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  • Stephen Gaddis

The Greatest Story Ever Told

I had the privilege to vacation in Italy earlier this month. In addition to the opportunity to indulge myself, I was struck by the ever-present history of the “greatest story ever told.” The stories in the Bible were represented, exploited, and worshiped everywhere I turned. They are enshrined in museums and architecture, in paintings and sculpture. Churches serve as monolithic testimonies to the success and power of this story over thousands of years, however edited, revised, and re-interpreted. Its influence continues. For example, in Rome, no building is allowed to be taller than St. Peter’s Basilica (Church). The Christian story states Jesus gave Peter the keys to his church.

The Christian story, like so many that grow to significance, makes references to Truth. John, for example, quotes Jesus, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” and, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I can see why the Christian promise of eternal paradise through repentance was more appealing to some than the traditional Jewish account of an unforgiving God. I was introduced to the Christian story when I was a young boy at St. Gregory’s church in San Mateo, California. There, I was baptized and received communion. I went to confession and recognized my self as a sinner who could be saved by Christ’s willingness to forgive under certain circumstances. It’s a story I internalized as Truth, but not without critique. I was drawn to the beautiful principles of non-judgment, love, and commitment to peace, and still am. I was repelled by the hypocrisy and the incongruence, and still am.

What struck me most in Italy about my relationship with this story was its impact on me when I kept meeting it on my trip. In my everyday life, this story not very visible, but on the trip it was palpable. I spontaneously said the “Our Father” prayer and crossed myself in one church, which I don’t regret. The idea that I was a sinner also kept making itself available to me in a way I don’t usually experience anymore. I don’t mind having a relationship with the Christian story. I refuse, however, to accept a relationship with any story that insists it represents Truth. Rather than having my relationships with stories be measured by how close they claim to get me to Truth, I want to look at the real effects they have on individual lives and relationships.

As the Roman Empire began to fall, the turn to the Christian story was taken by Constantine in the 4th Century. The old Roman myth of Romulus and Remus apparently could not compete with the compelling Savior promise and the following it had generated. Indeed, the Christ story would become a source of justification for some of the most horrific human atrocities in history. I imagine its Truth claims were a factor in this justification. I propose we bow at the altar of meaning-making, instead of Truth. I hope we take up the responsibility of recognizing we are a species of story-tellers, so we might accept the relational responsibility that comes with that understanding.

I resonate with Foucault who writes:

“If the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds there is ‘something altogether different’ behind things: not a timeless and essential secret but the secret that they have no essence, or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms. Examining the history of reason, he learns that it was born in an altogether ‘reasonable’ fashion — from chance; devotion to the truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition — the personal conflicts that slowly forged the weapons of reason. Further, genealogical analysis shows that the concept of liberty is an ‘invention of the ruling classes’ and not fundamental to man’s nature or at the root of his attachment to being and truth. What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.”

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