Stories and the meaning crisis

I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s famous magnum opus, A Secular Age. It’s a monumental achievement that I’ve been chewing over slowly for approaching a year now, though its sheer scope and breadth makes summarising (or critiquing) the argument a challenge.

Taylor wants to tell a story about why, five hundred years ago, not believing in God would be an aberration and belief could be widely assumed, whereas now the opposite is broadly true. He shrugs off simple explanations and presents multiple threads to his argument that it is now difficult to believe, not because anything has been ‘disproven’ but because of the structures of our societies and the stories we have grown to tell each other.

One of these threads is that of the ‘social imaginary.’ This is the story (or sets of stories) that our cultural moments tell themselves. They are hard to spot because they’re everything that we think is obvious, even though not every society in history has done so. They are the stories that our worlds run on.

In the medieval period, there was an agreed upon story that a society shared. It would be hard work to not believe it. There was also an agreed upon world of symbols that worked as the syntax of these stories. Everyone knew what Carnival meant, even if they couldn’t express it clearly. Everyone knew what the Eucharist was. The language of these symbols was shared.

This story and symbology changed with time, and changed particularly rapidly through the Enlightenment, becoming a diverging set of stories. This continues until we hit what Taylor calls the Nova Effect somewhere around the 19th century when these now handful of agreed upon stories working on a shared syntax of symbols begin to shatter into a thousand different stories and a thousand different symbologies.

There isn’t a particular trigger for this, because I’ve just simplified the story for the telling, the already diverging lines just sped up their divergence until we reach the late modernity of right now when you’re reading this, and every person can choose their stories and sets of symbols. Of course, much of this is unconscious and dependent on your location and family of origin, but the impact is that we find we’re living a hundred different stories.

In the past, what Taylor calls the enchanted world, meaning is present in the object or agent. The meaning of the tree, the rock, the church, the angel doesn’t depend on us or our interpretation of it. It is inherent and present in all things—or, perhaps more accurately, meaning sits behind them so that the tree, the rock, and the church are sacramental giving us access to the reality behind them. Disenchantment, a view of the world as not ordered by God for particular goods—every tree an ode, every river a poem—is part of what in theology they call the ‘turn to the subject.’

It becomes about us. Everything becomes about us. We dictate the meaning that things have. We decide on the stories.

Because we all pick different ones, everything fractured into a thousand pieces. This is one of the roots of what they call ‘the Meaning Crisis.’ We have to assign meaning, we have to tell a story, but our stories aren’t really good enough to bear the weight we need them to. It requires a bit of skill to squint well enough to not see the whole, though we become adept at that quicker than we’d like, until something happens to make us see.

Nothing can handle the structural weight of our lives except the Story behind the stories—that one about a prince killing a dragon to win a princess—which is, if you haven’t noticed, Genesis to Revelation.

One solution is to tell better stories—which we must do. Which also means we need Christian artists, poets and storytellers to do so. And we need to allow them to make the challenging work that they actually want to make: the work of the Rabbit Room and Sputnik is worth supporting here.

I’m generally interested in reading the Bible and helping other people meet Jesus in its pages. That’s the angle I approach this story-problem from as well.

Because we don’t have unified stories, we don’t have unified symbols. Taylor spends a great deal of time demonstrating the way this worked in music and art and poetry—the palette of symbols diverged. Which not only means we have to see how the artist is employing the symbol, they aren’t tying into a universal language because we don’t have one anymore, but it also means that our reading of Biblical symbols is challenged by the host of other symbologies we carry around in our pockets without realising it.

Why do we struggle to see Christ in the Old Testament? Not least because we read the Bible in a flatter way than our ancestors did. Which is because we’re not used to even realising there is a language that can allow stories to function on multiple levels. Because each story carries its own language ‘game’, each story works on one level. That’s not how the Bible—or any ancient literature—actually works.

What can we do about it?

Realise we’re the weird ones. Attentively listen to those to can teach us the ‘grammar’ of the scriptures to read it on multiple levels—not least those interpreters who lived before some of these challenges came into play. The Fathers and Medieval interpreters have their own challenges from their own times, but they don’t have this particular set.

I’ve been deliberately reading more of the Church Fathers, and trying to make sure I use commentators from before the 20th century and before the 15th century when I prepare preaching, where I have access to them, anyway.

For preachers, I’ve found the Ancient Christian Commentary Series to be fascinating and would recommend you taking a look.

For everyone else? Don’t lose too much sleep over this, but do start to ask yourself questions: what’s the story sitting under that statement? Why do we all think that’s true? What else does the Bible want to tell me?

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

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