In Nashville they’ve built a giant replica of the Parthenon, the temple in Greece that was built for Athena. I don’t know why they built a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. I suppose there is a placard that explains it but I don’t like to get that close. It sits in a field just off downtown, just off the country-music recording studios and boot stores, and when I’m driving through town I swear I hear Carmina Burana bellowing from the building’s ribs. At night they light the thing so it makes long black shadows on the lawn and when you look at it, driving by as fast as you can, you can sense a monster slipping its fingers round one of the 46 pillars. I like to think people in Nashville meet on the lawn before the Parthenon once a year to sacrifice a virgin. They don’t kill her, really, but they give her a record contract so she basically becomes a sappy cocaine addict. In exchange the gods feed their industry for another year. I shouldn’t say things like this about the people in Nashville because it probably isn’t true. But that is something I think about when I see the Parthenon.
I took a humanities course several years ago and we studied the Greeks. Before that course I think I assumed monuments like the Parthenon were only built to increase tourism. I guess it never occurred to me that entire cultures could believe so strongly in these stories they would enslave their people to construct monuments to characters we would now only relegate to comic books.
The best definition for story I’ve ever heard is that it is a sense-making device, that is, it explains what the motivations and reasons for all human elements actually are. If the stories we tell and believe are not true, then, it is as though we are navigating a landscape with a map in which things are falsely labeled. We are looking for a lake where there is no lake, and a road where there is no road.
Last year some friends and I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru. The trail starts along the Vilcanota river in the Sacred Valley near Cusco and climbs over steep terraces in the Andes for twenty-six miles before ending at the lost city of Machu Piccu. At times the trail pitches itself so steep against the mountains you feel you are climbing a ladder through clouds to meet with the gods. This is what the Inca believed, when they traveled to Maccu Pichu, that they were going to meet with gods. The trees dangling like flags off the cliffs and the mist that seemed to come out of the mountains would make the myths easy to propagate. And as I hiked, the romanticism of the gods seeped through the crags of the trail itself, and I could feel with each footfall the light stepping of thousands who had made the trip before me, so many carrying offerings on their backs and a hope that whatever gift they were bringing to whatever god might finally put a rest in their souls, a feeling of absolution.
This is why we make offerings to gods, I think. We hope for absolution. We hope for a climax in a story we don’t necessarily understand. For the Inca, the story was that the sun was born out of Lake Tittichacha and came on them like an eye every morning to monitor their actions, rewarding or punishing them through the management of weather. Their rulers defined good and bad behavior and so were able to make slaves of a third of their people.
On the fourth day of our hike in Peru, only a mile from the city gates of Maccu Pichu, I broke from the group and wandered through the mist into a small village set in a landing on the mountainside. I knew I was still a mile from the city so I was surprised when some large, carved rocks slid out of the ghosts like towers. I stepped into the alleys between ancient houses and when I did I could hear in my imagination the goats go restless up the mountainside and I saw the Incan resting on their haunches cleaning stone bowls. I rounded an alley and found myself standing before a giant stone table, an altar I realized was the place the Incan made their human sacrifices. There was a gulley carved into the altar that would allow blood to spill off the table through a single crag. These were things that happened, I thought to myself, standing before the altar. This is where the blood dripped down into the grass, I thought, looking closely at the crag, wanting to see a stain.
Whoever controls the stories controls the people, is something I believe. If you tell a group of primitives the sun was born out of Lake Titicaca and will only yield crops if they give it blood, then people will give the sun their blood. And if an emperor says the sun wants a third of the people to become slaves, the people will enslave their own. That’s how Macchu Piccu was built, it turns out. And the same is true about the pyramids in Egypt and a thousand other monuments to myth that were built before and since.
But this isn’t a rant against government manipulation. It’s just a reminder that we have to believe true stories or our lives will be a mess.
I had a long conversation with a distinguished scholar last month whose lifelong expertise is story structure. He is not a Christian. And as we talked, he said something that fascinated me. He said this:
“I understand you Christians. I understand the essence of your message. It’s this: If you are not a good person, you are going to burn in hell for all eternity.”
As I said, this man was a distinguished scholar and so it surprised me when he made this statement from a position of absolute knowing. There was no doubt in his voice. He wasn’t asking me to confirm. He knew. But he was absolutely wrong. That isn’t the essence of the Christian story, and anybody who believes so is a heretic.
