Why Origin Stories Matter
Written by Managing Editor on September 27, 2019
By Jesse Sumpter
Everyone loves a good origin story. That is why we have so many movies about the origin of a particular character or hero. In many ways, almost all stories are origin stories: these stories explain who the character is and how he got to be the person that he is. We like these stories because they reveal fundamental components of a person’s past and how they have shaped him. This interest in fictional origin stories reveals how important origin stories are, especially real ones.
While we might understand the importance of the past, it is easy to ignore it or to not give it the time that we should.
One reason we do not take time to consider the past is that it often seems too abstract. We can say that the Reformation shaped our history. But those terms and ideas are so abstract we might as well be talking about the mythical story of Beowulf. Large historical claims often sound like the stuff of legends that have no real impact on our lives.
A key way to push back on the vagueness of history is to make history concrete and specific. It is easier to see how the specific history of our family and the people close to us have shaped our lives. One way to get at this principle is to suggest that a close family member–your father–is actually not who you think he is. Your father is actually the CEO of a multi-million dollar company or maybe he worked for President Reagan. There are other scenarios you could run but the point is to highlight how the story of your father makes a rather large impact on your life. You would want to know more about your father. You would want to know how and why he got into that work. Your view of your father would also change.
Now what if we sketched some real history about your family? Like how your mom and dad met–maybe at highschool or college. Can you imagine that moment not happening? What would that change in your life? Everything. Or what if your grandfather and grandmother were not in the same middle school class? Would they have gotten married? Or what if your great, great, great, grandfather never came to America? Would you be here in America? No.
When we start putting familiar faces and names on the past, we quickly see how important the past is to our current place today.
While considering specific family history is helpful, we also recognize that much of it has gotten lost in the misty records of the past. So another historical line that is helpful to trace is church history. What do you know about the history of the Church?
I grew up in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) where my father is a pastor and I can trace that line through J. Gresham Machen through the Presbyterian Rebellion (the American Revolution for those non-Presbyterians out there) back to 1620 when the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts and then back to John Knox in England who lived in Geneva and studied with John Calvin. And of course, it goes back farther than that but I will stop there. Do you know the history of your denomination? How has the church of the past influenced your church today?
All of this shows how origin stories are not neutral. Origin stories are a war for control over the past. When someone starts telling you the history of a superhero, you need to start thinking “Genesis account.” This is History. When people start talking about history, they are talking about who and what we are today. The saying is true: he who controls the past controls the present and the future. Origin stories then are not just about old, dusty history. They are about our present moment and identity.
This should drive us to seek deep history. That is, this should drive us to read the Bible. The Bible is the story of the cosmos and we need to be saturated in it. There is a war for the cosmos happening all around us and a key part of that war is telling stories. Where did we come from? How did we get here? What are we doing here? What is the future going to be like? Those are cosmic questions that touch down in our specific, daily lives.
This is why evolution is such a huge threat to Christianity. It is an origin story that rewrites everything. This is why theories about history, like marxist history or feministy history, are so dangerous: they are rewriting the past.
In order to combat these false origin stories we need the true and deep origin story. We need the Bible. Specifically, we need to hold on to the key origin stories: Creation and Redemption. In many ways there are two origin stories: the first one when God created the cosmos and the second one when God recreated the cosmos through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are all part of the first origin story and we all need the second one.
It is only in the second origin story that we can be free from the damage done in the first origin story. If we try to hold only to the first origin story, then we will be left with death and sin. But thankfully, that origin story has been reversed and redeemed. We have a new origin story in Christ. This means our old identities and sins no longer define us. And this is good news.
The world might suggest to us that our past is permanent and can never be healed. Some might claim that it will cling to you forever. But in Christ there is good news: your past can finally die. There is no past so large or so big that it can control you and your life. Christ’s death was the biggest event in history and it left a gigantic tomb big enough for everyone’s past to fit into it. With plenty of room to spare.
But our past doesn’t just die. It is actually redeemed and resurrected in service of God and for His plan and purpose. There are some parts (the sinful habits and lifestyle) that are gone and dead. But there are also parts that God gives back in newness of life. But these things are given on His terms and not ours because we died and our old life is gone.
In this way, Christians all have the same origin story. Our origin story starts at a tomb and that tomb is empty. That means everything has been changed. We are a new creation. The old life is gone. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. And that origin story is sure and solid and cannot be lost. All other origin stories will end at a tomb; the Christian origin story starts at a tomb and leads to unending life. This is the only true origin story because it comes from the author of life.
Jesse Sumpter is the Managing Editor for the blogazine at CrossPolitic. His writing has also appeared at Kuyperian Commentary and The Imaginative Conservative.