Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl except, it turns out, girl was never actually a girl and boy was never actually a boy. That’s a modern re-telling of a classic story. One of the things, as far as we can tell, that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to tell and be an audience to stories told by other humans. Heck, we even make up stories about other animals having stories. It’s “human” to see human history as “a story”.
We can’t say for sure whether or not other animals tell each other stories, but, without a way to write things down, whatever stories a particular animal tells (if they can tell stories) are either ancient and have been passed down orally for thousands of years from animal mom to animal baby or they’re all being improv-ed on the spot by every new generation of mother to her babies. That would be impressive either way.
If only animals could tell us…
Picture the roadway from the first human to us. How would we describe that journey? Has our story been a happy one? Would we even be the story’s heroes? If we went looking for our story on Netflix, would we find it in the action movies, the comedies, the dramas? The tragedies (alas, there is no “tragedy” section at Netflix. Or maybe in the documentary section — among the murder & mayhem titles.
More to the point? How bingeworthy would our story be?
Or, if you’d prefer to watch…
NOTES & SOURCES
Human consciousness starts the story. There are a lot of unanswered questions, not just questions about human consciousness, but questions which that consciousness brings about. Questions like: Who are we? How did we get here? What is the point of life? Where did evil come from? How do we move forward? What happens to us after we die?
We naturally look beyond ourselves to answer these questions. After all, we don’t have the answers, that is why we are looking for them. So, we need to look to the distant past and to something that came before human beings.
This is where the most ancient human stories come in. They provide answers to these questions which reflect their culture, their experiences and their understanding of the world.
We tend to look at those stories about human life as primitive, outmoded, and even outrageous. But our stories have more in common with them than we would like to admit. We can see this quickly in a few ways:
- We all share these same questions at one time or another in our life, even if they are unsurfaced and unexamined.
- We have answers of our own shaped, like theirs, by the assumptions of our culture, experience, and understanding of the world.
- We can certainly expect future generations to look with similar judgment upon our stories from their perspective. In other words, we have a number of assumptions which they will disagree with.
These points only increase my interest in ancient stories that are still being used by large numbers of people in our post-modern and post-pandemic world. (And, little surprise, the Bible plays a large role in my understanding of the human story…and again, not surprisingly, I read the Bible story as a more reasonable story than Alan does.)
The threat is human self-destruction. Life is tragic. And humans play an active role in this self-destruction. Why is this? We seem to have an assumption that if we get the right education, the right government and the right civic mindedness we could turn all of this around. But I see the problem as deeper than this.
I love the way the Bible describes this in Genesis 1-11. The world is created and it is good in its entirety. But then humans, though warned not to, eat the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (not unlike our idea of human consciousness) and things begin to unravel from there.
To find a way to avert this self-destruction and instead create the world we desire. Our culture seems to see it as a human struggle. That it is the people who want to avert this vs. the people who do not want to avert this (because of ignorance or selfishness or malice) and our future depends upon the first group getting the power and the control over the second group.
The Biblical view, in my opinion, is much more human, hopeful and elegant. God offers Abram promise in Genesis 12. If he will leave his life and seek a different life, God will protect him, give him a legacy and bless the entire world. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of that promise overcoming issue after issue after issue to continue toward fulfillment. The New Testament is about the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus as it moves out from Jerusalem throughout the world.
This theme, this story, continues into our day.
The West is running on old ideas. At the same time, our innovation, our adaptability and the improvement in our way of life has increased dramatically. Our stories need to be updated and adapted for our emerging rhythm of life.
The best way forward is to engage the Bible and culture in a fresh way to develop new ways of being that can encourage and support the continued improvement of our lives, communities and our world.
All human “translations” like this are provisional. Not only will our world and life continue to develop and change, thus limiting the effectiveness of our translations, but this life we live now will radically change.
The New Testament proclaims a new way of life that breaks through into human history through the resurrection of Jesus. The world has forever changed. But it is not complete. Life is still tragic. We are still in the struggle. But there will be a time, in the future, when life will no longer be tragic. But, interestingly, this shift will occur, not through human ingenuity, but as a gift of God.
This understanding of the future should empower us to live courageously in this tragic world according to a time when life will no longer be tragic.
Being a storyteller by nature, I take a storyteller’s approach. It all begins with characters. Whose story am I telling and why am I telling it?
If I have to cast human beings as the lead in this story, how shall I cast them in my mind? I see us very much the way historian Yval Harari sees us: as very clever creatures who might be too clever for our own good and yet, not clever enough by half. We’re mad geniuses who will be outdone by our own hubris.
For millions of years, proto-humans thrived as hunter-gatherers. That’s not a small detail by which to measure our success as a species. Longevity in an environment frankly hostile to life is quite an accomplishment — and the universe we live in is hostile to life.
Which is not to say Life doesn’t thrive in it. Yet here we are.
I think of the apes at the start of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Kubrick suggests that something about the black monolith changes the apes. It imbues them with something they didn’t have before encountering the monolith.
HInts of the Tree Of Knowledge.
Or — suggestions of a doorway that opens onto the Tower of Babel?
At various points in our long evolution, we pivoted from having been one thing for a long, long time to suddenly having the potential to be something else entirely. Just like that. The instant the first human grasped how to control fire — how to start it him or herself — they triggered a full blown character evolution. Cooked protein versus raw protein.
These are the moments that, I think, guide human history — that guide our story. They’re basic discoveries that either improve our chances of survival or ratchet up our capacity to problem solve larger and more abstract problems.
Ah, but as one later human would put it, “There’s the rub!” More complex problems beget more complex solutions.
Humans are a lot like Doctor Frankenstein. He’s just trying to beat death — same as Jesus. That shot of lightning through the bolts on his neck was the Frankenstein Monster’s version of being born again. For him, kind of literally.
The monster — like our ideas and our impact on the planet and each other — immediately takes on a life of its own. Too bad for us that the law of unintended consequences is a stone cold bitch.