Stories and the Moral Imagination

484430_578685982162405_93804403_n“The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king.”

Shakespeare’s insight into the meaning of stories still instructs, teaching generations something important about “the call of stories” and the ways they form the moral imagination. There are few in our world today who have seen that as clearly as Robert Coles, long a distinguished professor at-large at Harvard University.

It is his book by that title, The Call of Stories, that tells his own tale of teaching students across the university’s curriculum, undergraduate to graduate, drawing them into the imaginative universes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, in courses like “The Literature of Social Reflection” and “Dickens and the Law.”

I thought of this this past week as I saw “42,” the film about Jackie Robinson, a story of shames and glories, of the hard-face of institutional racism that plagued a nation and of courageous choices by people like Branch Rickey and Robinson to chart a different path for themselves and America. There is nothing cheap in the story.

But a few days later I thought of it again when I talked with some twenty-somethings about the film. Their take was that it was “not dark enough.” I suppose I was non-plussed at that response, surprised to hear their reading of the film. They compared it to “Django Unchained,” the Quentin Tarantino film about racism in the South of the Civil War years, preferring the “darkness” of that story. “What about it?” I asked.“ More true,” was what they said. “Do you require blood?” I wondered– and gore and horror, in your face, so much so that you need to shower when you come home from the theater? And in the end, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth hatred everywhere? Does that make a story truer?

“42” is not a new story to me. I remember reading the biographies of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese as a boy; but then I read all the biographies in our town’s library, and the school’s library. I liked stories then, and still do. They open windows into the human heart, if we have eyes to see. But they also reflect what people believe about the world, shaping our visions and hopes—for blessing and for curse. So it matters what stories we hear.

It is a finger-to-the-wind, this business of stories. They form the moral imagination of persons and peoples, teaching us to see and judge and understand, to know what is worth hoping for and what is not, to distinguish between things that matter and things that don’t. As Shakespeare saw so many years ago, in the words of Hamlet, they “catch our conscience.” I wonder what it means that the small sample of a generation I talked with in two different settings prefers in-your-face sorrow? That they see a story like “42” as “too hopeful,” choosing cynical despair instead?

Something good happened in history, as “42” remembers. It wasn’t perfect, and not all that needed to happen happened, but something happened. A proximate justice was achieved, which is the best we get in this life. Yes, the story of Robinson and Rickey is a finger-to-the-wind, as is the way some twenty-somethings saw it.

Glorious ruins we are as human beings, and our best and truest stories remember both.

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