… stories have shapes … and … the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.
~ Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is well known for his essays on the common tropes of stories and their meanings. Like a museum of cultural artefacts, popular and enduring narratives reveal much about a nation’s collective identity.
Vonnegut, for example, likens the Christian Biblical story to the Cinderella narrative, a narrative so popular it is repeated each generation in one form or another – Think Oliver Twist, Annie, Pretty Woman and so forth. The once impoverished protagonist is beloved of the prince and not only overcomes oppression and ignobility, but arises from the ashes to ascend into the heights of bliss as beloved and co-heir to the kingdom.
The Jewish scriptures on the other hand tell more a protracted tale of survival through suffering, wandering and woe, in the vein of Homer’s Odysseus. Hope and faith which endure through darkness is the theme of Jewish narrative and is perhaps best exampled in the short narrative of Job.
In the Book of Job, the mortal man beset with many ills, is faced with the realisation that humanity has one bitter end – death. This death is part of a catch-22 deal that has humanity cornered. ‘A man [sic] is born to mischief as the sparks fly up,’ [Job 5:7] and while he, Job, is as moral a man as has ever lived, no morality is moral enough to reach perfection. His friends urge penance and he rejects this claiming he has already lived a moral life and instead turns upon God with an audacious demand for an account to humanity.
What a curious and unpious narrative to mark a nations identity?! How does it nuance our understanding of the greater canon of scripture?
Perhaps examining other popular and enduring stories will help us.
A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all. Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical.
This narrative is a hero-quest and the protagonist crosses into the alien and unfamiliar world of their sworn enemies. Romeo and Juliet follows a similar trajectory. When Romeo enters his enemies house in disguise, he falls for their daughter. They pursue an elicit love affair that ends with an elopement, and while their love is doomed, the tragedy of these two lovers draws the warring families into peace talks.
It is a powerful theme. Reconciliation is found when one learns to love ones enemies by living in their world and seeing the battle from their vantage point. Even if their quest may be doomed, this very action can bring an end to the conflict that has divided the two worlds.
This story of Job is so simple and so profound; it is the fulcrum of the greater narrative, the link between Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Job, the mouthpiece of the Hebrew people, calls God to provide a personal account for the inevitable sufferings of humanity, and the New Testament supplies the response.
The New Testament recounts the arrival of the author of the story, into the story. This character, lands on the alien shore and befriends the inhabitants of this world. Here he falls in love with them and taking up arms against the enemy forces, the enemy of death, the character perishes in his battle for their freedoms. While the story is tragic, despite his death, he takes down the enemy – death itself – and so does what no man has done before, returns life to the ailing population.
Whether the Bible is a Cinderella story, a Pocahontas story, an Avatar story, or another hero-journey, it is clear that the repeated motifs of the popular stories we love and retell, resonate deeply with human identity and our search for meaning, destiny and purpose.