Narrative Universes and Pop Myths

Some articles get you with the title. This one got me with the picture (above). The recent piece in the Wall Street Journal seems custom made for Theolatte, “The Power of Our New Pop Myths.” It chronicles the force of story through the centuries surveying those deep human questions beneath the surface of our favorite narratives.

Author Adam Kirsch argues the interesting question isn’t why media companies keep offering new installments of the same basic plot, but rather, “what imaginative appetite or cultural need keeps us coming back for more?” Whether in a galaxy far far away, or through a friendly neighborhood superhero in the Bronx, these stories are as predictable as they are timeless. But still we buy the tickets and splurge for popcorn. Why?

This is a role once filled by religion, Kirsch explains. “Traditionally,” he writes, “people looked to religious and patriotic stories to answer such questions. In 21st-century America, those kinds of narratives no longer have the power to unite us.” While I don’t doubt that often people look to their nation to locate meaning, I think purpose is still deeper down. Yet, when someone wraps their identity in nationalism it becomes its own sort of religious creed. That’s what makes Christian nationalism so dangerous.

Kirsch says the division caused by such cultural narratives creates a meaning gap. What can unite us if not our religious patriotism? This is where Kirsch says Hollywood is cashing in. They stepped into the gap and are weaving a tale so big it speaks to both sides of the political aisle and across a spectrum of religious longings. Kirsch writes:

“These corporate storytellers are stepping into a gap created by long-term cultural changes. In America, most people were raised on the same stories from the Bible and U.S. History . . . . In a narrative universe, we can experiment with values and ideas more freely than in the real world allows, just as teh storyteller can spin new versions of the tale without having to worry about historical accuracy.”

The narrative universes that capture our attention and consume our time have “no pretensions to genuine authority,” Kirsch explains. But do they? I think they have a great deal of authority. It’s not to be found in a sacred text or ornamental building. It’s located deeply in the human heart where King Solomon explained God has placed an indelible stamp of eternity. The human condition is one of longing for transcendence.

This article made me think a lot about how Jesus has been remade in our image in every age. He’s far easier to follow when he looks like the person in the mirror, or the candidate we want in the oval office. It also made me think of those stubborn human longings that nothing on earth can quench.

When we turn our attention to the real Jesus of Scripture, however, we find the eternal Word through whom all things were made. We see the descent and ascent of the rightful King of the Universe. We find a child on the outskirts of privilege and power who gave up what little he had—by worldly standards—and sacrificed his own life to give us something no box office hit ever can. The power of this story is found in the singular reality that it’s true, it’s all really true.