We are captured by great stories. They are aesthetic in the sense that they call us into participation with the storyline, the characters, the plot, and the ultimate resolution and beauty of the tale. Stories are art!
Leo Tolstoy’s words come to mind in helping us think through the impact of story: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”1 What Tolstoy observes here is that stories and dramatic presentation are birthed in the womb of real life. They are grown in the soil of real emotions, experiences, and expressions. There is uniformity in all stories that resonate with the duplicity of the spectators who view them. As Francis Hutcheson, in the eighteenth century, asserted, “Uniformity in variety always makes an object beautiful.” Common stories presented before a diverse audience somehow bring clusters of strangers together as the common denominator of beauty exists and dwells between them.
Stories tap into something that is truly real. They highlight real hope and tragedy—real quest and odyssey. Life itself is a story. Every message bombarding us in culture collects us up into the story that it tells. Tragically, as Michael Budde points out, the Church, even to most Christians, of course, does not carry stories, symbols, songs, and exemplars to people anymore. Most of the stories come from the so-called global culture industries.2 These cultural industries tap the same roots that fantastic dramas do. They reach to capture our imaginations with what James K.A. Smith calls the “notion of the ‘good life.’”3 Consequently, then, “signing up for Twitter or Facebook is not a neutral decision to simply employ a ‘medium’: it is to insert oneself in an environment of practice that inculcates in us certain habits that then shape our orientation to the world—indeed, they make our worlds.”4
James K.A. Smith says that what is at stake in this by-play of story-forming liturgy is the life of our imaginations.5 We become actors in the stories that have captured us. Our entire realm of experience is “one vast poetic sphere that includes metaphorical utterance and narrative discourse.”6 These life discourses become like liturgies, patterns, shaping mechanisms, and forming influences to us. We begin to live in the stories that capture us.
What the Bible suggests in this dialogue is the idea that YHWH has formed a better story and a better poem for explaining life and the truest reality. Replete with images, scenery, imagery, and imagination, the Bible captures our dreams and thus aims to “re-story” our lives. God’s words become like the poem of our soul, shaping our worldview with metaphors and aesthetics in order to help us taste and acquire the truest fare. As John Keats says in Ode to a Nightingale, “poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”7 In God’s poetic story is housed the mystery of Christ’s church and God’s kingdom, the mystery of faith—the mystygogia— and it is to make our worlds.
James K.A. Smith concludes our discussion here with a call to action. If indeed stories are aesthetically pleasing, and the stories of our lives are habitually formed by what we choose to artistically feast our eyes and ears upon—as well as become forming to our character and creativity—then we must, being convinced of the importance of practice within the stories that we choose for ‘automating’ behavior, choose to submit to different rhythms and habit-forming routines in order to re-habituate our wants and desires to a different goal: telos.8
1 Tolstoy, L. 1960, What is Art? (Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis).]\
2 Michael L. Budde, “Collecting Prain: Global Culture Industries,” in Hauerwas and Wells, Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 124.
3 James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).
4 Ibid, 144
5 Ibid, 162
6 Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1 trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
7 John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” st. 3, in Essential Keats, ed., Philip Levine (New York: Ecco, 1987), 101-2.
8 Smith, 186