We've got to do better than this. As we grope our way back toward the idea of living by shared values (a working definition of character), we should consider the wellspring of talk about character—story. We live in stories the way fish live in water, breathing them in and out, buoyed up by them, taking from them our sustenance, but rarely conscious of this element in which we exist.

Life as a story is not simply a metaphor, but the way our experience actually presents itself to us. We are characters making choices over time—and living with the consequences—and that is the essence of story both in literature and in life. The more we are conscious of our role as characters making choices that have consequences, and the more we purposefully choose the stories by which we live, the healthier we will be as individuals and as a society.

Stories, as MacIntyre writes in "After Virtue," teach us how to live:

I can only answer the question "What am I to do?" if I can answer the prior question, "Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?" We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are. … It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children … youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world, and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living … that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

If many young people seem confused and directionless today, and their elders with them, perhaps it is because they have been deprived of good stories. They "stutter" in their lives because they almost literally do not know their lines; they do not know themselves as characters in a meaningful story.

And of course, Christians believe the seminal story by which all other stories must be judged is the one which commences, "In the beginning God … " This is the greatest story ever told. The theme of this story is the most hopeful imaginable: God made us, God loves us, and God calls us back to himself. This is the story that gives ultimate meaning to our own stories.

Without meaningful choices there is no story and no character. But how to choose? A traditional answer, approved by both Aristotle and Christ, has been that we pattern our choices and our lives after someone we want to be like. And that someone is often presented to us in story.

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Bruno Bettelheim claims that the stories of good and evil in fairy tales—or, we might add, in Bible stories—can play an important role in the moral development of children. And the power of these stories lies not so much in the abstract moral or theme as in the characters. Bettelheim says, "The question for the child is not, 'Do I want to be good?' but 'Who do I want to be like?' "

It is not surprising that the bulk of moral education in human history has been through models, exempla, heroes—that is, through story. Many of the traditional stories of moral education have fallen out of favor because of modern skepticism, the loss of centers of moral authority, fear of hypocrisy, and suspicion that morality might be just another name for authoritarianism, privilege, and misused power.

The stories that provide us the models that help shape our character are all around us. They come first from the family, then from church and school and the popular media. Some are from literature, others from history, politics, family lore, and, alas, television. Among the stories that come to mind from my own childhood are stories of missionaries killed by Auca Indians, of the ground opening up to swallow people who lied to God, of the defeat of Nazism by my uncles, of the first Thanksgiving, of Davy Crockett at the Alamo, of the kids who got paddled for skinny dipping in the creek, and on and on. It is difficult, in fact, to think of anything that significantly influenced me that wasn't part of a story in one way or another.

The most important stories have the power to change our character. I believe, for instance, that my life took a slight but perceptible change in direction in my late teens from reading J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Trolls, elves, hobbits, wizards, dark forests, forest havens, caves, mountain strongholds, treachery, cowardice, courage, perseverance—what have these to do with being a teenager in California during the Vietnam War?

Nothing and everything. I found embodied in that fantasy what every teenager needs to find—especially one coming of age in the moral ambiguity of the late 1960s: that there is a difference between good and evil, that the distinction is usually clear enough to act on, that fighting for good is worthwhile even if one loses, that average, even unimpressive, people can accomplish much, and, farfetched as it may seem, that good eventually wins out in the end.

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I purposed quite consciously to try to be on the side of good in life, to the extent that I could discern it, and to take chances to see that it prevailed. I genuinely believe this story helped shape who I was and am. Its characters became a part of my character. If the change in direction was small at the time, it may have been one that, like a small, early course correction in a planetary probe, has made a larger difference in where I am, many years later.

After reading "The Lord of the Rings" two or three times in my teens, I have not read it since. I might not be nearly so impressed now, but that doesn't matter. It did me a service. It helped form my mind as well as my ethics at a time when both were up for grabs. When I later discovered sophistic thinkers who assured me that good and evil were not real categories but only subjective and transient points of view, I knew better. I lacked then the intellectual resources to articulate my disagreement, but I was armed with the holistic experience of a story that kept me from naively embracing what I now think is a widely influential but unlivable view of the world.

Stories not only provide moral education but also shape our sense of identity. In fact, it is impossible to separate our sense of who we are from the stories in which we cast ourselves as characters.

A few years back I was invited to speak at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. I was not acquainted with John Brown University. Wanting to know a little about the place and people, I asked the chaplain to send me some information on the school.

I discovered that John Brown had been a traveling evangelist on the sawdust trail during the early and middle part of the twentieth century. Based primarily in the South, he had ranged as far west as California, saving the lost and admonishing the saved. At some point, he had started a little school in Arkansas.

I will admit to a flicker of condescension when I read this sketch of John Brown's life. I am just old enough to have witnessed a tent meeting or two. I also know something about idiosyncratic institutions dominated by the personality of an eccentric founder, sometimes well after that founder has passed on. I did not make any sweeping judgments, but somewhere in the back of my mind I prepared myself for the possibility of a few days in a backwater place with people not quite as up-to-date as I was.

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Shortly before leaving for Arkansas, I was talking on the phone with my father. He asked me what I was up to, and I mentioned I was going to a place called John Brown University. He replied, "Oh yes, John Brown. Your grandfather Nick was saved under John Brown."

It was one of those moments when God reveals to you in great clarity how stupid you are.

My father then told me a story I had never heard. My grandfather Nick had left a crowded and troubled home in Indiana when he was 15 or 16. It was shortly before World War I, and he had nowhere to go. So he jumped on a freight train heading west. He ended up in Los Angeles—lonely and without direction. One night he wandered by a revival meeting led by John Brown. He went in, and there he met God. And because he became a Christian, in a personal and life-directing way, he later looked for a Christian woman to marry, and they chose to raise their only child—my father—as a Christian, and he chose a Christian woman to marry, and they chose to raise me and my brothers as believers. So I discovered that this man, John Brown, whom I had safely pigeonholed as someone of no relevance to my life, was, in fact, an important link in the chain to my own salvation. It was a story I needed to hear.

I didn't just hear this story, I accepted it—made it a part of who I was and how I thought about myself and life. It reinforced my sense of living in a coherent universe, of belonging to something important that has stretched over time, of being a link in a chain—indebted to many in the past, mostly unknown to me, and responsible to many in the future, who likewise will not know who I was. In short, the story affected my character.

The key to every good plot is characters making choices. Choices instill values—right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, wise and foolish—into an otherwise sterile sequence of events.

Frank Kermode claims that every plot is "an escape from chronicity." Chronicity is mere clock time. It is succession without progression, or even meaningful cause and effect. It is time dehumanized and devalued, measured by repetition, not by significance.

The antidote to chronos is kairos, the Greek and biblical notion of time redeemed. In classical Greek, kairos referred, among other things, to a decisive time, a moment that required an important decision. There was a statue to a god named Kairos outside the stadium at Olympia, perhaps in recognition of the need for athletes to seize the moment, to act decisively before the opportunity was past.

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Kairos was also linked to the idea of responsibility. One has a duty to fulfill the demands of the pregnant moment. In this sense, as in many others, story time is kairos, not chronos. In life as in art, the characters in a story must choose, and they are responsible for the consequences of their choices. With choosing comes significance.

In Greek thought, the opposite of such choosing and acting was passivity. The Greeks, of course, believed strongly in fate, but that did not mean one waited idly for things to happen. Seizing the moment was an act of faith that one's destiny required and rewarded decisive action. Kairos was an antidote to a fatalism that made one the passive victim of time and chance.

Early Christianity adapted and gave theological richness to the Greek notion of kairos (though its use in the New Testament is not entirely consistent). God is seen as impregnating time with significance throughout salvation history, most notably in the Incarnation. Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the fulfillment of the very purpose of time and history: "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" His life creates a new urgency for everyone who encounters his message: "Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation." This message requires a decision ("Who do you say that I am?") and a changed life, not merely assent or dissent ("Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?").

Stories turn mere chronology, one thing after another, into the purposeful action of plot, and thereby into meaning. If we discern a plot to our lives, we are more likely to take ourselves seriously as characters. Healthy stories challenge us to be active characters, not passive victims or observers.

