The Symbolism of Story

Telling a story daunts writers these days. On one hand, Big Data has collected an unimaginable storehouse of facts and events. People have never been more informed. Writers have more facts at their fingertips than ever before. In addition, due to the global intermingling of ideas and religions, we have expanded spiritual vocabularies to articulate the inner workings of our being. Yet, a writer is bound by constraints. A student must write within the five-page maximum. An author must fall within a certain page count. Rare exceptions exist, but mortals like us are not afforded the page counts of Stephen King, whose book lengths rival entire sets of Britannica Encyclopedias. Even then, King himself probably feels cut short. Instead, we are allotted meager portions. The cruelest among them, summarizing a person’s life in a 2-paragraph obituary; conveying 2,000 years of a community’s history in a 343-page book; and condensing the cosmos into 21 chapters. So how does a writer choose from the infinite sea of facts and the bottomless well of the human soul? And how does the writer not focus on one at the expense of the other? Among other literary devices, the writer uses symbolism. Recognizing patterns of meaning and using simple hosts to embody the meaning – like an hourglass conveys the cyclical forces of time. Even the marks on this page are synthesized symbols we call letters and words. Symbols allow writers to condense large data sets into digestible portions. A story is a collection of compact symbols. Yet, the patterns that order these compact symbols individually also order them collectively. A story as a whole functions as a symbol. Through the symbolism of story, writers select information that embodies the essence of the subject. A writer serves as a mediator between the domains of heaven and earth, as well as the center and periphery. The writer-mediator chooses events which host the spirit of the story and includes the mystical to surround the principle, conveying meaning in a satisfactory and coherent fashion. Let’s lay out the tension of storytelling by sorting out Bob’s obituary.

Individual Level – Bob’s obituary

Your dearest friend, Bob, has passed away and it is up to you to summarize his life in a two-paragraph obituary. Let’s say Bob was one of the 20,000 New Yorkers participating in the HUMAN project, the initiative that collects data in numerous domains of individuals’ lives over 20 years.[1] By the end of the project, the database will have stored 5 terabytes, the equivalent of 20 computer hard drives, of information about Bob’s life. Any event you would want to retrieve for the obituary is at your disposal – including urine and blood samples.[2] Obviously, the obituary only has room for 0.001% or less of all the historical data about Bob. While collecting the data is one thing, choosing which facts make the two-paragraph cut is another. Random selection could be our first step. When pulling a random data point, we might get something like: [Data point 005768]: Bob rubbed his nose with his thumb at 4:02 PM on March 29… “That does not belong in his obituary!” we would object, considering the tight real estate for words in an obituary. Selecting at random proves unsatisfactory for his surviving family, friends, or anybody with a pulse. Humans do not select facts at random, but by meaning. Events by themselves seem random; however, it is the meaning of the events which make them matter. An a priori ideal sets the standard by which we measure which data is better or most appropriate. We approach the writing of an obituary with a preconceived notion of the best obituary. It allows us to select which events make the cut. Now, one might object that Bob should not be reduced to his mere calculable events. After all, Bob was a spiritual person with emotions and inward qualities. Bob had a special presence of poise and gentleness. But quality is not mechanical, nor is it easily measurable. How would we quantify the love Bob felt for his children?  Or how would we measure the data point of Bob’s out-of-body experience? [Data point 0157294]: Bob expressed feelings of being outside of his body on July 7, 2019 at 4:00 PM. His experience was 10 out of 10 on the intensity scale. Dopamine levels measured… Such a mechanistic rendering of facts misplaces the essential nature of the phenomena. It’s the wrong tool for the job. Measuring the bottomless well of the human soul most often requires qualitative methods of articulation. Telling Bob’s story requires the right selection from the events of his life, one that conveys the essence of his character and personhood. Meaning informs which data points properly host the spirit of the story. Further, a decision must be made whether to include the oddities of his character, the events that perplexed us. Such events would remind us that we did not have Bob completely figured out. There remained a mystery to Bob’s life. These mysterious or legendary events would help us avoid the temptation to only mention the known and familiar parts of Bob. It humbly acknowledges the uncharted territory of Bob’s personhood. So we can see that although we instinctively understand what an obituary should look like, the practice of writing one is not random, nor algorithmically composable from data, but is instead a qualitative and human process of storytelling. Let’s move on from Bob’s abstract example and turn to the predicament of summarizing 2,000 years of a global community to resolve these tensions and understand how story functions as a symbol.

