Stories—narratives—provide a way of understanding our place in the scheme of things by structuring our understanding of events. They root us in an on-going stream of history and thereby provide us with a sense of belonging and helping establish our identities.
Traditional narratives were firmly established—you took your identity from your locale, your clan, and your religion. You fit in with your family and your country. These were master narratives that contained within them other, subsidiary stories that centered on more transient matters.
Master narratives broke apart in the modern world. People began to migrate, religions unraveled under the onslaught of rational education, traditions frayed beyond recognition. The master narratives became stories of nostalgia, not guiding forces that determined both morality and reality.
While there was much good in the older, master narrives, but they were also flawed. The problem is that many older narratives rested upon unequal and unfair relationships, particularly between the sexes but not exclusively, and therefore failed on moral grounds. A moral relationship is a reciprocal relationship that is mutually enhancing but many master narratives reinforced inequality.
Since we can’t live without stories, new ones bid to replace the old master narratives. Today’s stories, though, are different from those in the past. They don’t arise organically from a community but instead come packaged by those whose goal isn’t to inform but to make money. The master narrative of the modern world is the story of the market economy, a powerful but deeply problematic story.
The problem is that many older narratives rest upon unequal and unfair relationships, particularly between the sexes but not exclusively, and therefore fail on moral grounds. A moral relationship is a reciprocal relationship that is mutually enhancing.
The stories we live by today largely come packaged not as spiritual or communal quests but as aspirations for material gain. Values are created by advertisements and advertisements replace wisdom literature. Actors, musicians, comedians, and others are followed as they though they were gurus, nearly worshipped as avatars and almost deified simply because they are appealing. Wisdom now lives under the shadow of celebrity.
John Lennon once famously quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Lennon didn’t know which would go first—rock ‘n roll or Christianity. Lennon imagined a world without religion and other institutions that stifled human potential. What he and other had not recognized is that it is not possible to live without some overaching narrative that provides legitimacy to sustaining institutions. It is that which gives coherence and meaning to life’s experiences.
The celebrity phenomenon underscores the human need to connect, to be part of something larger than ourselves, to have an identit. We need to be part of a narrative, no matter how shallow or manipulative it may be.
We understand life through stories. We cannot live without them. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the marketplace narrative we now live by is too shallow to sustain us in the long run.