Christopher Smith reflects on story and faith
‘Story’ is a serious business. The telling of stories is how we keep alive what is most important to us in our culture. A story is not necessarily true, but it is most certainly not necessarily false, in spite of its occasional use as a synonym for ‘lie’ or ‘myth’. When we speak about the Gospel ‘story’, we mean an account of the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we speak about the Christian ‘story’, we place those events in the context of the Old Testament and the life of the Church from Ascension Day onwards.
Story helps us to keep alive the history of our nation, and of our city or village, of our rulers and of our own family. It is a sad sign of the times that these stories are less highly valued—less told—than they once were. It is not sufficient to say ‘search for it on the internet’ when you don’t know what there is to search for in the first place. Generations of oblivious neologists are growing up with contempt for their own story.
And we are a people who enjoy making up stories, exercising the imagination. We write and we read novels and we compose and recite poetry, although I find it surprising how many perfectly reasonable people seem not to read very much at all.
Christopher Booker, the founder of Private Eye, was of the opinion that there were really only ‘seven basic plots’ out there, and he wrote a book about it. And even those seven plots had a sort of ‘meta-plot’, usually involving a main protagonist, a hero of some description, who goes on a quest, or defeats a monster, or wrestles with a character flaw which either is his undoing or the overcoming of it is the making of him. You can see it, can’t you? Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, take your pick.
So does the story of the Christian Faith, beginning at creation, fit into that description? A simple plot, akin to every play or novel to have come out of the human imagination? A basic idea that can be reduced to a tweet—or even a school curriculum—for the edification of the masses? Eric Mascall did once use the adventure story as an analogy of the Christian Faith. It presents us, he said, with a drama which ‘asserts nothing less than that the God who made Heaven and earth came and lived a human life and allowed himself to be put to death as a criminal to save men and women from the misery which their obstinacy and stupidity had brought upon them.’ That would fit in a tweet, but it was certainly not intended by Mascall to be complete in itself, for the Christian story needs context: the context of the creeds, the scriptures, and the life of the Church.
Twitter seems to me to represent the inanition of modern society. The British attention span had been reduced to seven minutes by the time I was being taught to preach thirty years ago; now it has been rendered down to 280 characters, and the little computer that almost all of us carry around has become a kind of bromide to stop us from becoming querulous or questioning. But it also provides too much detail which stops us seeing the wood for the trees. The Christian Faith, rich in detail, needs to be seen in its big picture, as a coherent and articulated whole. The story of Easter is not, unlike Dick Barton, ‘With one bound he was free’.
The tomb is empty, yet its emptiness is not a sign of desolation and failure, but of joy and triumph. It may be inadequate in itself as evidence of the Resurrection, but we can still say with Mary Magdalen in the words of the Easter sequence, ‘I saw the grave, and there adored / the glory of the risen Lord’.
Yet it is interesting to reflect on the anxiety among the chief priests and Pharisees that the body of Jesus will be stolen by his followers, who will then claim that he has risen from the dead. St Matthew tells us that those same elders bribed the soldiers to say that they had fallen asleep on their watch of the tomb, and the Christians must have come and stolen the body. And given that a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on, it is testament to the truth of the resurrection appearances that that one didn’t run. It would be the easy explanation; no imagination required.
Trying to explain the Christian story in the context of a world that is losing its ability to imagine isn’t straightforward. We are demanding the attention and the imagination of people who sincerely believe themselves to be too busy to think about eternity. We are trying to explain—and not in a ‘How it Works’ way—that Jesus was really dead, and really rose from the dead. We are trying to explain that the humanity taken by God himself is authentic humanity, unfallen humanity, and it is that humanity which now lives in the Godhead, in the Person of the risen and ascended Jesus. And that means that we can participate in the life of God: because we are, by baptism, incorporated into that human nature of Christ, in which we are raised up into the life of God himself.
That’s the real story. That’s the real ‘meta-plot’. Our Lord Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and now that he has ascended into heaven, we meet him in the breaking of the Bread. In our beginning is our end, as T.S. Eliot almost said, and that empty tomb reveals itself as the sign of our end, in our incarnate, crucified and risen Saviour.