(Cover art courtesy of Zondervan)
The Problem of Jesus’ Stories
Taken from The Problem of Jesus by Mark Clark. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Clark. Used by permission of of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
The Seven Basic Plots
Recent philosophical and psychological studies contend that one of the central ways we make sense of the world is by telling stories. This is how we answer those core questions we all have as human beings: Who are we? Where are we? What’s the problem? What’s the solution? Stories are more than entertainment within reality, they are an explanation of reality—a filter through which we experience and understand. Stories construct reality for us. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that worldviews are formed and lived out through four basic means in a culture: questions, symbols, stories, and praxis. He goes on to say that “narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than observation, or fragmented remark.”
A few years ago, I read a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, and it changed the way I think about Jesus. Not because the book is about him (it isn’t), but because it changed the way I think about stories. Early in his seven-hundred-page tome, Booker argues that there are only seven stories humankind has ever told, and we tell them over and over again. Here are the seven basic story types:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
- The Comedy
- The Tragedy
- The Rebirth
Booker contends that Jaws is the same story as Beowulf (Overcoming the Monster); Pretty Woman is the same story as Cinderella (Rages to Riches); The Wizard of Oz is the same as Gone with the Wind (Voyage and Return), and so on. There is a “small quantity of real fiction in the world,” he says, “the same images, with very little variation, have served all the authors who have ever written. . . .There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories.” These basic archetypal themes are woven through every story we tell and have told for five thousand years, so much so that they feel like they have been programmed into us. These stories connect in profound ways to patterns of human psychology and our deep longings to frame the world and define how we live. “So deep and instinctive is our need [for stories]” Booker says, “that, as small children, we have no sooner learned to
speak than we begin demanding to be told stories.” He then raises a further question, noting that “what is astonishing is how incurious we are as to why we indulge in this strange form of activity. What real purpose does it serve? So much do we take our need to tell stories for granted that such questions scarcely even occur to us.”
Booker asks not only what stories we tell but more fundamentally why we tell the stories we do. His answer, similar to Wright’s, is that at both a conscious and unconscious level, stories are meant to answer our deepest questions about origins, meaning, morality, and destiny. They frame our experience and give meaning to our lives. Drawing on Freudian and Jungian archetypes, Booker believes these stories explain our basic yearnings as human beings. We have a need to locate reality, or a given event, into a narrative to process and make sense of it. The stories we tell are surface explanations, or conscious ‘tellings’ of deeper, hidden, unconscious convictions, and fears. “What stories can tell us much more profoundly than we have realized, is how our human nature works, and why we think and behave in this world as we do.”
Jesus as Storyteller
What does all of this have to do with Jesus? One thing we know about Jesus is that he told stories. He was a storyteller, and one-third of his recorded teaching ministry in the Gospels is storytelling, usually parables. Scholars debate why Jesus told the stories he did. What was his aim? Some argue that it was to illustrate theology to people, to tell “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” Others say it was to hide his real message from those seeking to hurt him. I believe these are valid reasons, but I think the reason Jesus told stories is closer to the reason
Booker suggests. Quite simply, the stories of Jesus are his answers to the deep questions we have as human beings, helping us frame how we see the world and how we understand ourselves and our lives.
Jesus told parables to challenge the status quo, the commonly accepted understandings of both the ancient and modern world. His stories challenged what people thought about God and salvation, about themselves, about grace and judgment, and about work, sex, marriage, money, and everything that is common to human life. His stories shuffled the furniture of reality, scandalizing the “acceptable” ways humans felt and thought about all of these things. And because of this, his stories demanded a response, summoning those who heard them to a new (and better) way to be human.