Given my lifelong interest in sustaining vocation over time, deepening our commitments as we grow older rather than discarding them, these words of John Steinbeck’s in East of Eden, caught me. One of the saddest of all stories is when someone who begins well, formed by a vision of vocation rooted in the truest truths of the universe, inch by slow inch decides that “the story” isn’t enough, that it isn’t true anymore— and under the intense pressures of a globalizing, pluralizing, and secularizing world, many stumble along the way, while others lose their way completely.
Which of course begs the question, perhaps several questions that are twined together, “Is there a story that is true?” Do we have any way of knowing whether anything is true? Or is the best we have many different stories, narratives upon narratives of all shapes and sizes— but of course no metanarrative. Can we ever know whether there is a story that makes sense of all the stories? Or is that simply fantasy, a wish with no fulfillment”?
A master story-teller, Steinbeck knew more than most about stories, e.g. what they are, and why they matter. And we should too— because they do matter, of course, for everyone everywhere.
Because we believe this is true, for more than two years we have been hard at work on a curriculum project with Regent College in Vancouver, BC. At its heart it is the Story of all stories, with windows into the meaning of vocation offered throughout, each one in a unique way someone at work in the world. Born out of our own long commitments, we found that Regent was at-work on the same idea, wanting to address the same need. One morning, about two years ago, I had a long breakfast with Mark Mayhew, the director of their Marketplace Institute, and the longer we talked, the more intrigued both of us were— we were working on the same question, and had the same vision for the development of a course that would try to answer it.
Following a visit to Vancouver, we decided to join forces and together develop what we have called “ReFrame.” A ten-episode curriculum, each one features interviews with people from far and wide, as well as a 20-minute lecture by a Regent professor setting forth the next “chapter” of the story, drawing on the best of Regent and the best of our work. Simply said, ReFrame is a deeply-formed understanding of the world, both the way it is and the way we long for it to be.
And now the project is done. Almost daily people are writing us, telling of the ways they are using it, and each note makes us glad. Our hope is that it will be useful all over the world, which is why we chose to do some of the filming in Asia, and some in Africa. Not everyone everywhere is captured, but we tried to find representative faces and voices from across North America and other places too, representing “the majority world.”
But back to Steinbeck, and his unusual insight into the meaning of stories. A good artist always invites us in, allowing us to see and hear ourselves, perhaps even to wonder about ourselves… whether on screen, stage, or canvas. Steinbeck does that with remarkable skill, asking questions we all understand. “A child may ask, ‘What’s the world’s story about?’ And a grown man or woman may wonder, ‘What way will the world go? How does it end, and while we’re at, what’s the story about?’”
My reading of the human heart is that we are all asking the same questions. What’s the world’s story? Does it really it make sense of life? Is it true to who we are as human beings? Self-conscious or not, articulate or not, intentional or not, in thousands of different ways we all ask these questions— and in and through our lives, answer them.
But when the day is all done, and all the pushes-have-come-to-shoves— like the character in Steinbeck’s story —none of us want a story that is “made up,” that isn’t “enough,” because it isn’t “true anymore.” None of us want a story like that.
(Photo from a visit to Vancouver in the fall of 2013, for some of the filming of the course— and if you look closely, you can almost see Regent College, on the very edge of the city, looking out on the bay and mountains.)