Community level – History of Christianity

Heaven & Earth

Theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart took on the arduous task of condensing Christianity to 343 pages in his book called The Story of Christianity: a history of 2,000 years of the Christian faith.[3] One could perhaps concede that Hart could cover the 2,000 years of the most practiced, most widespread, and most diverse religion in history if he stuck to the highpoints like the apostles, the conversion of Rome, and the Reformation. Hart does, but then he ups the ante by promising to include the minor movements as well. And right when you may think he has done himself in, he daringly commits to bringing to light the often overlooked mysteries on the dark margins of the Christian world.[4] And all in 343 pages. Each century gets 17 pages. Could you imagine telling the 20th century in 17 pages? Picture the problem of Bob’s obituary multiplied a billionfold. Hart anticipates the queasiness of his readers and reveals up front how the symbolism of story makes it work. In the introduction of his book, Hart addresses the necessity of including historical data.
“A written history of Christianity is concerned – of necessity – with history, which is to say with social and political matters: nations and rulers, states and institutions, compromises and wars” (page xi).
Facts compose history. The number of data points in the history of Christianity is uncountable. Hart addresses the limitations of such a historical approach.
“This being so, one might object that a book of this sort cannot really record the story of Christianity as such – of the beliefs, ideas, and values that Christian faith instills in individual men and women – but can, at most, relate a series of episodes in the evolution of cultures and institutions that happen to have been populated by persons who happen to have be baptized” (xi-xii).
Hart swings the pendulum from addressing the facts to conveying the essence of the Christian experience within individuals.
 “Perhaps the only true story of Christianity is that which unfolds in the hearts and minds of believers” (xii).
The invisible attributes of beliefs, ideas, values, as well as principles and experiences by themselves are formless, and yet are inseparable from the Christian practitioner. Hart has raised a question by laying out this juxtaposition. Should Hart tell the history of outward events, or describe the essence of what “unfolds in the hearts and minds of believers?” Is story an outward telling or the inward revealing? Hart continues,
“These hidden movements of the spirit have made themselves manifest, even if only fitfully in the outward events of Christian history.”
Hart reconciles the two with the symbolism of story. Matthieu Pageau defines “symbol” in his book, The Language of Creation: cosmic symbolism in Genesis, as, “a fact that embodies higher truth.”[5]  A symbol hosts fact and meaning. Heaven and earth come together in symbol.
Matthieu Pageau Language of Creation Heaven Earth Symbol

