There are big stories and little stories. The little stories are about us. They are about where we were born, the family we grew up in, and other significant events in our life. They are rich, wonderful and engaging—but they are also profoundly lacking. Why? Because they have a beginning and an end. We are born, we live, we die and not many years later it’s as if we never existed. We want to believe that our life has some grander, deeper meaning. We want to believe that even that life does not end at the grave.
Bertrand Russell was a prominent English philosopher of the last century. He was an atheist and should be credited for having the courage of his convictions in that he understood what that meant. In a Free Man’s Worship he wrote:
That Man is the product of cause which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hope and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Yikes! Suffice it to say that most of us aren’t Bertrand Russell. We want to believe there is something more to life than building our lives “on the foundation of unyielding despair.”
That’s where the big stories come in. Cultures of every kind have always had stories that sought to stitch together all the little stories and produce a meaningful, coherent narrative in much the same way that a patchwork quilt brings unity to different pieces of cloth. The stories sought to provide people with overarching, transcendent truths that brought harmony and purpose to their lives. For the Greeks it was their stories about Zeus and the other gods and goddesses of Olympus. It was the same thing for the Romans; they merely co-opted the Greek stories and gave the same gods Roman names. Egypt was much the same way but their pantheon of gods was home grown. In all of this they were doing the same thing—creating a story big enough to embrace everyone and everything.
Yet ultimately there can only be one big story and it is not created by man, it is given to us by God. That’s what makes the biblical story so radically different from all the other big stories. Not only is there one God as opposed to many gods, but He created man to image Him and calls him to that higher life. The big stories that humans gave us created their gods and goddesses in man’s image with the result being that rather than liberating, they enslaved. Rather than calling humanity to something nobler, the were the vehicles for oppression, suffering and even death. This is exactly what we see in Exodus where Egypt’s big story leads to slave labor, babies being put to death and ethnic cleansing. This is exactly why God sends the plagues—to show Israel and Egypt that there is one God and one story that brings joy, life and liberation (Exodus 12:12).