing the stories that, to a significant degree, defined our shared lives together and knit us together as family. I was home.
The best literature shouldn’t be enjoyed just once. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. Some stories are good for ingestion; others are worthy to be relished, savored, digested. The greatest Story most of all.
Each Easter, I go to church, and hear the Easter story one more time. The details are the same. Nothing changes. But as my pastor said this morning, we change. Each time we hear it we’re different. We bring a new set of needs to it, but the story itself remains the same. I couldn’t help but think of Holden Caulfield’s visits to the Museum of Natural History—where the exhibits are always the same, which he found deeply comforting, but those visiting the museum, he recognized, are always different, either in big ways or small. The Easter story provides an even more significant point of constancy, an even more fundamental Archimedean point on which to stand. The narrative of self-giving love reaches its climax each Easter and offers itself to each of us, and though the story is the same, how it speaks to us is always slightly different. For it meets us where we are, at our point of need, reminding us of what doesn’t change, and offers to transform us. It offers us the chance to become part of that universal Story, to define ourselves anew in relation to it.
That the Story is true is obviously crucial, but recognizing its truth isn’t enough. The Story challenges us to become part of it, to define ourselves by It and Him, to grab hold of what’s constant and permanent, eternal and ultimate, while bracing ourselves for needed and inevitable change in the midst of growing and of life’s vicissitudes and contingencies.
The Story tells me who I am and what I’m called to be. It reminds me of what love looks like and that death isn’t the end. It challenges me not just to believe that it happened, but that the fact that it happened makes all the difference. It was the key plot point on which the whole narrative turned, marking love’s victory and the death of death. It reminds me that as a Christian I don’t merely believe static truths, but dynamic life-transforming ones—that I’m part of a Story that’s still in the process of unfolding. And we’ve been afforded a glorious peek to see how it ends.
Image: Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons