Recently, while we were on a Zoom call, one of my colleagues saw the bookcase behind me and assumed I was still in my office. I wasn’t; I was attending the meeting from my study at home. When I told her this, she seemed to be struck by the fact that someone could have so many books in his office, and still have so many at home. “You’re such a scholar!” she said, smiling.
“Not really,” I replied, after a moment’s thought. “I think a better term would be ‘book-addict.'”
It’s true. I love books. And even though I now own hundreds of e-books and audiobooks as well, they can’t quite replace what to me are the “real thing.” I still enjoy the feel of holding a book in your hand, of interacting with the author by underlining sentences and writing in the margins (yes, I know, some of you are horrified by the thought of defacing a book that way…).
More fundamentally: I love a good story. Most of the audiobooks I listen to are memoirs, typically of people struggling with trauma or health issues. And even when I’m reading or listening to books to learn about the research on a particular subject, the books I enjoy the most are by science writers who know how to weave interesting information into a compelling narrative form: the story of a quest for knowledge and the discoveries made along the way.
Stories come to us in a variety of ways: in print, on screens, and even through conversation. They tell of protagonists dealing with challenges and pursuing goals. And we like happy endings best. We want the estranged lovers to find each other again. We want Frodo and Sam to reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring. We want the Avengers to defeat Thanos and restore the universe. We want Luke to learn the ways of the Force and thwart the Empire.
And although we may be entertained by fast-paced stories that hurtle from crisis to crisis, the best and most enduring ones are populated by relatable characters instead of one-dimensional “good guys” and “bad guys.” The more we can identify with the heroes and heroines, the more we can imagine ourselves in their place, and the more we draw hope from their courage and triumphs.
Often, when we speak of a child’s “imagination,” we mean living in a world of fiction and fantasy instead of facts and reality. When we chide them for “telling stories,” we mean that they’re making stuff up and possibly telling lies. But that way of speaking demeans the role of imagination and story in everyday life. Indeed, it ignores the way adults inhabit their own imagined stories all the time.
Think, for example, about two people having an argument. Later, each might be able to recount the same sequence of events, even the same words. But when they tell the story of that argument to someone else, they will each typically do so in a way that makes them the hero of the tale: I’m right, she’s wrong. See what I have to put up with? The same event is narrated from opposing perspectives, and each way of telling the story makes perfect (and obvious!) sense to the one telling it.
If we’re going to break impasses like this, we need to take a deep breath and adopt a stance of what I call narrative humility. We need to recognize our predilection for making ourselves the center of the story. We need to temporarily step out of the hero’s role. We need to recognize that the other person’s story makes as much sense to them as ours does to us. And with humility and compassion, we lean into curiosity, trying to identify with them and understand how the world looks from inside their story.
When we do this, our imaginations expand. And hopefully, so does our empathy.
Living inside God’s story takes narrative humility. When we read the Bible, we find not only historical narratives, but commandments and prophecy, poetry and song, wisdom and moral instruction. The whole, however, can be thought of as an ongoing story that stretches from Genesis to Revelation, from the dawn of creation to the final consummation of God’s work of restoring that creation to all that it was meant to be.
God is the main character of that story — for now, let us call in the Story, with a capital S — the one who confronts human sin and the resulting scourge of brokenness and death. The happy ending is in God’s hands. We, as God’s people, and solely by God’s grace, each have a part to play — but we must always be careful of the temptation to lose sight of the Story as we struggle through the challenges of our smaller, personal stories.
This, I think, is how we might understand what the apostle Paul is attempting to do in Philippians 2. The immediate issues in the church have to do with external pressure and internal strife. One can easily imagine believers at odds with each other, each needing to be the hero of their own story, each believing they’re in the right and refusing to back down, telling their tales to others and threatening the unity of the church.
As we’ve seen in recent posts, Paul echoes the language and stories of the Old Testament to relocate their imaginations into the larger Story of God’s relationship to his people. God’s people have always been by turns obedient or disobedient, but the Story ends with the righteous shining like stars. That’s the glorious ending toward which we should strive, however we might want our smaller stories to turn out today, tomorrow, or anytime up to the day we die, whatever other goals and purposes we think we need to achieve.
And what does it take to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, to “work out” our salvation, to strive toward the day in which we might finally shine like stars? Humility. Paul tells the Story of a humble God who serves. Imagining our way into that Story, our own stories are put in perspective.
God’s Story embraces our stories. And if God is the hero, we don’t have to be. We are freed from the need to win each skirmish if we know that in the end the battle belongs to God. We are freed, in other words, to be humble as God is humble.