IN his essay, “How the West Lost Its Story,” theologian Robert W. Jenson argues that we postmoderns no longer inhabit what he calls a “narratable world.” The heart of Western civilization, he notes, has been the biblical story, which posited a coherent, dramatic narrative—a world that had a beginning, middle, and at least a vision of an end. (The novelist Walker Percy used to say that the story he believed in could be put in four words: “God Jews Jesus Church.”)
Jenson goes on to say that modernity, which replaced the biblical narrative with reason, tried to cling to the idea of a world that could be understood as a story. But without belief in a divine storyteller, Jenson says, the modernist project was doomed to fail. Which is why, he concludes, the postmodern world has no story. He cites Surrealism and the theater of the absurd as the first waves of postmodern art: arrangements of objects that don’t have a proper relationship to one another, sequences of words and events with “no turning points or denouement.”
Like all strong theories, Jenson’s argument sheds a great deal of light on a vast historical canvas. As an overview of Western history, there’s much to commend in it. But big theories have a way of riding roughshod over pesky little facts. For example, while one might grant Jenson that Surrealism and absurdist theater reflect a world whose intelligibility is in question, it is possible to uncover buried narratives in the paintings of René Magritte and the plays of Samuel Beckett (the two artists he cites as representative postmodernists). But beyond debating Jenson’s interpretation of modern artists and their styles, there is another pesky reality, which is that stories with beginnings, middles, and ends continue to be told (though not always in that order). As a culture we may lack a shared, unifying story, but I happen to believe that the old, old story has not gone away.
What interests me are the ways in which the biblical story continue to be told, even in the strangest of guises. For the biblical story bears a remarkable resemblance to the Tar Baby that Brer Fox sets out in the road for Brer Rabbit to encounter. The story can be punched, shattered, inverted, buried, and even trivialized, but like ol’ Tar Baby it tends to stick to those who touch it, and never more fiercely than to those who seek to overcome it.
When James Joyce attempts, in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to put forward the artist as the high priest of a secular age, the writing depends on our making an analogy with the biblical understanding of priesthood; there is no way that one can take the Jesuit education out of Joyce without making nonsense of his vision. A host of modern religious writers have deliberately buried and defamiliarized the ancient story in order to enable readers to discover it anew. When T.S. Eliot writes a poem entitled “Journey of the Magi,” he never mentions the name of Jesus or show us a Nativity scene; rather, the magi’s monologue depicts only inward, psychic experiences. Beckett may present us with a world bereft of divine presence, but try comprehending Godot without God.
Popular culture offers examples galore of biblical transmutations. At a recent conference I attended, the cultural historian John T. Fisher spoke of pop culture as the locus where we might spot the “fugitive energies” of the gospel. Among his examples were Andy Warhol’s celebrity silk screens, works that are widely derided but which no less a critic than Richard Rodriguez admires as a vestige of Warhol’s childhood Catholicism. Warhol, Rodriguez writes, had an incarnational perspective: “everything in the world redeemed. ‘Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,’ Andy Warhol famously said. Most people only hear the tail end of his dictum, the ‘15 minutes,’ but Andy Warhol said, ‘Everyone will be famous.’” Fisher also singled out the films of Kevin Smith, including Clerks. According to Fisher: “Smith wants us to see how much Catholic energy has been invested in the materials of everyday life and how futile it is to seek the boundaries of the sacred and the profane. The clerks (clerics) at the Quick Stop engage in some of the most fervent verbal disputation this side of neo-scholasticism, as distinctions between nature and grace are rerouted into a virtuoso debate over the respective merits of The Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.”
There is much to bemoan about the state of our culture, and in a different mood I can rail against the dethronement of the biblical story and the fragmented world we inhabit. But isn’t our consolation that we must be on the lookout for the way the fugitive energies inherent in the “God Jews Jesus Church” story have spread out, like seeds in the wind, to inhabit countless stories and to surprise and bless us from a host of unlikely destinations?
In Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, The Crossing, an old storyteller tries to explain his task to a young man:
The task of the narrator is not an easy one, he said. He appears to be required to chose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one. Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener’s claim—perhaps spoken, perhaps not—that he has heard the tale before. He sets forth the categories into which the listener will wish to fit the narrative as he hears it. But he understands that the narrative is itself in fact no category but is rather the category of all categories for there is nothing which falls outside its purview. All is telling.
There is but one story to tell. It is a story ever ancient, ever new—a story that takes an infinite number of forms. It cannot be contained, but leaps from the sacred to the profane and back again. It is told and retold, becoming tragedy, comedy, fairy tale, farce. It’s our Tar Baby.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.