Truth, Story and the Mystery Box

There’s a cool club of Internet kids defined by the TED Talk, amazing live presentations given to groups of heavyweight thinkers from education and industry. Each of the wide-ranging scope of presentations brings something unique and captivating. If you’ve viewed one, and talk to someone else who has, you feel like you’re in an in-crowd.

One of my favorites is a talk delivered by JJ Abrams, the storyteller behind Lost and Super 8. His talk employs a core metaphor of a mystery box. He describes how the mystery box is the central dilemma of any good story. It creates intrigue. It compels the storyreceiver to want to know more. It is unknown. In film, this unknown is called the MacGuffin. It drives the plot, like The Maltese Falcon or Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Maybe the ultimate mystery box is the one sought after by Indiana Jones.

The Rubble of Knowledge

The mystery isn’t confusion, though, or a lack of communication. The mystery element doesn’t hinder the story but in fact brings clarity to the story and drives it forward. The storyreceiver knows what is going on, or at least enough of what is going on to become hooked by the intrigue. As Abrams says in the talk, “Mystery is more important than knowledge.” The story’s core mystery offers the joy, not in knowing, but in searching. It is what makes us buy the book, listen to the speech, and watch the show.

Of course, the power of the mystery box is a central tenet of science. Scientists pursue truth, not for the knowledge itself, but for the discovery. A good scientist is compelled to solve the mystery. Once discovered, the subject ceases to retain its intrigue. In this way, modernist claims that science has replaced the religious function of faith has validity. Modern Christians study faith like scientists. We search biblical texts. We learn principles and apologetics. We discuss theology.

At one time, though, primarily in ancient storytelling and manuscript cultures, story was the basis for faith.

Christians nod their heads at this statement and move on. We all know the Bible is mostly narrative, yet in our enlightenment view we don’t understand that we relate to the Bible not as narrative, but as proposition. This creates a very different faith experience from our premodern sisters and brothers. For a Jesus follower of oral and a manuscript culture, the basis for faith was life in the story of following Christ. The stories of the forefathers, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were the means by which faith was formed and lived. The goal was not the satisfaction of mystery through knowledge, but joy in the middle of the plot of life.

Print culture has changed the function of biblical story in ways that are very difficult to see. As the study of story, rather than the juxtaposition of story, became the normative expression of faith, Christians had a heyday in opening mystery box after mystery box. The parting of the Red Sea? Unlocked! The miracle at Cana? Unlocked! The last few hundred years have been a geek explosion of research about the stories of our faith. Yet the correlation of truth and knowledge has created adverse consequences.

Take for example the number 40. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, and the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness. The number 40 is a recurring biblical motif. Why is that? The study of other ancient texts besides the Bible has taught us that it’s a nice, round number which in the storytelling techniques of ancient culture meant “a long time.” Does the acknowledgement that it was a storytelling technique mean the number was false and therefore the Bible is metaphor and myth rather than truth? For some yes. For me, not at all.

The number 40 is both true and factually incomplete. There is more to 40 than our analysis. Consider the certain symmetry to a 40-year cycle in social change. Many cultural shifts can be seen through a 40-year lens. For example, economic trends rise and fall in a largely 40-year pattern, where periods of change and shifting ideology are followed by periods of stability and consolidation. The 1890s, 1930s, 1970s, and 2010s, more or less, were periods of economic instability and decline. Eventually, periods of prosperity followed, in the 1920s, 1960s, and 2000s. Perhaps the parallels are coincidental, or maybe it is because there’s a truth to the number 40 that lay under its historicity. Perhaps 40 years is significant because that is roughly the timeframe of two generations, or the time it takes for history to repeat itself with new generations of people making the same greedy mistakes as their grandfathers. Perhaps the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years because that is how long it took for two new generations to replace the hardened hearts of those who refused to listen to God’s leadership. The number 40 is truth, but it’s more than factual, and in fact a focus on its veracity obscures a deeper level of meaning.

CS Lewis recognizes the relationship of truth and story in acknowledging the parallels between the Christ story and other ancient mythologies:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 66-67.)

Truth is more than facts.

As print culture continued to supplant oral and manuscript culture, more and more mystery was sliced out of the biblical story. Eventually, the deconstruction became so intense that the story surgeons ceased to have any connection with faith at all. The study of Christianity ceased to be connected to the life of Christianity. The iconoclasts had opened every box.

Anyone who has attended seminary has experienced this shocking realization. I was flabbergasted the day I sat in a seminary classroom and found out that some people, Christians even, questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection, biblical authority, and the divinity of Jesus. The recent biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer by Eric Metaxas captures the modern scene well in its recollection of German 19th century seminaries, when form criticism was the rage and students openly mocked those who expressed belief in the biblical text. I recently taught at a conference with Leonard Sweet. At one point he joked that for some, theology wasn’t fun anymore because there were no more myths left to destroy. And yet, in the postmodern rubble of the Western tradition, truth is making a comeback in an odd place: in story.