Heaven, Earth, & Symbol. Credit: Matthieu Pageau, The Language of Creation

The outward facts of history embody the inward essence of meaning. Spirit brings meaning down to indiscriminate matter, while matter offers material to host the spirit. Through meaning, seemingly limitless random data synthesizes into a condensed form. This condensation allows Hart to select 0.001% of the potential data in an orderly and representative manner. In the chapter entitled “The Most Violent Century in History,” Hart includes the 70-year persecution of the Russian Christians by the communist Soviet Union under the ideals of ‘scientific socialism.’[6] It’s estimated that 12-20 million Christians were killed by the government from 1917-1988. Hart allots one and a half pages to this subsection, a mere 280 words. Given the limited real estate, Hart leans upon the essence of the subject to inform which events to select from an immense database of facts. Then, Hart allows the selected events to explicate the underlying meaning. We, the readers, must exegete, or draw out, the meaning from the text. In this case, the two main sentiments of the persecuted Christians came down to whether they should appease the government rulers to somehow soften the executions or accept martyrdom with an uncorrupted heart. To exemplify the former, Hart selects Metropolitan Sergius who “attempted to purchase some relief for his Church by publicly professing loyalty to the Soviet government.”[7] Author and Orthodox Monk, Timothy (Kalistos) Ware, affirms that Surgius’ 1927 declaration of the Church’s allegiance to the Soviet Union “caused great distress to many Orthodox both within and outside Russia.”[8] Hart chose Sergius as the symbol representing the Christians who held the ethos to compromise with their persecutors to ease suffering. On the other hand, the priest and electrical engineer, Pavel Florensky, stood out as a candidate to represent the spirit of uncompromising faith for a number of reasons: Foresky’s treatise on the Christian metaphysics of love, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth; his key role in delivering electricity to Russia; his unjustified imprisonment to hard labor in a gulag (state prison camp) in 1933; and his ultimate execution in 1937. Selecting Florensky from the sample of the 106,400 clergy killed during the Great Purge (1937-1939),[9][10] is a 0.000009% decision. Hart conveys the ethos of perhaps many millions through a symbolic image – Florensky’s refusal to “abandon the traditional cassock, uncropped hair and beard of an Orthodox priest” while offering his services to the government’s electricity project, despite the threat of persecution.[11] This fact hosts the spirit of those who prioritized faith over pleasing their persecutors, even if their persecutors executed them for it. In this manner, Hart selected the stories of two individuals whose facts and events best embody the most representative opinions and tensions of a murderous era – compromise or stand firm. These real people were not disembodied essences of Christianity. They moved and acted in the world, affecting events that influenced history. The events of their lives symbolically hosted the invisible qualities of Christianity.
events host essence to create story

Events hosting Essence in a Story. Credit: Derek J Fiedler

So we see how story assembles symbols into a ‘body’ of work with a unifying point of meaning – in this case, Christianity. Story itself then continues this pattern at the macro-scale: by being a focal point for many micro-symbols into one unity of coherence, story becomes a symbol in its own right.

Center & Periphery

Hart also incorporates the facts that establish the central tenets, as well as the mysterious elements that form the periphery in his story of Christianity. If looking at a blanket, the body of the garment succinctly replicates a familiar pattern. Hart establishes the “larger features…resplendent and historically successful expressions…and the familiar forms” of Christianity.[12]  Landmark events like the Council of Nicaea that produced a unifying creed enforce the stable center of the community’s identity. Hart could stop there, but he would exclude an important part in the making of a cohesive tapestry. Hart also includes the periphery, i.e., the “minute features…obscure expressions…and strangest forms,” to border the familiar elements.[13] For instance, St. Seraphim of Sarov communed so harmoniously with creation that wild bears ate gently from his outstretched palm; who “embarked on 1,000 nights of continuous prayer, standing on a rock with bare feet and his hands raised to God;” and who was seen by his scribe, Nicholas Motovilov, to have been transfigured by the ‘uncreated light.’[14]  Such stories challenge the comfortable center by pointing to the limitless potential beyond the known and familiar. Like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the mysterious stories remind us of the unknown depths of the rabbit hole.[15] The stable center and the changing periphery play a constant cosmic tug-of-war. Matthieu Pageau writes, “This covenant [between center and periphery] guards against the extreme powers of absurdity, confusion, and pointless change, and the extreme powers of reason, purity, and productive stability.”[16] The familiar tenets of Christianity act like a hem keeping the fringes from unraveling the whole blanket. Conversely, the mysterious aspects on the margins prevent the familiar and reasonable from “forcefully integrating all that is strange.”[17]
Biradial edition of the Flammarion depicting the center and periphery of the cosmos

Biradial edition of the Flammarion depicting the center and periphery of the cosmos

Story needs the principle and the mystical. The mystical prevents us from saying “We’ve got it all figured out,” on the one hand, and the principle prevents us from saying “It’s all mysterious and unknowable,” on the other. While the events and ideas that seem “out there” can help point to unrealized potential, they can also compromise the central identity of the community. At what point does a blanket become a loose collection of tassels? The balance inhibits calcification from over-structuring, as well as liquescence from excessive mystification. These symbolic tools allow Hart to communicate something of the essence of Christianity within the limited confines of a paperback. By being aware of the story as a symbol, Hart can select which outward facts embody the community’s transcendent essence and which marginal events complement the central identity. Now that we have come to understand how Hart uses the symbolism of story to wiggle his way out of his seemingly impossible pickle, let us set our scope to the cosmological level.