Our story, and by our story I don’t mean the Christian story, I mean humanity’s story, is this:
The Trinity existed forever in a completely loving community. They were and are other focussed, without what we think of as ego (though I believe they have something like ego, we would not recognize it in comparison to our own) and they created an existence, including you and I, to enjoy their company. That is the most loving thing a perfectly loving being could do. But love cannot be controlling, it has to set it’s muse free, so they gave humanity an option out. And humanity took it, thus, by necessity, there was a separation between pure good and anything other than pure good. So now, we who have been designed to be complete in God, seek affirmation and validation from each other as though our lives depend on it. But it doesn’t work. Nobody has agency but God. So God sends his son to earth and his son essentially says this:
“You guys have all walked away from God. He can’t have anything to do with you, because he is purely good. But look, I haven’t walked away from him, so if you marry me, and we become one, you’ll be reunited with the Trinity. He’ll look at you and see me. We’ll do this at a wedding in heaven. Until the wedding, though, just have faith. It’s as though it’s already done. But it’s going to kind of suck until then.”
So that’s where we are in our story. We are waiting for the wedding, and until then, we have hope, and we have an explanation for our hope.
I‘m a christian, in part, because I was raised to be a Christian. But sometime after high-school, I walked away. I thought the whole thing was silly. But while my head walked away, my greater sentiments stayed. I couldn’t leave it completely. As I’ve grown older, the story has made more and more sense. So much of the richness of Christian theology has been reduced to silliness, but the story, the story makes so much sense.
It’s a crime that Christian Theology is now understood as a list of principles rather than the elements of a story. After all, in Scripture, the theology is presented in an epic narrative. A story is essentially this: A Character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. So here is Christian theology in story structure, which is the way it is presented in scripture, and the only way it makes sense:
1. A Character: God
2. That wants something: To be reunited with the world, for their sake.
3. And overcomes Conflict: Sends his son to invite people (not force them) into a relationship through which mankind can be reunited with God.
4. To get it: And this will happen at a wedding in heaven.
But that is God’s story. Here is ours:
1. A Character: You
2. That Wants something: Was designed to be in relationship with God, who has agency. Was designed to be affirmed and validated, less you feel like you are going to die.
3. And Overcomes Conflict: Trusts Jesus, and walks in faith that someday he is going to reunite us with God. And rests in patience that his promises are true, and someday the validation and affirmation we are designed to receive will be received.
4. To get it: This hasn’t happened yet, but it will in heaven. And until then we are able to account for the hope that rests within us.
Now, let me explain the modern, false gospel that you hear every sunday in church:
1. A Character: You.
2. That wants something: To be fulfilled.
3. And overcomes conflict: Jesus came to fulfill you, either to make you happy, or to provide the things that will make you happy on earth. But you have to be good, you can’t sin. You have to get up and have your quiet time so you can be the person God designed you to be.
4. To get it: You should be happy, and if you’re not happy, you aren’t doing religion right, or you aren’t a good enough person.
I see this latter story, this latter false gospel, as being as deadly as anything the Inca’s dreamed up. It’s pure crap. And if that’s the story you believe, you might as well be a slave.
One of the reasons so many people walk away from Christianity is because people intuit that our story doesn’t make sense. And they intuit this because, well, it doesn’t. And it isn’t beautiful or meaningful, at least not that false story that passes today as the gospel of Jesus.
Our artists walk away and make secular music and write secular books because they want to say something beautiful and meaningful and so have to walk away from the self-help gospel they grew up hearing about in church.
When we start believing the true story, we will start telling it, and when we start telling it, we’ll help make sense of the world. Story is a sense-making device. And the gospel of Jesus makes sense.
You can learn more about the personal implications of story in my new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Pre-order it here.
Post Script: One of the problems with a blog entry like this is that there is less said than needs to be said. I trust you will take up the conversation with your pastor. Is there an antagonist? Yes. Can we learn to be content, and even have joy? Of course. We can dissect what “isn’t” here all day. Honestly, I rarely write about theological issues because if I do I find myself in a room with white, twenty-something males whose parents are paying for their education and, like me when I was their age, think they know everything, think only in black and white, and defend their ideas as mingled with their identities. It kills the soul.