The Ancient Modern
Stories from the Other World / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Especially when I was a child, every story told to me had a powerful effect on the state of my heart and informed my beliefs about the world in which I lived. Every story—whether in a book or on television, whether from my friends or overheard in adult gossip. Within the narrative were always deep ideas about how the world works, what its limits were and who I could be within it.
We do not tell stories unless we believe that something vital is at stake. Even the simplest bit of news isn’t passed from one ear to another without an element of (at least perceived) necessity. Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we come to realize that what is being presented as necessary isn’t necessary at all—that it’s nonsense. Conversely, nonsense can be the perfect disguise for a needed truth.
Recently, I’ve been thinking through the story lines of some of my favorite television programs from the past or present. What makes them so appealing to me? Do I simply have nothing better to do, or am I looking for something within the storyline to answer deep desires or questions?
And do the answers given by television or movies correspond to universal Truth, or do they simply affirm what other television or movies portray for us—in a kind of self-reinforcing cultural narrative?
What I think we need (families and communities need it as much as individuals) are poetry and stories which seem to come into our own from some Other World. Another World of timeless truths, of limitless beauty and of unqualified goodness. We need stories in which that vital thing at stake is eternal, not a temporary solution, affection, triumph or peace.
Stories from the Other World do not have to be epic or abstract. They can be specific, concerned with details and with the immediate smallness of life. In some of the most vivid stories, it is the small and concrete which point toward the high and great. We should learn the art of discerning one kind of story from the other—the story that entertains from the story that transforms.
We are surrounded by stories that fail to lead us out of ourselves but rather confirm us in our insularity. But we can all recall stories that make us braver, wiser and more compassionate.
Especially when I was I child, I felt the effect of stories. Now, in my middle years, I pay less attention. But I sense that my lack of attention hasn’t changed the effect stories have on me; the effect is still there, and I may even be putting myself in danger by my lack of vigilance.
Is it possible to return to childlikeness with regard to the stories we see or hear? Is it possible to rethink our gossip, our news, our sitcoms—knowing again the incredible power they have to mold and shape us? Could we make time to engage the more difficult kinds of story—novels, ancient books and poetry? And not just make more time, but rejuvenate our mental and emotional energy for engaging these more intense and demanding storyforms?
I imagine it would be difficult to do this as individuals. Community effort will be required. Communal reading. Communal story-making and story-telling.