Cosmic level – John’s summary of the Logos

Telling the story of the cosmos might seem preposterous. However, the author of The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John (hereafter “John’s Gospel”) was up for the task. The author claims that the Word (Logos) that created the ordered cosmos in the beginning took on the form of a human. Divinity incarnated as a man – as Jesus of Nazareth. Until the incarnation, people had intuited the Logos through observing nature and human psychology. As Hieromonk Damascene, author of Christ the Eternal Tao,[18] points out in a speech given November 13, 2009, pre-Christ writers like Lau Tzurepresent the height of what a human being can know through intuition, through glimpsing the universal principle and pattern of creation.”[19] John’s Gospel teaches us that the Logos, by taking human form, became fully expressed through Jesus. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John writes, “and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”[20] People looked upon the face of the creator of the cosmos – no intuition necessary. Furthermore, St. Athanasius in his 4th-century work On the Incarnation wrote,
“There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”[21]
Hieromonk Damascene and St. Athanasius are showing us the self-referential nature of what John is both doing and revealing. In giving us a “word,” if you will, about Jesus as “Word,” John is using a “symbol” to show us the nature of “Symbol.” And in the same way that the meaning of Christ’s story descends from heaven into the earth of spoken language or the printed letter, so too Christ the Word, source of all meaning, has descended from heaven and filled the earthly body of a man, Jesus of Nazareth. If we look back on Matthieu Pageau’s definition of a symbol as “a fact that embodies higher truth,” we can see that this Incarnation is the fullness of what Symbol makes possible. It is the highest truth fully embodied. This perfect union of heaven and earth in one place and time makes possible the redemption of the entire cosmos for all time. If we put ourselves at John’s desk, we can begin to comprehend the literary pressure the writer probably endured. In the end, John had to pick an infinitesimal amount of facts from the eternal database of Meaning Itself. Fortunately for us, John’s Gospel graciously contains two endings that reveal how the author employs the symbolism of story to accomplish this cosmic undertaking.

The Ending(s) of John’s Gospel

The last chapter of John’s gospel, chapter 21, serves as a theological or dreamlike coda, possibly added on later to the Gospel. The “second” ending closes with the following passage from David Bentley Hart’s New Testament: a translation:
“And there are many other things that Jesus also did, which, were they written down one by one, I think the cosmos itself would not contain the books that would be written.”[22]
The passage focuses on the actions of Jesus, as indicated by the verb “did.” Jesus’ earthly facts comprise vast historical data that would require limitless libraries. Even then, “the cosmos itself would not contain the books that would be written.” In a sense, the author wishes the best of luck to whoever dares to write all the events down. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. houses 16 million books.[23] How long would it take to read every book in the world’s largest library? Now think of all the libraries in the world. John’s Gospel numbers about 15,635 words, so the Library of Congress has roughly 1,024 books for every word in John’s Gospel.[24] While this second ending perfectly presents the problem for every storyteller, a limitless number of facts from which to choose, it neglects to present us with John’s solution. Which locus of meaning guided him in choosing which facts to include? Fortunately, the first ending delivers the answer to this question. Flip back to chapter 20, which is considered the “original” ending, or “first” ending. Notice the similar style but differing emphasis.
“Of course, Jesus performed many other signs as well before the disciples, which have not been recorded in this book; but these ones have been recorded so that you might have faith that Jesus is the Anointed, the Son of God, and that in having faith you might have life in His name.”[25]
Like the previous passage, the first ending acknowledges that the Gospel excludes significant detail unrecorded in the book. However, the first ending also indicates three points of meaning that ordered the selection of the data. First, John stresses Jesus’ identity as “the Anointed” – or the Christ, the Messiah – and as the “Son of God.” An identity is the invisible quality of a person’s being that must be materialized in a story by outward events. The author included events that best convey Jesus’ identity to the readers and listeners. Second, the miraculous “signs” of Jesus’ ministry – e.g. healing of the sick, raising of the dead, walking on the water, multiplying the bread and fishes. Miracles are antithetical to mechanistic reasoning; they confound the comfort of the familiar and explainable. Jesus’ signs are part of the mysterious fringes of Jesus’ life that point to His limitless potential. Finally, the first ending reveals the author’s purpose – “that in having faith you [the reader/listener] may have life in [Jesus’] name.” Faith, as a virtue, is an immeasurable quality that unfolds within individuals. Faith is part of the essence of Christianity. John opens the vast historical database of Jesus’ life and selects the events that allow the reader to best appropriate the ‘faith’ and ‘life’ in Jesus’ name. Even before our unimaginable modern world of Big Data, John explicated the tension of limitless data in the endings of his Gospel. The first ending unveils the transcendent points of meaning that John used to select which historical events best embodied Christ’s essence. This passage tells the reader which central features to build upon, as well as the mysterious wonders at the margin of Jesus’ story that remind us of His potentiality.

