We are made of stories

Our world is made of atoms, of spinning particles of energy careering around one another in a fabulously chaotic and surprisingly ordered way. Or so the story goes.

I don’t mean to suggest that I doubt the scientists whose work informs our understanding of physics and matter; I have no reason to do so. What they tell us is observable, we can be certain that there is more to observe than we currently know without disputing the observations we’ve made and the models built to explain them as best we are able.

It’s a very thin view of the world though. “The world is made of atoms.” Sure, as far as it goes that’s true. It just doesn’t say very much. You want to know what you’re living in, through and on? Don’t ask a physicist, ask a practitioner of the queen of the sciences: theology. I’m here as a rambunctious interloper to tell you that there’s a bigger, and simpler, description of our world.

Our world is made of stories.

We might think that Christmas is at the solstice because the imagery works well, because of historical reasons around adopting pagan festivals and because all cultures have a winter festival: we need to remember that light comes again. This is backwards. Our world runs on stories. The solstice is at Christmas because light is birthed out of darkness. The world was made with that story in mind, made to run on that story.

For a few decades Christians have loved talking about “worldview” (or if you’re feeling particularly pretentious “weltanschauung”). Everyone has a worldview, we’re told, a grand unifying theory of how the world works. Or, more simply, a set of assumptions about meaning and purpose that undergird the way that they view the world and act within it.

At University through the Christian Union I was trained in some of the major worldviews and how they were different to the Christian way of viewing the world. We were then encouraged in evangelism to ask questions to expose someone’s worldview and then show them some of the inconsistencies, the conclusions they might be uncomfortable with if their thinking was taken to its logical end and so forth. As a piece of logical thinking, and a way of strengthening Christians understanding that the Bible’s view of the world is not only coherent but, in some ways, more coherent than those of our friends it was valuable. In that sense I valued it. As a way of evangelism, it was unhelpful. Combined with a pig-headed young student who enjoyed an argument for its own sake (me) it was a recipe for heat without light.

Very few people come to Christ because they realise that naturalism is a flawed set of assumptions that poorly explain the world. People need to meet Jesus.

Worldview is less in vogue now, but I still find Christians of the right age—particularly my peers—talking about “worldviews” as though they were a useful thing to understand. I’m not so sure, because I’m not sure most people have a worldview. The second of my definitions is true, we do all have sets of assumptions about meaning and purpose that sit behind how we look at the world. The problem is that the first definition isn’t true, most of us don’t have a neatly worked through theory of how the world works. Our thinking, Christians included, is inconsistent.

If we were trying to have a consistent way of looking at the world then showing us these inconsistencies would be helpful, or disorientating, and would cause us to change our thinking. But most of us aren’t. We aren’t trying to have a way of looking at the world, we’re just getting on with living our lives. If our living is otherwise unshaken, inconsistencies in our thinking won’t shake our foundations. That’s because our thinking isn’t our foundation.

We live on stories.

We operate day to day on a story or set of stories that give us meaning and purpose, and that tell us who we are. This is why the Bible is primarily narrative: we’re story-creatures. We live stories and we make stories. We tell each other stories and we tell ourselves stories.

Perhaps your friend believes that the Universe and history should bend towards justice. You might, thinking worldview, ask why they think it should. Without Christian foundations it’s difficult to articulate why we should be progressing towards justice, or even to articulate justice in a way that feels intuitively right to your friend. You may feel that this will lead to an “Aha!” moment when your friend realises that their deepest desires are groundless without a belief and submission to God. Occasionally it might, but most people are going to be mildly affronted at your suggestion that they need to be a Christian to be just (even if that wasn’t what you really meant) and shrug it off because clearly they know what justice is and should look like. How do they know? Because they’re living the story.

Instead we could tell them another story: a world broken and marred by injustice from without, and then tragically from within. We could tell a story that shows all injustice grows from within each of us, we’re all the problem, and that evil is real and must be opposed. We could tell them a story of the only truly just man who entered history and died unjustly to bend history’s arc by the weight of his actions. Yes, the arc of history bends towards justice, because the judge bent it.

This is no slam-dunk evangelism strategy, but it will make more intrinsic sense to a late modern westerner than the worldview approach I was fed. We don’t need to show logical inconsistencies, we need to tell better stories. The Bible out-stories the world every time. Jesus is the master storyteller, not least because he weaves his stories with the events of history.

As a set of propositions the Christian faith makes less and less sense to a post-Christian, secularised, disenchanted age. Orthodox beliefs about sex, sexuality and gender seem archaic at best, for example. But when we tell the story there is a beauty not otherwise gained: of a husband seeking a bride for himself, won by slaying a dragon at the cost of his own life. A story of our own lives mirroring the great romance of Christ and the church, a story that isn’t about us but shows us how to live.

Jesus is the end and the completion of every true story. Almost certainly our friends who don’t know him are living stories that make more sense when radically recentred around Jesus. Let’s tell them stories.

They can sound very silly to an eminently sensible world so punch-drunk on our self-importance that we’ve forgotten how to laugh. Slaying dragons? Like something out of a fairy story. Yes. But this one’s true.

Sisters and brothers, what we believe is ridiculous from the outside, beautiful from the inside. It’s deeply rational and I praise God for those who work hard to show that it is, but let’s not forget that we’re the weird ones.

We could think and talk less about worldviews. Instead, tell stories.

Photo by Marie Bellando-Mitjans on Unsplash