A Calling: Church as a Story People
At the outset, it may be best to spend some time in contemplative prayer considering a few thematic questions. Would you put on some ambient music and set a timer for three minutes? And during that time would you hold the questions below before God in prayer before we continue? (I know it’s probably not exactly what you expect to do when starting to read an article, but I encourage you to give it a try.)
“What is the story of your life?”
“What is the story of God?”
“What is the Church?”
How was it? What answers or thoughts circulated in your prayer? All of these explorations are related to narratives and becoming more aware of them can be most helpful.
"Narratives have the most power over us when they are invisible; that is, infinitely repeatable but unnoticed and unanalyzed.”
- Margaret Morganroth Gullette
I agree with Margaret. We need to become more aware of narratives that shape us unconsciously. And I also hope we will consider the stories we consciously submit ourselves to.
We are all living stories, in a sense. And our collective stories are woven together like a tapestry. But what is the tapestry that you see when you see all these narrative threads woven together? What the big picture, the overarching story? Let’s turn here to a concept from philosophical thought called metanarrative. A metanarrative is essentially the biggest story you are a part of.
Everyone is familiar with story. You’ve learned stories, told stories, and lived stories your whole life. And in a helpful to our desire to become more aware of a story’s influence upon us, stories can be mapped out, charted, and analyzed. For our purposes here, I’ve taken a traditional plot map and adapted the stages, replacing some of the terms for theological purposes. But even with those adjustments this narrative plot map should look quite familiar. Let’s review the components of a story.
The origin. Everyone and everything has an origin story. This is our beginning, our starting place. It’s important to know where we are coming from to know where we are heading.
The conflict. Every story has a conflict. This is the problem, the struggle to overcome. It’s important to understand why living out our stories is no easy thing.
The redemption. Stories resolve by means of a solution. This is how things are going to be made right and we find the corresponding answer to problem in our story. It is key to identify the hope we have (if any) against the conflict.
The eschaton. Every story has an endgame. The final resolution in our story is our view of the ever-after. It is important to know where we are heading and why.
This is story. We live out stories each day and through every season. All the time,.we are cycling through story after story, chapter after chapter of our lives. In this way, we could see our lives as a collection micro-narratives.
But metanarrative is the biggest story you see yourself in - the one that makes sense not only of your own collection of stories but of all the stories around you, the story of the whole cosmos.
Fortunately, pop culture has given us a very helpful and accessible way to conceptualize metanarrative. Look no further than the MCU. The Marvel Cinematic Universe weaves together an intricately and elaborately planned series of stories, each one self-contained with its own narrative arc, but also each contributing to an overarching story of Thanos and the Infinity Stones (at least movies in the MCU from 2008-2019). Many stories are woven together into one cohesive story that encompasses all other stories. That’s a metanarrative - the biggest storyline our stories are woven into.
Micro- and macro- stories shape us. They change us. The stories we tie ourselves to or get tied up in shape our character, our ethics, even our identity. The MCU gives us a compelling example of this narrative-shaping effect in the character of Tony Stark, Iron Man. Tony goes from egotistical, millionaire, arms-dealing playboy to (well, much of these descriptions still apply till the end) a selfless, messianic figure. The metanarrative charts a development in his character that no single story could produce. He is ultimately self-sacrificial, laying his life down to protect the whole universe.
But what does Marvel, metanarrative, and millionaire machine men have to do with the story of your life, the story of God, or our understanding of Church? For the very reason it took a universe-ending multi-story dilemma to bring out the best in Tony. Story shapes us, especially metanarrative.
It’s a bit self-evident, we may suppose, that writers of comic book fiction set out to do these things, and therefore, in our non-fiction worlds, the pervasive power of metanarrative is perhaps overrealized. Do stories really shape our very real and un