The world has its controlling narratives, we have ours
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People are motivated and controlled by the stories they buy into. The story might be religious or political or philosophical; it might arise from street wisdom or folk tales; it might be based on facts or fantasies; it might have the support of businesses or popular culture; it might arise from and be supported by a religious institution; it might find support with art, images and symbols. Regardless, the story people embrace drives what they do.
Some bad storylines & their consequences
Among the bad storylines that shape our contemporary world, consider the following short list.
Hedonistic myth makes the hedonistic man. Hugh Hefner bought into hedonism’s storyline and built his decrepit life and empire around it. His followers buy into the same storyline, and so do his imitators. The surface joys of hedonism are short lived, however, and the hedonistic dream has contributed to the American nightmare of countless dissolute lives and myriad broken families.
Karl Marx created the myth of communism and launched its storyline into the world. Terrorists from Russia, China, and elsewhere bought into it. The consequences have been disastrous: 100,000,000 people have been murdered by communist regimes, and more than a billion people still live under its oppressive power.
Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the “New Deal” storyline in the 1930s political arena, and made political hay with it. His followers in both Democrat and Republican parties have kept the storyline alive. But the hay is molding, the horses are dying, and the barn is collapsing in on itself.
Sex, drugs, and rock & roll launched a storyline too, and sixty years later we see how that story ends. It ends badly.
Jesus, the disciples, and a new storyline
When Jesus took his disciples into the region of Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20), he took them into a region dominated by pagan storylines and practices.
Caesarea Philippi was located at the southwestern base of Mt. Hermon. Powerful symbols dominated the region. A generation before, Herod the Great built a white marble temple for the worship of his patron, Caesar Augustus, on a slope of Mt. Hermon. This dominant symbol could be seen from miles away. The Roman emperor was a god to be worshiped in Caesarea Philippi.
The ancient name of the city was Panea, after the Greek god Pan. The worship of Pan involved licentiousness and even bestiality. Pan was thought to live part of the year in the grotto at the base of Mt. Hermon, from which a stream poured. The grotto served as a pagan shrine and door to the underworld, and was known as the Gates of Hell. Infamous for her immorality, Caesarea Philippi was a red light district.
The prevailing storylines of Caesarea Philippi were pagan. So were the prevailing symbols.
Caesarea Philippi was also a microcosm of the Gentile world, a world Jesus fully intended to conquer with his own storyline, the Gospel. He was the Messiah, the Son of God; and what he was going to do was build his church—his nation—on the rock of that revelation. It was he, not Caesar, who was God Incarnate; it was he, not Caesar, who was the true Son of God. Damn Caesar’s temple. The faithful would worship the true God Incarnate, Jesus the Messiah. Through the building of his holy Church, Jesus’ narrative would also confront and conquer pagan immorality. So damn the Gates of Hell too.
The disciples, I am sure, got the point. Over and against the pagan narratives of the ancient world—the deification of kings and indulging the flesh were nearly universal—Jesus declared a new king and a new moral order. It was his kingdom that would prevail over Caesar and the Gates of Hell.
We live in a day when civil government, feigning irreligion, seeks religiously to assume the properties of deity. We live in a day when hedonism lays claim to normalcy, and guides much of common practice. We live, increasingly it seems at times, in our own Caesarea Philippi. But ultimately the Church is destined to conquer bad political orders and immorality. That is because our story is better than our enemies’. Our narrative has the power to prevail. It is time to put it to work. Caesar and Pan be damned. Jesus is Lord. †