The End of Narrative

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!)

gardening

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.

Jessica Hughes

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7 responses to “The End of Narrative

  1. Thanks for this evocative post! I have a comment about the farming implements mentioned in Micah (and Joel 3 and Isaiah 2). When my students and I worked on performing the story of Eve’s first two sons, we realized that we had to decide what Cain killed Abel with when they were together in the field. Once we had determined that it was conceivably a farming implement, our friend (and Hebrew scholar) Thomas Boogaart was quick to draw the line to the denouement imagery in Micah, Joel and Isaiah. In Cain, we have the first weapon created out of farming tools. In the prophecies, we have weapons turned once again into farming tools as stasis is restored. This is the grand bookending of the Bible’s whole story. And those beginning and ending images of farming implements are not particularly significant if we don’t have all the story in between.

    • Jeff–Thanks so much for this! An excellent point about Cain and Abel and the images of the farming tools–I’d never thought of this structure before but it certainly makes sense and enriches the eschatological passages in the prophets.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Jessica. So much Christian reflection on sin/suffering/evil is focused on its end… And this is probably appropriate and necessary, on an ultimate level. But I appreciated your reminder that struggle is also a part of how the things that matter most to us come to matter at all.

  3. I’ll say this as a tentative thought. I’ve been reading John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence and he’s got me thinking about alls sorts of things.

    First I will state this as a lemma, because I might need it later: While stories can be beautiful, beauty is the story sometimes. So ~ if an instance of beauty, a moment of beauty itself can be the story . . .

    So what I am thinking is something of the following sort. God works behind the scenes, in front of the scenes making all sorts of thing work out in an ingenious providential sort of a way. I imagine that His reasons for doing some of these things may just be for the sake of … hmmm… showing us something beautiful. The provocation is beauty and the desire is to have us experience something beautiful. Nothing related to falleness enters into the picture. Yet this whole thing from provocation to experience can be a story.

    Anyway, anyhue, still need to think it through… Thanks for the post. Very thought provoking!

    • RGB–I like this idea of beauty having a narrative, being the source of desire and the reason for the story in the first place. I, too, will need to think on what that might look like in terms of narrative shapes and particular stories. Perhaps, in part, these are narratives that we will only be able to know and tell once our vision is fully restored and redeemed, allowing us to see beauty and its story clearly. It is delightful to think of a whole new world of stories that can only be experienced and told after heaven comes to earth and all is made well…

  4. Yeah. Its a hard question… and now we only know in part. Maybe its like one fish asking another fish, “So??? Whats life like out there on land?” lol.

    Another related aside. There is the questions of the Meaning of Life and then related to that, the question of the Meaning of My Life. Both have as their backdrop, ‘S’-tory and story.

    The former being objective must be there even if I don’t exist and even if anyone save God does not exist. In this case however the Story could consist of perhaps two things, Creation and Consummation. No Fall, no Redemption…

    Aside in passing… Ciao!

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