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A Catholic Church has a new tagline: “We exist to guide great stories.”
Setting aside my concerns about the new action-planning guide which fall under the general category, “Question Rhetoric,” I here take up those of my hesitations about what exactly is a “Great Story.”
While I appreciate the need to appeal to people’s innate sense of narrative, using the natural structure of story to convey meaning, I sense the possibility that the very notion of ‘story’ is so dangerously deformed in many of our ‘audience’ or ‘market niche’ members that the approach might backfire.
What Do We Mean by Great?
Is a ‘Great Story’ one in which I, the protagonist, achieve greatness? If so, it is important to know what we mean by greatness. We’ll have to let the audience know their story is only ‘great’ if it conforms to a true definition of greatness. Otherwise, they may misunderstand that we want to help them toward any of the false greatnesses that fill the culture with disorder and the mental wards with patients.
Fr. Giussani says, “The beggar is the protagonist of all history.” Will we be helping them learn to beg? To achieve career success? To become holy? To attract followers to an attractive narrative? To realize dreams, ‘make a difference,’ or what? What will make for the greatest stories? It is important to know, else how will we guide them?
Who is the Hero of a Great Story?
I worry that the post-modern audience is already vulnerable to the lure of being the protagonist, to any story-line that stars ‘me’, to any chance for fifteen minutes of fame. I would hate to fan those flames. Must one be the hero of one’s story for it to be great, and, if so, would a comic or tragic hero be best? Narcissism it at an all-time high, so a dose of comedy might help the would-be heroes take themselves a bit less seriously. How will being the fool and being great be reconciled in the stories we help guide?
What Makes a Story Great?
Is a ‘great story’ one which has the marks of great literature, great art, great rhetoric? Have our hearers been prepared by their educations and experience to make any good judgment about the aesthetic quality of their life stories? Will their stories be ‘great’ according to the conventions of biography, or detective fiction, or romantic comedy? Is all this concern for our stories just more self-referential metacognition?
Do You Have Capacity for a Great Story?
Do people raised largely without skill in the use of words, or practice in the creative arts have the skills needed to generate truly great stories (works of fiction, or life narratives)? What remedial help will be needed to successfully engage people in this metaphor of the storyline? C.S. Lewis commented upon the artistic difficulty of rendering virtuous characters well in stories. Flannery O’Connor’s work demonstrates the grotesque nature of many ‘real to life’ characters – none of whom (though her stories are of high quality) lead lives anyone would call great. There are real and difficult paradoxes here to be probed and addressed. What artists have faced in their work may be of great help to those who would help make, of lives, works of art.
Worse, probably, than vague definitions, poor capacity for judgement, scant experience in creative resolution of tension, and mal-formation in literature for the living or guiding of ‘great stories,’ are the messages about story which prevail in the current culture. Among them, “You write your own story,” “A hero defies the law for a greater good,” “One may choose an utterly new narrative to support each reinvention of Self (new gender, new relationship status, etc…),” “A story arc is the best way to lure someone down a sales funnel to a call-to-action button,” “To be great, a story should make a great movie,” or “The greatest stories get the most ‘likes’.” If they have absorbed such messages, parishioners will need pretty intensive ‘guidance’ in order to overcome the resultant pressure toward anti-greatness.
I offer my perspective as an exercise in thinking critically about slogans, taglines, brand promises, mottoes, buzzwords, catch phrases, message spin, and other rhetorical devices borrowed from the sphere of marketing. I suppose my quibbles about the efficacy of the ‘great stories’ concept makes me seem ‘not a team player’. I write, however, to offer real conversation to the team who came up with this new game plan, and to their fans. Given that, as Josef Pieper said, “Conversation is the context of truth,” conversations like these might actually be helpful in guiding great, Catholic, virtuous, beautiful, joyous, influential, poignant, satisfying stories with deep integrity and coherence. Those, by the way, would be my starting point for a working definition of ‘great’ as it applies to a life story.