I have often wanted to ask my theologian-friends if narratives can exist apart from sin. I use the word sin because of its suggestion of brokenness, of problems, of doubt, disillusionment, and despair. Another way to ask the question is this: can we have stories in a world with no problems, in a perfect world? (I’d actually love to hear some thoughts on this, all you theologically-minded readers out there!)
We could have stories of overcoming challenges like climbing a mountain, or inventing new technologies, but they would be stripped of the self-doubt and naysayers that make the eventual triumph in such stories so satisfying. We could have stories of falling in love, but they would almost inevitably lack the relational misunderstandings and interpersonal injury, or the external difficulties that make for the drama of falling in love so, well, dramatic. Imagine the marriage plot in a perfect world….Boy and Girl meet. They like each other. They have numerous edifying conversations with the support of their good family and the wise counsel of their selfless friends. They decide to get married and celebrate that union with the entire community. About the most dramatic thing that could happen is a rainstorm on the outdoor wedding or an unfortunate mishap involving a wedding dress and a flock of pigeons. That’s it. The whole story. In fact, without rain, or pigeons the story would be positively unmemorable.
Most our stories depend upon the fallen, broken nature of human life. Sometime in elementary school, we usually learn the basic narrative structure of plot: a problem, building action, a climax, resolution. But what this emphasis on plot fails to consider is the importance of the ending, the resolution. The point of narratives isn’t simply to record a dramatic tale, making normal life—the mundane routines of eating, sleeping, working, conversing, and relaxing—seem boring and uneventful in comparison. The point of narrative is to imagine one path for returning a broken segment of the world to wholeness. Narratives are, in their most basic sense, a way of experimenting with human lives to see if they can be restored to stasis, to the mundane.
In Micah 3, in the Bible, there is a fabulous image of what shalom—a just and peaceful commonplace life—looks like. The nations:
shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.
The image is, in some way, the end of narrative. War, after all, serves as one of the basic narrative occasions. Instead of war, we have farming, the cyclical patterns of planting and harvesting, of wine making, and relaxing in the evening with the fruit of the field and vine shared around a common table. The conversation around the table is not about impending disasters, man-made or otherwise. Fear has fled. God’s reign has been established to the delight of the nations who say “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways.” All is, truly, well.
One function of narrative is to assure us, again and again, that the problems we face do not have to end in death and despair—there are ways to resolution. I’m not sure if exciting narratives can exist apart from the broken state of the world. And I’m not sure if our cultural addiction to narratives does anything other than create a desire for drama rather than resolution. But I am certain that I long for the vision of shalom presented in the Bible, for a life of peace and justice, where each person has, not just access to resources but a personal share in creation. I long to hear what wonderful stories of gardening and farming, of winemaking and brewing, of invention and creation, of loving and birthing will emerge from a world that is set right and made good again.