By Ushering God Offstage, Have We Lost the Plot?

Modernism denies the author, and Postmodernism denies the script, but Christians know the “greatest story ever told” is the heart of history

James Tissot, “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross”, ca. 1886-1894
James Tissot, “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross”, ca. 1886-1894 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

I remember a conversation years ago with a priest I knew, a wonderful man of God, selflessly devoted to the Church. We were talking about the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, which I had just seen and was urging him to do the same. But he refused. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “I already know how it ends.”

He was right, of course, but the trouble with putting it quite like that is the risk you run of making it appear so univocal a rejection as to warrant any number of absurd applications. For instance, asking a friend if he’d like to go hiking, only to be told that having gone the year before, what’s the point? “I’ve already been on that trail.” Or, at its most ludicrous, when one disdains this evening’s dinner on the grounds that, after all, didn’t I just have dinner the night before?

Taking it to a more serious level, there is the question whether one ought to read the Scriptures or not. Would one really want to say, “Well, actually, I know the outcome of the story, so why should I need to read it twice?” Or the Nicene Creed. Would a believer ever say, “Oh, sure, I know the Creed. Doesn’t it all begin with a God who has no beginning, then end with the same God, only now he has no end? And in between, of course, God does all this stuff to save the world from the mess we’ve made of it. Nothing new there. So, why must we keep on reciting it every Sunday?”

At this point it sounds a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse world, where too many Bertie Woosters are running loose. Certainly not the world God made — and then, when it all came to grief, falling into complete shipwreck, he undertook the daring rescue operation of remaking it.

Another way of putting it is to say, quite simply, that the world we live in is a place where stories get told, which means they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have meaning and purpose, in other words; they’re going somewhere, not just loose fragments strewn about a stage on which nothing ever really happens.

But have you noticed? More and more people no longer believe that, no longer accept the Christian Story as the overarching narrative in which we’ve all been given a part to play. As the writer Walker Percy once put it, “we’ve evacuated the sign,” and so nothing signifies anything. When you empty out the theater where so many wonderful stories were once told, you’re left with nothing save a few random memories, the supply of which will quickly deplete. 

In a word, we’ve lost the plot.

This was the work of Modernism, by the way, which more or less kept the theater open, but having fired the Director — that is, God — there was no True Story left to tell. Only an empty scaffolding was left, on which pseudo-stories were hung, like Marxism and 70 years of impacted Soviet lies to keep the structure from collapsing. In the end, of course, it did collapse, helped along by the witness of men like Solzhenitsyn who sought to restore the true memory of Russia, “amputated,” as he put it, by the corruptions of Communist ideology.

If Modernism was willing to keep the Story, but so hollowed out that there was no evidence of an Author — “trust the tale,” as D.H. Lawrence would say, “but never the Teller” — then the aim of what follows, i.e., Postmodernism, is to implode the idea of Story altogether, leaving only nihilism in its wake. There can be no tale, in other words — not even if an idiot were to tell it. 

Which is at least more honest than the project it replaced. If you inhabit a dramatic world, but without a Dramatist, then the choreography of the play will necessarily be counterfeit. It won’t finally matter how sincere or eloquent the words you speak — they will not be underwritten by the Word. Postmodernism put an end to that sleight of hand, ripping away the fig leaf, which was worn to keep modern man from seeing that, at the end of the day, there was no there there. There is no Story, in other words — only the delusional tales we tell one another, and ourselves, to keep the darkness from falling. It falls anyway and will, soon enough, engulf us all.

It is against that backdrop, by the way, that Christians, people of faith, must gather in order to remind themselves that the True Story needs to be told again and again. Especially in the context of the Mass, where the whole story from creation to consummation is retold, reenacted even — there at the still point of the turning world — where Christ hangs in mortal agony until the world’s end, while we await the triumph of Easter hope.