We Are “Storied” Creatures

In Part I of The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright offers a great synopsis of his view of Scripture — especially the Jewish scriptures. To do this, he makes the argument, first, that humans are creatures that cannot help but see the world and our lives through story. Knowledge and worldviews, which we often see as the driving, fundamental forces of why we act the way we do, are consequences of the stories that we tell and hear:

Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative… Stories are a basic constituent or human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview.

NTPG, 38

Human beings are the kinds of creatures that tell stories. Further, it is story that helps us to make sense of the world. This may run contrary to how we normally see things. We moderns like to think that the world is inherently material in nature, and we can understand the world primarily through a scientific lens. No “ultimate” story necessary, because the universe is fundamentally meaningless. The way to truly understand the world is through understanding how things really are, on a material level. Moderns like to think we can come to some basic beliefs about how the world works through rigorous empiricism and rationalism.

This ignores a fundamental fact of human existence, however, which is that how we see the world is inherently encoded in story (along with practice, symbols, and basic questions about what it means to be human). Beliefs do not come before our stories, but after them.

Worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews. The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formed beliefs, including theological beliefs.

ibid.

Explicit beliefs come after our pre-rational worldview and that worldview is encoded in stories we tell, the practices we engage in, and the symbols we use to remind ourselves of how we see the world. This means that the stories we tell — from the grand one about where humans come from to the novels we read to the movies and shows we watch — are all continually forming us in particular ways. Ways that are “pre-critical” (i.e., that are shaping us often before we get a chance to see how they’re shaping us).

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