A couple years ago my wife and I sat through a disastrous meeting with leaders at our church. I can’t tell you how badly it went; I’ll only say that we both knew that it was quite abruptly and unexpectedly time to leave that church. We prayed with them and left as graciously as I could.
Getting in the car, I said to my wife, “You know, there’s really nothing very new in this. It’s just another episode in a story that’s been going on for centuries. The Church somehow keeps surviving its mistakes, and God’s word keeps advancing. Let’s go out somewhere and get lunch.”
Today I wonder about coronavirus, which certainly feels like a new story being told in our day. Here in Ohio all the restaurants are closed, their sudden dark emptiness symbolizing the fear and isolation we’re all experiencing. Social distancing means loneliness, and that’s the best of it, in this drastically different world we’ve been thrown into so abruptly. Who even imagined it could be like this?
Then I remember: This is hardly the first time plague has swept the planet. One-quarter of the planet’s population caught the Spanish flu just 100 years ago, and one in every 15 to 100 persons died of it. Other historical contagions have been worse yet. This story’s been told before.
Is There Anything Good About This Story?
Maybe it seems different this time: Science is so much more advanced, and we all know so much more day by day through our crazy-fast news cycle. Still, this virus really ought to remind us of our continuity with our past. The differences are what they are, but we’re just as suddenly subject to the fear of contagion and death. And while statistics are what they are, no person is a statistic, and everyone in every pandemic has lived through it one individual at a time, one life at a time, one story at a time.
It raises the question, is there any possibility that the COVID 19 story is a good story? I think of how much there is that’s wrong with it: opportunities lost, jobs lost, lives lost. Then I remember that every good story has losses, or at least some kind of struggle to overcome. Without it there’s nothing interesting to tell. (I could do with a less interesting story than coronavirus.)
What Makes a Story Good?
But there are good stories and there are good stories, and our question isn’t about whether our individual stories are good in the sense of being well crafted, with all the right drama. We want to know whether our stories mean something good.
We have an idea what that involves, I think. Meaningfully good stories are stories in which characters grow through their struggles. They land in a place of rightness, of justice, and with a sense that the outcome fits what led to it.
Is our story like that? It seems to me that must depend on what kind of grand Story our own stories are a part of.
What Kind of Grand Story Do We Live In?
I pity the atheists and secularists, for whom there really is no grand Story. Every individual’s tale is like a book with the last fifty pages ripped out, so that it ends with neither meaning, nor explanation, nor any point at all.
I pity followers of some religions, who believe the story gets repeated time after time after time, virtually without end, and the grand Story ends eons from now with all of us being absorbed into the impersonal All.
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Both of these grand Stories land every person lands in ultimately in the same place, regardless of his character or choices. Therefore neither one can offer the right, just, and fitting end that a meaningfully good story needs. Which means no individual’s story can be a good one by either of these perspectives; not in any circumstance, but least of all in a time of pandemic. Each person’s story must be dreary in every possible sense, but especially in its utter and final meaninglessness.
The Grand Story Told by the Greatest Storyteller
There’s another grand Story on offer, though, fashioned by a good and great Storyteller who truly leads his characters to grow, and who creates fitting, meaningful outcomes for each person in accord with truth and justice. This Storyteller knows (as all the world’s best story crafters have also known, for they have only been echoing Him in it) that what counts isn’t the magnitude of the drama but the growth of the characters.
This Storyteller, the God of Christianity, has even done what the world’s best could never do: He has stepped right into His own story. He came not as some intrusive deus ex machina, — there was no machine — but as an integral part of the story He’d been telling from the beginning. He suffered as only He could suffer, to rescue us as only He could rescue us — if we’ll accept His rescue, that is — from the dire outcomes that would otherwise be fitting for us all.
The Story Is True!
This is a meaningfully good Story. It’s the only kind of Story that could make sense of our own stories in any day, but especially in times of pandemic. Thankfully it’s a true story. Ultimately it’s the only true one. Its goodness and fittingness are reasons (there are many) we can know it to be true.
It surprises me, honestly, that there are some who don’t want it to be true. Especially in times of pandemic. Especially when it’s our own stories that are in question. Why choose what’s meaningless over what gives meaning even to the darkest of times? Their outcome is not destined to be what they wanted it to be; but it will still be fitting.
Coronavirus is unfamiliar. It’s frightening. On a longer view, though, there’s really nothing very new in it; it’s another episode in a story that’s been going on for centuries. The Church somehow keeps surviving its challenges, and God’s word keeps advancing. Let’s go get lunch.
Maybe not at a restaurant this time, that’s all. Not today; not anywhere in Ohio, anyway.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.