Following the Story

In spite of what you might think of the sequels, to this day, The Matrix remains one of my favourite movies. Before I completely geek out and forget what my main topic is, let me share with you the main reasons why I like it so much. Beyond the ground breaking visual effects and action sequences, they created an amazing fantasy world that truly stirred the imagination by making us rethink our assumptions about reality. After watching the film, you could take with you that fantasy world and populate it with your own stories.

Now as a critical realist I am not a fan of certain types of postmodern art where the audience and not the artist is the chief interpreter of artistic work. I however appreciate artists who are able to build robust imaginative worlds through the stories they tell. This provides a solid interpretative framework for our minds to navigate the fictional reality.

Even with works aside from science-fiction or fantasy the artist must still have a narrative world, and worldview, that the story is set in. We judge these stories primarily by the standards the artist sets and not by our private experiences. For instance in the super-fantastical world of comic books a character cannot suddenly demonstrate an unaccounted for power. Also in dramatic works a character cannot suddenly perform an act contrary to their established motivations. I remember a particularly terrible experience I had watching a movie. I was enjoying the entire film until the end ruined the entire two-hour experience for me. The resolution of the plot, even by its own fantastical standards, was highly improbable. Right at the end, I just could not suspend my disbelief.

Plot, theme, characterization, style, setting, genre among other literary techniques and features are not just things you got to cram for your English test. They are integral to the way we tell stories. Since stories are intrinsic to humanity these features are windows into the framework of how we understand reality.

Jonathan Gosthaldt describes humans as Homo fictus, that is, fiction man. We are story telling creatures. In the sacred scriptures our creator is a story teller, the divine Logos. The introduction to the Gospel of John alludes to Genesis and Jewish wisdom literature as it retells the story of our cosmic origins around the person of Jesus Christ. The word of God there is not an individual unit of a particular language but a story, the story of reality itself. When God made all things by his word it did not simply mean that the Lord only needed to speak for something to happen. It means the story of creation is actually the story of God. He is the grand narrator of reality itself. He is the word who defines all things. The “word was God” means the word is God’s self-impression and all reality is founded upon that self-understanding. Since he is self-determining all other things depend on him for existence. He is the “I AM.”

Genesis not only makes us aware that we are living in his story. It lets us know that the grand cosmic narrative is being told through the lens of one family, the family of Abraham. The controlling narrative that is set up in Genesis is absolutely crucial for understanding the rest of Holy Writ. The Lord Jesus emphatically said “salvation is of the Jews.” God had promised to bless the world through Abraham. Since God cannot lie he chose a faithful Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, and used him to save the world fulfilling his oath. The whole canon of scripture does not make sense if you take away the narrative of Abraham’s family.

The story has been setup and like any narrative we must follow the in-story logic. Our interpretation of the scriptures must be consistent with the controlling story. Sometimes when we are interpreting the Bible we overly focus on the minutiae or simply ignore the context, trying to make it fit our own agenda. Yet we forget every story has form, a mould which all the individual elements must conform or they are rejected. You cannot have a hero who endures every obstacle to save the one he loves for him to reject her in the end for no apparent reason. Similarly, we cannot have a good God who makes a good creation, who will condemn and abandon what he has made because things went wrong. He rather must be absolutely committed to redeeming and restoring his handiwork.

This narrative flow starts off with the principal stream of God and creation. The flow branches of into the human family. After that the family of Abraham which climaxes in Jesus the Messiah. From him a new stream flows called the Church through the power of the resurrection. This has inaugurated a new chapter in the history of the cosmos called the new creation. Genesis begins with a good creation that falls. Revelation ends with creation restored to new life. A fitting conclusion to the story.

The Bible also applies the various literary methods in telling its stories. Granted it is told in a very Jewish manner, it is not set in a fantasy world but right here in the real world. That is why interpreting the Bible is so important. If the Bible is the true story of our world, how we understand it affects our existence. For the practicing Christian, Biblical hermeneutics is absolutely unavoidable. Like other stories I advocate a hermeneutical approach that remains consistent with the Biblical metanarrative. The technical aspects are essential but they must be guided by the overarching narratives. Every hermeneutic is context bound. Like a Fabergé egg we must interpret each story within a story within a story, where both bigger elements and smaller elements reflect on each other, shining light on one another.

Many Christians unwittingly take a postmodern approach to reading the scriptures. What matters to them is not what the text says but what it is “saying to them.” We interpret it to suit ourselves and we claim we have been empowered to achieve our personal agendas. Similarly, the postmodern agenda seeks to wrest authority from the narrator to allow the audience the power to choose what it wants. Paradoxically, in seeking freedom they are trying to take away the very thing that gives them what they want, law.

As I said earlier, every narrative has its own in-story logic. The proverbial rules of the game. There are rules for interpreting everything, whether it is at the pre-theoretical level of a worldview or a simple game of hopscotch. Laws define the boundaries which allow for expression. Imagine trying to paint something real without boundaries of any kind. The world we live in is laden with form, shape, identity. In artistic terms you cannot have expression without form. With the rules of reason set firmly in place, our minds are truly free. This freedom of the mind is called imagination.

Interpretation, especially interpreting stories in whatever artistic form they come in, requires imagination. Albert Einstein famously said imagination is more important than knowledge. Sometimes we think reason exists for its own sake. Reason exists for imagination.  The best stories like The Matrix allow us to inhabit the imaginary world as we spiral down the rabbit hole into a worlds of new and startling possibilities. As humans we invest our environment with meaning. The connection you see between the letters you are reading is not a property of the photons hitting the retina. It is the imagination that makes these intangible connections. Likewise, we depend on the faculties of our imagination to make the connections in understanding the Biblical story.

Instinctively we realise every story calls upon our powers of imagination but strangely when it comes to the Bible it is not so. We are not concerned with how the story ends or why such a character did what she did? We are not happy when we read the stories of triumph and we are not moved by the hurts and failures. Perhaps, through our over familiarity we have inoculated ourselves against any sense of awe or shock when we read the scriptures.

We have tamed the word of God into a shopping list of the do’s and don’ts of self-help instead of the riveting story of the cosmos. We can talk sophisticatedly about our favourite TV show speculating feverishly where the story will go. Why can’t we do the same with the Bible. It tells us the beginning and the middle of the story. Yet, the part in between the climax and the conclusion is largely left blank and that is precisely where we are in the story. Even the end is shrouded in symbol and mystery. When we apply our powers of imagination to it, stories and characters come alive and in the case of the Bible even more so. In the scriptures we are dealing with the true story of the world itself.

Like Tom Riddle’s diary, as we pour our hearts into it, it pours itself back into us. The inspired word of God should inspire us. Until we invest our imagination into the text we will get little in returns. As we learn to think within the confines of the story, understanding it becomes easier. We become more accustomed to the world they lived in and the story itself becomes the road map in navigating and exploring their worldview. As we exercise scriptural imagination it allows us to explore new ways of knowing, new ways of being.

As G.K. Chesterton once said an open mind, like an open mouth, is meant to shut firmly on something. Imagination is not for its own sake. We cannot live transformed lives if we cannot possibly conceive any other way of being. This is where I think we find the sufficiency of the scriptures. Not that it answers every single question but through the Spirit it teaches us how to answer every question by thinking scripturally. Both reason and imagination must join hands in our endeavour to think and live scripturally.

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