Went to a debate last week at Manchester University. Martin Amis was in the chair. Also taking part were John Gray and Adam Phillips. Deep stuff.
John Gray was mourning the passing of reading books. He quoted research which suggests that the very act of reading alters the brain, presumably in a good way. It seems that digital technology is likely to lead to other, less welcome, cerebral developments. The feeling was that we are in danger of losing a great literary tradition upon which our whole civilization had been securely founded.
It occurred to me though that literacy has itself only lately been added to our cultural landscape and has until recently been the preserve of a privileged few. Oral tradition and the art of story-telling have been more formative of our enlightenment.
Andrew Spurr reminds us of the need to offer counter-stories to the Playstation generation.
There is an old saying that God invented humanity because God loves stories. In the tradition of the Hebrew people, there was a prohibition against rendering their God in the plastic arts and so they went to town on narrative and thoroughly delighted in it. The Hebrew sacred texts are story and counter-story describing worlds and the God who is active in those worlds. If you are familiar with the world painted by the Deuteronomist, that you get what you deserve, and God rewards the righteous, then the Book of Job comes alive as a counter-story, protesting that ill-fortune falls on the righteous too, and the reasons are hidden in the depths of God.
The Christmas stories are counter-stories. They are stories which are holding out for a God and a world which will work differently to the one in which the storytellers live. Matthew uses the Moses story, and Luke the call of Samuel, to tell their listeners that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth. We know that the Christmas stories are counter-stories because they use words for Jesus of Nazareth which the early audience will have associated with Augustus Caesar. Caesar was Son of God, Prince of Peace, and our Christmas birth story writers are say that Jesus is these things, in other words, Jesus is, Caesar is not. Caesar’s Roman Peace is fine if you are Roman, and so long as Caesar has the biggest army. The peace of Jesus of Nazareth is about seeking out those who do not benefit from Roman peace, and including them at life’s table. Our Christmas stories are asking us whether our God is more likely to be found in a Roman palace, or a cow’s feeding trough.
All of this is commonplace for first year students in Biblical studies, I’m saying nothing new. But over the last several years my worry has been that we have lost our grip on the power of story. When you clear our public spaces of religious stories (particularly those pressed into
the service of worldly interest) you are not left with a pristine post-Enlightenment space. The power of stories is that they are ways of inviting us to consider who we might be, they invite us to make lives in the worlds they describe, and they invite our loyalty and our resources. This is too much power to be left unfulfilled.
Into this space come the storytellers we know, news organisations, spin doctors and advertisements, each seeking to frame the world and our place in it. With the technological gap between generations, the worry is that our children are being formed by stories told by Nintendo, Sony and the like. After school our children step into virtual worlds which are laid out before them. They can progress through these worlds with the purchase of each upgrade, and they are being encouraged to acquire skills which will help them be promoted through the moral universes the games companies have described.
All of this goes by stealth because this happens unsupervised. Work-weary parents may even be grateful for the diversion. Narratives are being quietly assimilated, and these are shared in the schoolyard, and young friends measure each other by their skill and knowledge in worlds barely guessed at by those who have the care of developing the next generation.
We need to dispense with the tinsel-and-teatowel Christmas and recover its visceral power in the world where the story was first told, a world which was about brute force and malnutrition. We need to rediscover the power of telling stories of a God which runs counter to the prevailing
values of the day.
If we can recover Christmas as a counter-story in its own day under Rome, we might want to start telling new counter-stories about the God we believe in, in our own day, to the Playstation generation.