This is not to say that there is no more place for the study and search of truth. The culture needs a clear understanding of truth, more than ever. Perhaps, though, continuing to argue for the veracity of biblical texts misses the point. We may know that Jesus physically rose from the dead but this knowledge, in a Western sense, does little for the unbeliever, and us as well. The validity of Christianity has been defined either for or against the veracity, or “inerrancy,” of biblical texts. Maybe it’s time we move the conversation away from proposition and back to story.

Perhaps, through story, we can rediscover the essential connection between a deeper truth, based in wisdom, rather than a truth based solely in knowledge. As the Apostle Paul states, knowledge puffs up. Truth rooted in the Western, analytical tradition, though containing value, has taken our culture to a puffed up place, and in the process perhaps lost something. The Eastern Christian tradition understands truth not in the filling of the mind, but in the emptying of the mind. Maybe there’s a connection to our story roots in the emptying. In story we find a truth that is much more than knowledge, or a set of facts. We find an emotional truth, a truth that resonates for the heart and soul – for the good and the beautiful. Recently a Facebook friend had a quote from U2’s Bono that said, “I often wonder if religion is the enemy of God. It’s almost like religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building.” Truth that is wisdom rather than truth that is knowledge looks different to the Jesus follower.

The Purpose of Truth

The first place to find truth is to look toward God. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” He was responding to a question about how we are to live. There’s an old line from my United Methodist heritage that says, “How then are we to live?” This is Jesus’ answer to that question. We are to seek first his kingdom and righteousness. We get that wrong when we think about righteousness as a knowledge-based truth that we acquire and then exhibit. In other words, when our focus in on right behavior – moral prescriptions such as “don’t smoke, drink, chew or go with those who do” – then our thoughts are on truth as the acquisition of right knowledge. But if we think of truth not as knowledge acquisition, but as wisdom acquisition, then we see knowledge as one part of a broader plane—and one that is not wholly in our control.

In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.” Notice the passive tense in these two options. Paul tells the church at Rome, and us, that we have two paths: we are either conformed, or we are transformed. They are not choices, because we don’t do them. They are passive tense. They are done to us. If we do nothing, we are conformed; if we elect to surrender ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed. In church, we hear we are supposed to give our heart to Jesus. But do we give our mind to Jesus as well? This is counter-intuitive to a modern, because the scientific method teaches us that we are supposed to conduct controlled, analytical studies of everything from our business plans to our choice of refrigerator to our faith development. But it is when we surrender our mind to God that we discover a wisdom that is higher than knowledge. This daily act opens us, as Paul says, to God’s will, which is the ultimate expression of truth.

Lover of story Madeline L’Engle tells of her experience in a car wreck and in the hospital afterward. In a wilderness of her life, when faith was tested, she did not find comfort in facts, but in a faith that is the part of the story that isn’t believable at all.

Virgin births? Miracles? Resurrections? Unrealistic. Childish. Or is it maybe not so much childish as child-hearted? Children are better believers than grownups, and better theologians than many academicians. One child whose sister told her there is no Santa Claus answered calmly, “That’s your problem.” [LEngle, Madeline. The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. Shaw: 1993, p. 14.]

If we can only return to the faith of a child. In spite of Jesus’ reminder, as recorded in Matthew 18:3-4, we are often unable to put down the microscope and accept that which we cannot verify. We just want the bottom line, the facts. When faith is a neat set of propositions, we can balance it on a ledger sheet and satisfy our need for order and progress. We can tie it off and go on to the next task. But when life is a mess, a knowledge-oriented faith offers little help.

I explored my search for a faith in a society that has become unmoored from the anchor of truth as knowledge in my second book, Digital Storytellers. Under the heading of Ambiguity, one of the essential DNA of the emerging digital culture, I wrote:

I operate out of a different construct that sees the role and purpose of digital media as separate from the role and purpose of information processing. The appropriation of digital media as a venue for my values does not deny these values but rather supports them, in  being true to the gospel as experienced aesthetically and true in the sense that through these media I continually search for means to express deep truths that I know but find difficult to articulate by using the limited verbiage of the written language.

A truth that moves beyond facts to wisdom engages the ambiguity of the mystery box.

Think Different

Bernd Schmitt points to the possibilities of a new kind of thinking in his advertising manifesto Experiential Marketing. Schmitt labels Think as one of five “sensory modules” for experience. Rather than a scientific, deductive analysis, however, Schmitt talks about a different type of thinking. He reminds us that image is the indigenous language of the mind, and those of the Western tradition have trained themselves to translate their images to the symbols of Roman character language. We must convert to text the symbols of our ideas.

Image-based thinking is not deductive in the same way text-based thinking is. But this doesn’t mean, as print warriors claim, that our civilization has fallen off the precipice. Rather, the rise of image enables us to think differently. It is a move from:

deduction to provocation
judgment to discovery
knowledge to surprise
evaluation to imagination
logical thinking to divergent thinking
criticism to invention
assessment to prediction

The kind of truth that emerges from this sort of thinking doesn’t contradict the truth of deductive analysis; it co-exists. Mystery and story don’t get in the way of facts; they live next to facts, sometimes sharing the same stories and sometimes independently revealing truth, each in their own way.