The Impact of Stories on Christian Civilization

There is no doubt that stories are an integral aspect of humanity. It is through stories that civilizations have passed on truths, moral lessons, and cultural practices. Narratives are more than entertainment; they are a connection of people between spaces of time. Stories (literature) are one of the most effective means to convey the truth to others. It is within such accounts that people find faith, an understanding of charity, and a desire to seek hope among the evils of the fallen world. There is a direct correlation between stories and the realization of man’s fallen nature. This also inherently attributes to the acceptance of dependence upon God, which is oftentimes gracefully portrayed in stories that depict a clear distinction between good and evil. It is quite apparent that the recent approach in modern literature attempts to generalize and discourage goodness and virtue. It would be amiss to expect protagonist characters to portray a level of perfection that can only be found in God. Rather, it is more than necessary for characters to exhibit inherent flaws prevalent in human nature, but with the ulterior desire to overcome such weaknesses. To recognize man’s nothingness is only the first step towards salvation, for there must be a clear connection between the acceptance of one’s flaws and weaknesses. The greatest characters in literature are the ones that strive towards goodness, even if the cost is lifechanging, uncomfortable, and sacrificial. Stories are the foundation of civilization as they acknowledge the physical and spiritual warfare present in this world, but such battlegrounds provide opportunities to uplift man’s fallen nature by desiring what is good, true, and beautiful.

For many centuries, stories have been the connection between past generations with the future. They were a means to further a society closer to God through a relationship of words and ideas. Narratives have been an important aspect in the rise and fall of civilizations, but within the past seventy years, these tales have waned as society prefers to focus on individualism and moral relativism. It is quite unfortunate that humanity now turns a blind eye to the lessons and achievements of those who came before us with little recognition that once lost may be lost forever. Stories provide opportunities to learn moral lessons, understand humanity, and recognize that one’s existence is founded on a higher being – God. It is no wonder that with the decline in storytelling and classical literature, there is an increase in moral relativism.

By reading and examining some of the greatest works of Western Civilization, one can find answers and contemplative comforts to life’s strains that beset the average person. It is no doubt that the Greatest Book is the Holy Bible and though it contains historical facts, it also holds historical narratives and some of the most beautiful works of poetry (the Psalms). Such historical narratives can be read in the accounts of the Prodigal Son, the Laborers in the Vineyard, and the Unforgiving Servant. These are only a few examples of the numerous parables in the Bible, but each narrative gives the reader an opportunity to find a relationship between the characters, their actions, and the reader’s own misguided behaviors. The lessons taught through these historical narratives are opportunities for a soul to acknowledge parallel manners with the desire to move towards virtue. It is not only the actions, but each parable teaches a moral lesson that offers repose to the hearer of the account. By reading the beautiful verses of the Bible, earthly souls are given a glimpse into the time of Christ and an opportunity to draw themselves closer to His love. There are no greater stories to contemplate than the accounts offered by Our Lord.

The discussion of stories and their impact upon Western Civilization cannot be considered without including The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer, which is pivotal among the Great Books. As a literature teacher, I am often asked why there is such a heavy emphasis on mythology and pagan stories if so much of Western Civilization is based upon Christianity. Now, this is one of my favorite questions to address, for the stories of the ancient world have an integral place in the development of Christendom. Though these stories focus on polytheistic gods and goddesses that exhibit more flaws than virtues, while also striving for personal satisfaction over charity, these tales are proof that even before the birth of Christ, men and women were drawn to a higher good, a higher power. There is an obvious underlying desire for souls to seek a higher being. The stories within Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey, though considered historical narratives, provide an apparent philosophical foundation that continued to grow among the Greek philosophers a couple hundred years later. Though paganistic, Homer’s work should be read in the context of its time. The beauty of the poetry in The Odyssey is breathtaking, but even more relevant is the character of Odysseus striving towards goodness, while combating personal flaws and the selfish actions of the gods and goddesses.

“The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,

Long exercised in woes, O Muse! Resound;

Who, when his arms had wrought the destined fall

Of sacred Troy, and razed her heaven-built wall,

Wandering from clime to clime, observant stay’d,

Their manners noted, and their states surveyed.”[i]

It is not the perfect protagonist that draws admiration from readers, but it is the acknowledgment of flaws and the desire for redemption. This is the beauty of stories that have transformed Western Civilization as they attempt to address the never-ending battle between good and evil. And it is through this physical and spiritual battle that souls are raised towards beauty, truth, and goodness.

The instinctual desire to share stories is a qualitative component of human nature. It is apparent as one peruses the Great Books and the Good Books. Delving into the Good Books is no less indicative of man’s desire to share stories that encompass societal errors, human flaws, acrimonious characters, virtuous heroines, and romantic endeavors. These are the stories that connect us with generations past, narratives that transcend across centuries as souls were designed by God to search for beauty, truth, and goodness. This can be observed within the writings of Charles Dickens as he contemplates the sacredness of life and innocence, familial and romantic relationships, and a condemnation of greed and self-actualization. These themes are apparent in many of Dickens’ works, including A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist (to name a few). Dickens ability to focus on the less fortunate and ennoble these characters to a higher level of consideration for the purpose of defining the egregious flaws of society is one of great mastery and skill. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” (Dickens)[ii] It is through the sympathetic storytelling of Dickens that readers recognize and abhor some of the most common mercenary behaviors of society. This is the path towards obtaining a virtuous society, to first recognize human flaws with the desire to amend such behaviors. There is no better way to understand and contemplate these mannerisms than through stories.

The emphasis upon the above referenced works of literature is only a drop in a sea of exemplary writings founded upon the desire to serve the common man with stories that excite one towards virtue, recognize societal flaws, and bring the soul towards a higher purpose – God. It would be amiss to disregard the importance of storytelling whether through the written word or through verbal engagement. Stories are the foundation of civilizations as they bring the injured soul towards God’s redemption. It is an injustice to remove these works from the hands of children and adults who desire such beauty and truth. As the reception of these classical works has slowly diminished from society, so too has the ability to extend beyond the confines of one’s own personal satisfaction. Reading the Great Books and the Good Books offers individuals the ability to view society from a unique perspective. It is detrimental to remove these influential writings. So, rather than reach for the nearest tech device to catch up on the latest world news, embrace the writings of those who came before us. These men and women saw the world at a unique historical time that we can only experience through their writings. These men and women, though from generations past, endured societal constraints, the effects of Original Sin, but also sought to attain the everlasting desire of the soul through God’s goodness and love.

[i] The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Alexander Pope. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1884.

[ii] Dickens, Charles. Christmas Carol, A. Tyndale House, 1999.

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

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Danielle Marie Heckenkamp is an author and freelance writer. She contributes to a variety of media publications – discussing faith, family, book reviews, history, politics, and homemaking. Her writings can be found at Crisis Magazine, OnePeterFive, Catholic Mom, Her View From Home, etc.. She is the co-author of an etiquette and manners book published in April 2013. Danielle Heckenkamp has a BA in Political Science and is a wife and mother of six children.

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