Stories teach us that character, in the ethical as well as literary sense, is more important than personality. Because characters must choose (and refusing to choose is itself a choice), they are inherently valuing beings. Every choice implies an underlying value—a because, an ought. The more conscious we are of our stories, and our roles as characters in them, the more clarity we have about who we are and why we are here and how we should act in the world.

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We learn that we are interdependent. Our stories are inextricably interwoven. What you do is part of my story; what I do is part of yours. Such an awareness encourages the shared understandings and shared commitments that are central to a healthy society.

An emphasis on story will not heal every social or spiritual ill, or solve every intellectual quandry. It is not a definitive solution to our troubles so much as a direction to be explored. It will not, by itself, clean up the moral waste dump spawned by relativism.

What it can do is defeat the passivity and paralysis that accompanies a "Who's to say?" approach to crucial issues. How? By encouraging us to think of ourselves as responsible characters in a meaningful story. And when we find that our stories collide with others' stories, it can encourage us to keep talking until we find that point at which our stories interweave.

If we think of ourselves more often as interdependent characters in a shared story, we are more likely to turn out as our mothers intended. One of my mother's favorite admonitions was "Straighten up and fly right." It never occurred to her to doubt that terms like "straight" and "right" had real meaning and were somehow rooted in the nature of things. We need to recapture that assumption, because it is not possible to live well together without it.

That assumption, of course, has been out of favor for a long time. The ruling supposition, instead, has been that all morality is a product of culture and, therefore, that no universal moral rules or principles exist. James Q. Wilson, however, is not alone in arguing, as he does in his recent book "The Moral Sense," that there is much broader agreement from culture to culture and age to age on moral issues than has commonly been allowed, and that the moral sense is actually something naturally built into each human being. (The Christian, of course, has some ideas about where that moral sense originates.)

And morality, specifically character, is at the heart of many of the crucial social and economic issues of our day. Wilson argues, for instance, that poverty and even oppression are not adequate explanations for crime, because they fail to explain why most oppressed people in poverty do not engage in crime—and have not in the past under even worse conditions.

Wilson also cites James M. Buchanan's answer to the question "Why haven't we always had huge deficits as a nation?" Buchanan says it was simply thought wrong in the past to spend money you didn't have and that your children would have to repay in the future. Balancing the budget was, among other things, a question of character, though until recently a discussion of the national debt rarely would have been framed in this way.

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Multiply these examples a thousand times—in education, economics, politics, entertainment and the media, the church and the home, and in our private lives—and one can see something of the effect that the return of character is having and could have on our lives together. Character will not save America in the spiritual sense. But some of the qualities of God that he built into us could again be more evident in our public institutions, our private lives, and our shared lives together.

This will happen, however, only if our understanding of character surpasses what we generally hear around us today. Character is more than being a good person. It is choosing a role in a story worthy of the only life you will ever live, worthy of the calling you have received.

I return to that photograph. The man in that scene, if he was a pious Jew, lived his life by rules. And many of those rules were important. But the moment before their deaths he was not telling that frightened child about the rules. Nor did a lifetime of rule-keeping prepare him for his final loving act. If I am right, he was telling the boy a story. That act was the logical conclusion to the story around which he had built his life.

In truth, I do not even know if I am remembering the photograph accurately, having seen it years ago in a book I can no longer find. But it doesn't matter. Their story, as I imagine it, is now part of my own story. The courage and faith I ascribe to them make it more possible for me to believe that courage and faith are realistic options for me under infinitely less oppressive circumstances.

Our stories must be as strong as his. They must be strong enough to encompass not only death, but every kind of suffering and failure—divorce, disease, abuse, disgrace, and disappointment. They must even be strong enough to triumph over the dripping tedium of day after uneventful day.

We must be characters in life-defining stories that make it matter that we were ever here. If our present story is inadequate, we must choose to be different characters in a different story. I believe the ultimate author of such a story is the God who made and loves us and calls us to himself. But this is no Boy Scout God. Nor is he the God of humanitarianism. This God is one who came to us speaking these fearful words:

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The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

To be a character in this story calls for more of us than we are anxious to give, but next to it, all other stories pale.


Daniel Taylor is professor of literature at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Parts of this essay are adapted from his book "The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself Through the Stories of Your Life" (forthcoming from Doubleday).


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