We tell stories. We live by them. And we’re part of one.
Human beings are story-bound. We rely on stories to give us meaning, identity, and purpose. As our lives unfold, we see ourselves as part of a narrative and expect the plot to make sense. We often assume that we are driving the action, writing the next chapter. While we do have agency, there are moments when the story gets away from us, when suddenly we’re at a loss. We do not know where things are going next.
C. S. Lewis addressed this notion, that we are story-bound. He observed that our controlling story is that things get better, for a time. Then, things fall apart. We emphasize the part where things get better, and act as though that is all there is to the story. Lewis calls this the myth of progress. This story remains with us. And Lewis names how certain overarching stories (like progress) can keep us from tending to the story of God.
No one is looking at world history without some preconception in favor of progress could find in it a steady up gradient. There is often progress within a given field over a limited period. A school of pottery or painting, a moral effort in a particular direction, a practical art like sanitation or shipbuilding, may continuously improve over a number of years. If this process could spread to all departments of life and continue indefinitely, there would be “progress” of the sort our fathers believed in. But it never seems to do so. Either it is interrupted (by barbarian irruption or the even less resistible infiltration of modern industrialism) or else, more mysteriously, it decays. The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds, the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are “on” concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.
– C. S. Lewis, via Bible Gateway
Lewis’ observation that we are only characters, and not the playwright, producer, or audience, is indeed a powerful one. He writes, “We are on the stage.” Our challenge is to play our part now, for in our present moment, we are “on.” We may have a sense of where the story is going, but the twists and turns, highs and lows, they remain hidden from us. Yes, we have agency. We have responsibility. We even have power. But knowing what kind of agency, responsibility, and power is what enables us to play our parts well.
This past week I read “Act III, Scene ii,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, which turned my thoughts to Lewis. She writes:
Someone has altered the script.My lines have been changed.The other actors are shifting roles.They don’t come on when they’re expected to,and they don’t say the lines I’ve writtenand I’m being upstaged.I thought I was writing this playwith a rather nice role for myself,small, but juicyand some excellent lines.But nobody gives my cuesand the scenery has been replaced.I don’t recognize the new sets.This isn’t the script I was writing.I don’t understand this plot at all.To grow upis to findthe small part you are playingin this extraordinary dramawritten by somebody else.
– From The Weather of the Heart
This reflects my theological journey. Once, I believed myself to be an author. Then, I discovered I was a character. I was playing a part, and God was the playwright. My part is very small. The story however, is very large, far larger than anything I can envision or imagine. But it is a glorious honor to have been placed on the stage, to have been written into the play.