In Summary

Our modern world is wedded with Big Data. The harvesting of facts marches forward at exponential rates seemingly without end. Yet we remain creatures with limited attention, dependent upon condensed packages of meaning. A writer employs the forces of the cosmos – heaven/earth and center/periphery – at the microcosmic level through symbols – e.g. a Purple Heart, a wedding ring, a red pill and a blue pill. A writer consolidates these individual symbols into a cohesive pattern. This pattern follows the same cosmic rules of the symbols that comprise the story as a whole. So, the story itself is a symbol of symbols. The writer serves as a mediator, carefully selecting which historical events best embody the essence of a person, a community, the cosmos. The mediator-writer also surrounds the principle features of the story’s central identity with the strange and dazzling fringes of the periphery. The symbolism of story equips us to write 2 paragraphs for Bob’s obituary, 343 pages for Hart’s 2,000-year summary of Christianity, and 21 chapters for John’s Gospel. Yet, the symbolism of story is not merely how we write paperbacks; it’s how we write the narrative of our lives, and participate in the pattern of the cosmos. This manifold structure condenses to the point where all the cosmos can be summarized by a single symbol – a Word – the story of stories. When told well, a story leaves out countless details. And yet, nothing seems to be missing.  
  [1] [2] Marc Santora. “10,000 New Yorkers. 2 Decades. A Data Trove About ‘Everything.’New York Times, June 4, 2017. [3] David Bentley Hart. The Story of Christianity: a history of 2,000 years of the Christian faith, Quercus, 2015. [4] Ibid. Pages x-xi [5] Matthieu Pageau. The Language of Creation: cosmic symbolism in genesis: a commentary, at 25. May 21, 2018. [6] Hart at 330 [7] Hart at 331 [8] Timothy Ware. The Orthodox Church, At 152, Penguin Books, 1997. [9] Paul Froese. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), at 35-50. [10] Ekaterina V. Haskins. “Russia’s postcommunist past: the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the reimagining of national identity.” History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the Past 21.1 (2009). [11] Hart at 331 [12] Hart at xi [13] Hart at x-xi [14] Ibid at 303-305 [15] Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Macmillan, 1920 [16] Pageau 193 [17] Ibid [18] Hieromonk Damascene. Christ the Eternal Tao, St. Herman Press, March 28, 2004. [19] Hieromonk Damascene. “Christ the Eternal Tao,” at 11:40, Ancient Faith Ministries. November 13, 2009. [20] John 1:14, New King James Version [21] St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation, at 26. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977. [22] David Bentley Hart. The New Testament: a translation, at 219. Yale University Press, 2017. [23] [24] [25] Hart at 216-217

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