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A culture is shaped by the shape of its stories

When we think of what is or is not an appropriate story for a book or film—whether from the perspective of age-appropriacy or of political correctness or of whatever—we naturally focus on the content of the story: is there sex or violence or bad language or sexism or racism, and so on. And that's well and good.

But we tend not to focus on the shape of the story, and that is a mistake. In the end the shape may be considerably more important than the content, because a culture is shaped by the shape of its stories.

Most of a culture's stories—certainly the most memorable and influential ones—tend to reflect the macrostory that people in that culture believe about their culture or the whole human race.

David Bebbington provides a helpful introduction to these macrostories in his book Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought. According to Bebbington, in the ancient world—regardless of which civilization you are looking at—if that civilization thought at all about history it described it as a circular pattern. In other words, a cycle recurs over and over again, whether from the reign of one monarch to another or a cycle spanning many thousands of years. The only variation to be found is the semi-circular pattern, which describes a past golden age from which we are steadily and inexorably descending, never again to return to the good times.

But contrary to any natural explanation or expectation, one tiny, mostly unimpressive ancient people began using a story shape that had never been seen before, and it would change the world. That people was Israel, and the story shape looks like a checkmark—a "V" with the right prong higher than the left.

The Israelite people described the overarching story of humanity as begun in goodness, fallen into wretchedness, and ultimately redeemed to a greater goodness than before. This was not a cycle that was bound to repeat but a line with a beginning, middle, and end.

Every story the Israelites told and remembered and retold followed this pattern. Some stories just described the way down, others just the way up, but many described the whole checkmark.

The pattern is repeated large and small. On the large scale, for example, was the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchs guided by God in the land of Canaan—then miserably enslaved in Egypt—then redeemed to possess the land promised to their ancestors. On the small scale, on the other hand, was Ruth, a happily married young wife—then bereaved, impoverished, and a stranger in a strange land—then married to an eminent, kind, and good husband as the great-grandmother of a great king. It happens over and over and over again.

Then some Jews saw the story play out before their eyes yet again. Jesus, the previously unknown Son of God, left heaven to be born as a man, to suffer to the extreme of death on a cross, and to rise again in a glorious body, exalted over every name and power. They recognized Jesus' story as the linchpin of the macrostory of the human race and the only means by which people can attain to the happy ending.

One part of the enormous historical importance of Christianity is that by it the Jewish story-shape was delivered to the rest of the world to which it was entirely foreign. Paul the Apostle presented this novel teaching to the city council of Athens in Acts 17, and "when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff" (v. 32). Some of their mockery may have stemmed from beliefs about the body and its value (or lack thereof), but some of their disdain had to do with story-shape. The Stoics believed in a circular story of the universe, the Epicureans a semicircular one, but here Paul described a checkmark, which was "foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). But some on the council believed.

Raphael, Paul Preaching at the Areopagus (1515)

In fact, many in the ancient world believed: they were consumed by it as straw by flame despite the alienness of the story-shape. This goes to show that nothing is impossible for God, because a culture's story-shape is extremely resilient.

You already know this, because you recognize the shape I've described, don't you, whether you are religious or not? The checkmark shape is the shape of almost every resonant mass-culture story of our civilization.

A century ago critic William Dean Howells reportedly quipped that "what the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Americans did not invent that story-shape, and it did not affect us first—we inherited it from Europe. But it has been infused in us more deeply than perhaps in any other culture in the world. I chalk that up to the peerless influence that biblical Christianity has had in shaping the culture of this nation from its settlement and perhaps also that our birth narrative—the Revolution—can be told according to the checkmark shape fairly comfortably (and has been countless times).

Yet there has often been—especially over the last century—great dissatisfaction with the checkmark shape among the intelligentsia, and they have offered various substitutes for it. Sometimes Progress—a half-checkmark, redemption without a fall—has held the most appeal. Other times it's been a return to the circle or the semicircle. Still others have proposed a discordant starburst or tangle of conflicting lines going in multiple directions at once, or perhaps most radically a flat line with no shape at all.

In any case, to the literati the checkmark shape automatically smells of sentimentality (which I happen to think misunderstands what sentimentality is). If you want to be taken seriously, you had better not tell a story with that shape.

A case in point is Dara Horn's scintillating novel, A Guide for the Perplexed. Horn ingeniously retells the biblical story of Joseph, setting it in modern times. She also masterfully weaves into the backstory an episode from the life of eleventh-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and the nineteenth-century recovery of a vast trove of ancient and medieval Jewish documents called the Cairo Geniza.

Horn's tale brilliantly combines pulse-pounding suspense, grippingly rich characters, philosophical depth, and delicious historical detail. It also completely screws up the Joseph story in the last few pages.

First, the ending is not higher than the beginning, in my opinion—the would-be checkmark resembles a "V." But that is forgivable.

What is not forgivable is that on the very last page of the book Horn indicates that the trials of her "Joseph" and "Judah" figures are about to be recapitulated in "Joseph's" two children. The story is not over; peace has not been made; the next generation is destined to repeat the previous generation's sins.

Horn replaced the checkmark of the Joseph story with a circle. In the end, hers is a thoroughly un-Jewish—or at least unbiblical—telling of a biblical story despite all else that it has going for it. But it makes her work eligible to be regarded as Serious Fiction in our culture.

If the Devil could get his way, every checkmark-shaped story would be banished from our culture, because every time we hear and enjoy a checkmark-shaped story, it trains us to find the Christian gospel credible.

Once again, the Holy Spirit is plenty powerful enough to convince people of the gospel whatever their culture's predominant story-shape is. He did it in the first few centuries of this era, and he's doing it around the world right now. Yet I still believe that wherever the checkmark shape is reflected, no matter the substance of the story, there is a deep witness to and preparation for the gospel of the cross and the kingdom. It subtly disposes people to believe.

For this reason, any artfully-told checkmark-shaped story in a book, graphic novel, film, or video game is worthy of appreciation, whatever the content. We need more of that shape, now more than ever.

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