Story-telling is a basic part of being human, and we humans are also story-makers. Our lives have a beginning, a middle, an end, a cast of characters, a plot. While every human culture includes storytelling, not all cultures tell the same stories, and as cultures change, the stories they tell also change. Secular western culture has changed a great deal in the past century, and as it secularizes, so has its stories.
What are the stories that secular western culture now likes to tell? Let’s consider movies, perhaps some recent Oscar winners for “best picture”. In 2019, there was Parasite, a story about a poor family who, for wealth, lie and scheme their way into the lives of a rich family. 2017’s The Shape of Water tells the story of a woman who escapes her humdrum life by pursuing a love affair with a merman that her employers are holding captive. 2016’s Moonlight tells the story of a sensitive teen who finds his own path to achieving success as a drug dealer in Atlanta. In all of these stories, there is a common element: the main characters make their own success in their own way: they create their own stories out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. As movies that tell stories, these are interesting to watch, but in each case, we are left with a lingering question: is life really just a matter of “make your own story”? Are we meant to take the random things life gives us, to use it to try to create an interesting story for ourselves? And then what?
The Christian faith offers a different sort of story. Christianity’s story is this: God so loved the world that he gave his only son, Jesus, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life. [John 3:16] This is a story is not made by ourselves, but by God, a story in which we are invited to participate. We are not the principal character, the star, the story-maker: that is Jesus. Instead, we are offered an opportunity to be part of it, if we so desire. But the part we are offered is not a mere extra, some minor character with few lines and little significance: instead, we are being offered the role of the love interest, the Beloved. The people around us, too, are not just a motley cast of characters in a petty drama about ourselves, to be nudged into the roles we would like them to play, but they, too, are Beloved, and God loves us together. Our choices still matter in this story: we can be story-breakers by opting to pursue our own dramas, or story-makers when we, loved by God, choose to love in return, but make or break, it is a much bigger story than any one of us can imagine.
For me, in the light of the Christian story, I find secular culture’s stories to be brave, but a bit impoverished. Yes, in a sense we can create meaning in the world, but not merely through a story imagined by us and created out of whole cloth by our choices and our clever use of the materials the world gives us. That would simply be “playing pretend“. A life story like that cannot amount to much: the most we can hope for in the end is that someone might consider our story interesting, and perhaps remember it for a while after we are gone. Is that the only option? Thank God, no! The grand story of Christianity exists: it is not called Gospel (which means “Good News”) for nothing! The Gospel as an invitation to collaborative story-making: we are being invited to be part of an everlasting love story written by God. In the end, if we allow him to intertwine our stories with his, we can be part of his eternal story. This, I find compelling. Yes, I live in the modern secular world, but I choose to be a Christian. My personal story has become part of God’s story: I have chosen to love the One who first loved me.