The Universality of Story and the Hero’s Journey
Reflections from the 4th Media & Journalism Cross-Current meetings, hosted online by the Welsh documentary film-maker & Regent College Professor, Iwan Russell-Jones, November 2020
In the ‘dogma is the drama’, the influential and popular British writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) carefully reminds us that the gospel is dynamite. To preach anything else or to dilute it otherwise is fallacy, error, and at worst, heresy.
She is utterly convinced that to be orthodox in our beliefs is to know the depth of power and truth in the gospel. She warns that 20th Century modernity has formed a relativist, pluralist modern mind – committed only to worship, and that worship of whatever, without clear object or aim. This mind is generalised, undirected, unmotivated, and lacks all enthusiasm.
Christian doctrine, on the other hand – or what she would rather call the dogma of our faith – is precise, particular, and profound, stirring us with motivation, direction, and enthusiasm. To name but a few, Sayers draws our attention to the Incarnation, to the Trinity, to the Sacraments, as well as the Word, Atonement, and Resurrection, as examples of this precise, particular, and profound dogma.
Christian doctrine, on the other hand – or what she would rather call the dogma of our faith – is precise, particular, and profound, stirring us with motivation, direction, and enthusiasm
Sayers introduces us then to a distinction we are to draw in our spiritual lives, and the lives of our communities including church life. Are we descending into childish virtues of mental timidity, dullness, sentimentality, and characteristically low spirits? If so, our faith has lost a firm grip of dogma, and the central drama of the Christian story, and has become generalised, undirected, unmotivated, and lacking all enthusiasm. Sayers holds no punches in this regard: such faith is lacking all ‘strong meat’ and is rather baseless, relying on ‘trashy sentiment’ and ‘slipshod thinking’. Rather, are we being drawn upwards into a posture of awe and wonder, by the radical doctrines of the gospel? Those of a Trinitarian God redeeming all things unto Himself; the gift of the Incarnation proclaiming a resounding yes on the value of the material world; and the centrality of the Word, sharp as a double-edged sword, an anchor for our souls.
Similarly, one could read CS Lewis’ short piece ‘Myth became Fact’ (from ‘God in the Dock’) and have a taste of the paradoxes that lie central to the Christian story – a story based on the ‘great myth [that] became fact when the Virgin conceived’. Lewis is quick to remind us; ‘Christians also need to be reminded – we may thank Corineus for reminding us – that what became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all the properties of a myth’. Indeed, Lewis suggests that:
‘a man [sic] who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it’.
Lewis warns against a form of intellectual atheism, prevalent in modern minds, that wants to rid the Christian story of all language, rites, sacraments, and story. For therein, he warns, may lie just that which is life.
Indeed, Lewis continues; ‘God is more than a god, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic – and is not the sky itself a myth – shall we refuse to be mythopathic?
‘For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher’.
Reading in turn both Sayers and Lewis, helps us better appreciate the caution that CS Lewis himself gives. He warns of the ‘fading, vanishing of tasted reality as we try to grasp it with the discursive reason’. How can we learn to appreciate his caution here? On the one hand, we are mistaken if we stray from the precise, particular, and profound dogma of the Christian story – and, indeed, its factual proofs. Yet at the same moment, we are mistaken if we extricate all language, rites, sacraments, and myth from the depth of the Christian story – knowing all well we only experience a principle concretely, when our spirits are nourished by the story of the myth.
Where then can we take these two writers?
On one side, we can read CS Lewis and seek to demonstrate areas where myth transcends thought and reason – in a way that brings meaning to abstract knowledge. For example, the mythological power of a Trinitarian God, who is both One God and Three Persons. Equally, on the other side, we can journey with CS Lewis to see how incarnation also transcends myth – where fact moves us from story to experience, and from saying or proverb to reality. The doctrine of the Incarnation – particularly at this poignant time of year in the Advent season – reminds us profoundly of this shift: that God became personal, incarnate, a historical figure, and a flesh-and-blood person.
Myths play a nourishing and vital element in our spiritual lives. Yet all too often, in our modernist frame of mind or in our modern pursuits of exactness and clarity, we exclude all rituals, formulae, metaphors, names, and myth from our stories. We present bare facts. We fail to notice the power of subjectivity. We underestimate the intellectual capacity of proverbs, or the simple profundity of ancestral sayings.
Communication and communion both stem from the same Latin root ‘communis’ meaning to hold in common, or to share together
Communication and communion both stem from the same Latin root ‘communis’ meaning to hold in common, or to share together. Interestingly, this shared root reminds us that when we speak or when we tell a story, we are both conveying information and capturing imaginations. Shared story-telling and shared narratives of community bind us together. If, as Christians then, we lose sight of the narrative and the drama of the gospels, we can profoundly lose sight of Christian truths and something central can be missing from our gospel beliefs and our lives.
As Christians, story plays a central and significant role in our faith. Not only are we swept along by the greatest story of history – that of the salvation story of Christ – but we are also invited to participate in God’s story of redemption. At the heart of history ultimately lies a story: the story of the God of Jacob and the drama of the gospel. We are well rehearsed at telling and re-telling this story, in high points of the Christian calendar such as Advent, as well as in the sacraments of our faith, including baptism and the Eucharist.
How then, can we as working professionals, many of us engaged in the world of media and the arts, of storytelling and narrative-generation, share stories that bind us together, and draw us into the story of history? How can we remain rooted in the narrative and the drama of the gospel, even as we tell explicitly different stories? How can we tell and re-tell stories with power and effect, in mediums and on platforms that are of interest, without bowing to the gods of instantaneity and of influence in much of modern-day media? These are important questions for us to ponder.
We, as Christians, celebrate story as central and significant in our faith. Not only are we swept along by the great salvation story of history, but also, we are invited to participate in God’s story of redemption, faithfully & courageously.
photo: Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash