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The stories that a culture tells give us a clue to the beliefs and values of that culture. The stories that achieve a popular following suggest what is on the mind of a culture at a moment in time. For over a thousand years, the people of Western Europe told their stories through allegorical poetry. Then quite suddenly, the poetic drama of Will Shakespeare, with its emphasis on realism, eclipsed the symbolism of allegory. This sudden change coincided with the beginning of the scientific revolution of Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon which emphasized the examination of the concrete world. The form that stories took changed as the world shifted from a concern for the eternal, other-worldly realm of ideals to a concern for the world of lived experience.

In a similar fashion, the kinds of stories we tell reflect the preoccupations of a culture. Stories may reflect the thinking of a culture, or they may change the thinking of a culture. The world does not have very many story plots. Ancient cultures told the adventure story which involved a hero battling great foes, like Achilles or Heracles. In the High Middle Ages, Western Europe developed the love story, best exemplified by the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or of Tristen and Isolde.

In the early nineteenth century, two new kinds of stories appeared which reflected the growing complexity and moral uncertainty of the industrial age. Mary Shelley invented science fiction with Frankenstein (1817) and Edgar Allan Poe invented the mystery story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). While the adventure story encourages the young people of a culture to be brave, strong, loyal, and willing to lay down their lives for the good of the country, science fiction has always tended to explore the ethical and moral boundaries of scientific research and technology. Science fiction often raises metaphysical questions such as: How far should humans go in “playing God?” The recognition of a spiritual dimension to life often lies just below the surface of the story. During the 1830s and 1840s, Poe was engaged in pondering the nature of God and reality when he invented the mystery story. For the mystery story to work, the audience must bring to the story the concept of justice, or right and wrong. This sense of justice involves caring about “who done it.” The audience must want the innocent person set free and the guilty person revealed. This requires an absolute understanding of truth. In the end, justice must prevail for the mystery story to work.

While cultures are always in a state of flux to one degree or another, it was not until the twentieth century that the entire world experienced a simultaneous shaking and collapse of culture from World War I onwards. The wars for independence in the Western Hemisphere of the late eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries were a mere foretaste of what would come. From the ancient empire of China to Russia to Austria to the empire of the Ottoman Turks and beyond, monarchy collapsed across the globe regardless of religious identity – Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism. Rival political ideologies warred with one another over what would replace monarchy after 5,000 years – fascism, communism, democracy, or something else. Along with war and upheaval, social norms evaporated. Along with the cultural catastrophe, the various art forms struggled to find a voice and a form in the absence of cultural stability.

Today in the United States, the population seems fairly evenly divided over the best way forward in establishing the beliefs and values that define American culture. While we tend to pay great attention to what politicians have to say, it may be helpful to explore the extent to which politicians merely take advantage of the prevailing sentiments of the population in crafting their message. Politicians tend to follow rather than lead. Though science fiction and the mystery story remain two of the most popular kinds of stories in America, they have new rivals.

Two kinds of stories have enjoyed tremendous popularity in the United States since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. One of these stories provides a narrative home for the radical left while the other does the same for the radical right. The rest of the population tends to lean toward one story or the other. The first story deals with the end of the world. The second story deals with a secret conspiracy to rule the world. We tell these stories over and over again through network TV, streaming services, and movies.

The End of the World

We find the end of the world story in antiquity in the Bible and in the stories of other cultures. In those stories, God or the gods destroy the world as punishment for the wickedness of people. Edgar Allan Poe revived the end of the world story in 1839 with his story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” in which two people after their deaths discuss how a comet destroyed the world. Jules Verne liked the tale so much that he reworked it into Off on a Comet. It then took on a life of its own and became a permanent fixture of modern horror in science fiction mode with film adaptations like Armageddon (1998). In 2012, the Earth is a time bomb that only the very wealthy and powerful can survive. In The Day After Tomorrow, global warming plunges the northern hemisphere into a super-deepfreeze while sparing the global South. One food crop after another suffers blight in Interstellar which promises to starve the world to death. In zombie movies, a variety of plagues or experiments or nuclear wars doom the human race, as in The Last Man on Earth (1964) remade as The Omega Man (1971) remade as I am Legend (2007). The technological version of the doom of the Earth comes through in films like The Matrix trilogy and AI. The end of the world story does not fill us with hope. The only hope is that people will settle their differences or find a way to escape the planet before it is all over.

Secret Group Conspiracy

The secret group of powerful people who control the world has been a compelling story for many people ever since the Tsar’s secret police first created the Illuminati as a justification for the pogrom of the Jews. During the Cold War, James Bond did not waste time fighting the Soviet Union., but instead he battled SPECTER. Since 9/11, Hollywood has produced a steady stream of conspiracy stories for the silver screen and now, streaming services. The Deep State story scratches a cultural itch with tales in many well-known episodes: Nikita, 24, Designated Survivor, Blacklist, The Bourne Conspiracy, The Diplomat, and many more. The world conspiracy does not fill us with hope, either. No sooner does the lone hero bring down one plot than another pops up behind it which had been pulling the strings all along.

The Search for a Metanarrative

One of the primary features of the postmodern fad of the 1990s involved the repudiation of any metanarrative – a story that eplains everything. It is similar to the project of Sir Frances Bacon in the early 1600s to eliminate any philosophical interpretation of science. Both projects failed. Philosophical interpretations of science will always be with us, and the story-telling animal will always tell stories to explain everything. C. S. Lewis said that we must learn good philosophy, or we will have bad philosophy. In the same way, we must teach the world the Great Story, or the world will make up its own stories, and they do not turn out so well.

Lewis fell in love with a story plot when he was a teenager. It was a plot that appeared in the Middle Ages which involved a hero who gave up everything to go on a quest to the end of the world for the great thing. Along the way, he fought the unbeatable foe, marched into Hell for a heavenly cause, went where the brave dare not go, and rescued the damsel in distress. Don Quixote is a story about this story. After reaching his prize, the hero returns a changed person. The one who returns is not the same person who went on the quest. Lewis found this story in the Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (1590, 1596). Finally, he found the story again in George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858). This version of the journey story, in which the hero goes “there and back again,” is an allegorical telling of the Christian life. Unlike the end of the world story or the conspiracy story, it is a story of hope. It is still popular. It is the plot of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and all the books of The Chronicles of Narnia. Sometimes, what people most need to hear is a reason for the hope that is in you.

Harry Lee Poe

Union University
Harry Lee Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture, Union University.