A Sense Of Story

In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.

The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801

Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.

Gods of Olympus, 1534-35 Giulion Romano
Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano

I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.

Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens

We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.

14 thoughts on “A Sense Of Story”

  1. You’re preaching to the choir here: I finish about 120 books a year, including Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as Walker Percy, Kurt Vonnegut, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other people meditate or go fishing or binge-watch TV shows on Netflix; I read. J.

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      1. I loved the college experience of taking four classes at a time, reading books for each class, and seeing how they supported each other or even debated one another. Ever since I finished my formal education in the classroom, I’ve continued to educate myself by reading a variety of books, including some that I knew in advance I would strongly oppose. I was shocked at a college reunion by classmates who boasted that they had not read a book since graduation. I cannot imagine a life lived that way. J.

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  2. Rob this is a good post and describes a lot of my own view; Chesterton’s Everlasting Man was the first work of his I read and I thought it was quite insightful. I think your observation of our society’s fascination with entertainment and epic stories is on to something…

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  3. As our children were growing up we would often have quiet time progressing up the growth ladder from ages 2, 11 months and a new born. Yes chaos could prevail as the years were added. Quiet time would be going to your individual room and pulling out and reading a book. They are all avid readers today. Our 4 CT grandchildren 14-22 years of age are no different. On our northern visits they would be read to by herself and eye, giving mom and dad a little their time. I found myself doing the same thing with the greats in OK over this past Thanksgiving. Now here you are educating us on mythology, a tenth grade class I wish I had listened in more attentively, sports, the opposite sex and work just seemed to get in the way. They were my rebellious years that I could write a book about. You allow me to reflect on the past and I thank you for that as I approach the 3/4 century mark.

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