Jan 15

The Stories We Live In – Part One

Article by Gareth Clegg

Humans long for meaning. In order to make sense of the world and of ourselves—to necessarily function—we perceive our reality as a system of meaning. We apply a framework helps us understand who we are, where we are, where we are going, what’s wrong, and how to fix it. It’s a framework that is, when described, a narrative. A story. In fact, as Christians we may say that we perceive it this way because it really is this way. From Creation to Consummation the world is a storied reality full of meaning. And so we long for meaning because there really is meaning. As a consequence, that we perceive the world in the form of a story is natural to us.

We must be careful then to grasp at the correct story. The story we choose to inhabit is important. It is profound because it affects how we conceive of ourselves and how we interact with the world we live in. And if we are to love God with all our minds, one of the first duties of a Christian is to be attentive and aware of the cultural stories around us. Stories that carry dangerous half-truths or falsehoods destructive to human flourishing.

Stories From Underground

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was particularly conscious to the dangers of an unthinking participation in half-true cultural stories. In his novella Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky speaks through the confessions of an “underground man,” a character who is keenly attentive to one pervasive story in the nineteenth century—that of material naturalism (or scientism). His dissent to this scientific acceptance of life means he is metaphorically living underground, under the floorboards; that is, contrary to the general trend of the rest of society.

The underground man is rebellious. He is decidedly disobedient in that he will not follow the narrative being propagated in his society. Alone in his judgements, the imaginary audience of his monologue are hostile towards his ideas, “the result of heightened consciousness” being that he was “an unwilling scoundrel,” to his peers.i The contempt he experiences has made him spiteful and full of resentment, from which he finds no relief. He discovers consolation neither in the story of scientific rationalism nor in the rejection of it. It’s a bleak picture when not complemented with a grander vision (we will return to his lack of satisfaction and morality in the last article in this series).

His despondency is difficult to read. And yet, that he is willing to think—to critique the world around him—is a first step in more fully realising the truth of the Christian story. He yearns for something fuller. Something more complete that the story his society plays out. And as he becomes more aware of himself and of his world, his reflections lead him to admit that “even though [the] mind works, yet [the] heart is darkened by depravity, and without a pure heart there cannot be full genuine consciousness.”ii Flourishing of the mind—genuine consciousness—begins in addressing the corruption of the heart. What the underground man touches on is the reality that for life to have its full meaning and purpose, including the life of the mind, the story we inhabit must speak to the heart of wickedness in every human. To love the Lord with all of the mind, sin must first be forgiven.

The underground man’s evaluation shows us that we should not unthinkingly participate in the cultural stories of our age. But he also makes clear the need for a better story. Herein lies an opportunity to take his cue to do the same: analyse our world, and live out a more excellent story.

In this small series, through the observations of the underground man, we will consider two of the foremost competing stories of our time—Modernity and Postmodernity. Then, in the concluding article, thoughtfully equipped with a longing for something greater, we will turn to the Christian vision of a storied reality full of beauty, truth, and meaning.

It is my hope that in doing so we will see not only the failure of every other competing story to direct humanity towards flourishing life, but that already we have the best story there is. A really real story wherein the God of the universe determines to presence himself with his people, and to compel them towards the most glorious, superior and mighty cause: life in Jesus Christ.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church. 


i Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 7.
ii Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 43.