In his 1989 novel The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian novelist and erstwhile presidential candidate, describes the Machiguenga, a scattered and wandering Amazonian tribe, the various clans of which are unified by the activities of the mysterious “ hablador, ” or “talker.” The habladores appear to exercise neither royal nor religious functions, yet are held in the highest respect by the Machiguenga and carefully protected from Western observation. As he moves from one subtribe to another, the hablador simply talks, bringing news from other portions of the tribe, and serving, in the words of one of Vargas Llosa’s characters, as “the memory of the community.”
While celebrating the uniqueness of the endangered tribal cultures of the rain forests, Vargas Llosa would evidently have us recognize something of an “Everyculture” in the Machiguenga. This notion that societies are held together by common memories, by shared stories, is hardly a novel one. In moral philosophy, ethics, theology, anthropology, and, it seems, nearly every other discipline, “story” has become a central, though not an exclusive, category of analysis.
The social importance of the story is more palpable within tribes such as the Machiguenga than within our “postmodern” society. If the moral philosophers, theologians, and others are right, however, our society is equally united and defined by the story we collectively tell and live. And this, further, would seem to account for the intensity of the current turmoil within American higher education over the content and the very notion of a canon. Some cultures are unified by a story passed informally from mother to daughter, from father to son, from tribal elder to initiates”in short, by oral tradition. By contrast, our culture is unified by a canon, which is passed from one generation to the other in the highly organized ritual known as formal education. We are bound together by a story that has been written, a story that has attained a fixed and public status, a highly complex story that must be printed in multivolume sets, which are given uniform bindings so as to look impressive above the fireplace in the den.
Or such at least is the claim of those who defend the canon of great books. Of course, those presently attacking the canon object to the very notion that “we” can tell “a story.” The whole point of the attack is that “Western Civilization” is a cacophony of stories, and that that cacophony forms a uniquely beautiful melody A defender of the canon might retort that a story of plurality remains a story. In any case, if the canon embodies “our” story (or stories), and if our story is what defines us as a distinct civilization, then an attack on the canon is an attack on the very meaning of that civilization. A major change in the canon marks a major shift in our collective Weltanschauung. A denial that “we” can tell a story would seem to imply that “we” are not a civilization.
A Christian observing the conflict over the canon might be excused for feeling like a child watching his brothers fight it out over his toy “Canon,” after all, like so many of our political and cultural concepts, was stolen from the Church, or more charitably, it was borrowed and never returned. The original canon of Western Civilization was the collection of documents known to Christians as the Old and New Testaments. (Some of us believe that this original canon is still the canon.) In the premodern West (and in early America), it was the Bible that defined and unified our civilization. The Bible provided the patterns, symbols, and archetypes that made up what Northrop Frye has called the “great code” of Western literature. The Bible, especially in America, provided the framework of political rhetoric. Biblical themes were worked into architecture, painting, sculpture. Other stories there were, to be sure, but these were absorbed into and brought into the service of the dominant biblical story (witness Aquinas’ “sanctification” of Aristotle). Insofar as cultures are defined by their dominant stories, premodern Western Civilization was a biblical civilization.
At the same time, the conflict over the canon holds rich resources for an ambitious Christian satirist. The cultural nihilists are correct to the extent that the very notion that we need a collection of authoritative documents is an anachronistic leftover of premodern Christendom. More than that, the new canon is treated by even the most sophisticated with the same veneration as the old biblical canon. Several years ago, a protracted, solemn, and highly technical debate raged through several prominent literary journals about a new edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, a debate that reminded one of nothing more than the fundamentalist-modernist debates about the historical authenticity of the Scriptures. Oh, for a fundamentalist Mencken!
Amusement has its place, but also its limits. For the Christian, the current controversy over the canon pales beside the earlier shift away from a biblical canon. It took several centuries for the Bible to be dislodged from the center and steadily relegated to the periphery Today, it is just another “great book” nestled between the Gilgamesh Epic and the Iliad in anthologies of world literature. In a precise reversal of the premodern situation, the Bible has been absorbed into a new canon and reinterpreted to accommodate a new dominant story, told in Heideggerian, Freudian, or deconstructionist accents. That accomplished fact is of vastly greater historical significance than the “who’s in/who’s out” bickering that dominates current debates.
The premodern world can never be recovered, and in many ways this is not to be lamented. Indeed, the Church’s present position gives her an opportunity to tell her story over against the stories of the dominant culture. In this setting, the gospel can be beard for what it is”as wildly good news”rather than as a confirmation of inbred prejudice.
For the first time since Constantine, the canon of the Church is no longer identical to the dominant canon of Western Civilization. That does not mean that the Church should abandon Western Civilization to its own dismal devices. Instead, the question that the Church now must pose to what remains of Western Civilization is which canon is the more inclusive: Is the Bible a chapter in the story of Western Civilization, or is Western Civilization a chapter in the story of the Bible? It is the work of the Church to witness that the fate of our civilization turns on our answer to that question.
Peter J. Leithart is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.