In the Christian tradition, just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus told his disciples that, once His time on Earth was over, He would send a Great Counselor to take His place. This promised omniscient guide became known to the early Christians as the Holy Spirit.
But the early church already had God, and they had Jesus, so why was a third party necessary to complete the transcendent, spiritual relationship that existed between humankind and the divine?
The great contemplatives of nearly all faiths know that the full nature of our being is nuanced and complex. They intrinsically sensed that we are all more than just body and mind – the dualistic sum of our physical bodies and the impulses of our brains. There is an indescribable complexity about us that words fail to distinguish, an essence of our being that fits into the categories of neither body nor mind, and the great religious thinkers throughout history referred to this aspect of human expression as our spirit.
Transcendent storytelling attempts to tap into this elusive nature of our being. But what is spirit?
Spirit is the nature of our humanity that endeavors to bridge the divide
between the often-dueling body and mind.
As I wrote in my last post, lesson stories endeavor to disseminate morality in the form of binary codes of conduct – sets of rules, regulations, and laws. At times, living life based solely on a checklist of dos and don’ts is a seasonal necessity that protects us and keeps us safe, but such living ultimately leads to arrested moral development.
This type of binary moral code is what we observe in children who make behavioral choices simply to avoid punishment or to be rewarded for doing good. If we don’t progress beyond this lower stage of moral development* we remain stuck in the ethical logic of childhood and do not take responsibility for our own morality, which unfortunately is where many of us remain for the durations of our lives.
Binary thinking is the language of our popular culture, which is why most stories Hollywood tells are lesson stories about the often dueling body and mind – my mind says one thing, but my body (the unchangeable world around me) says something else. This confliction between the warring two creates a fascinating battle that serves as the genesis of many great stories. But these types of stories nearly always end with a character having to make a choice between one side or the other.
In the early days of the Christian religion, followers already had the mind of their faith (the dogmatic dos and don’ts of their belief system) and they had the body of their faith (the compassionate Christ who put little stock in the dos and don’ts). But if that’s where the narrative stopped, Christianity would have subdivided into two warring conclaves. And the divided practitioners of the Christian faith would have been stuck between the dueling either/or questions, “Are we to follow a cognitive set of rules, OR are we to trust the gut instincts of our hearts?”
The great contemplatives of the Christian faith responded loudly and clearly; it is actually a both/and proposition. And thus, according the Biblical narrative, the spirit of their faith was given to the new Christians. A Great Counselor, a guide to help humanity navigate the tricky waters of life when the irreconcilable differences between body and mind must find a way to coexist.
Transcendent storytelling seeks to illuminate a third perspective. Films like Moonlight (2016), Arrival (2016), The Tree of Life (2011), The Babadook (2014), Contact (1997), Let the Right One In (2008), The Truman Show (1998)... just to name a few... portray characters who are incapable of continuing their conflicted existences if they remain entrenched in the contentious worlds of their opposing bodies and minds. The characters in these films are only able to transcend their situations after they give up their fights and step into deeper spiritual dimensions of their humanity – frightening, organic, ever-changing places that are murky and unpredictable, but places that allow their dueling minds and contentious bodies to figure out ways to live peacefully together.
Nearly every great story begins with a character's body and mind locked in a cage match against each other – this is where the great drama of story comes from.
But as you strive to progress your writing beyond simple lesson stories and imbue your narratives with spirit, ask yourself this question, “Instead of having to choose sides, can my character enter into some sort of complex, humble, peaceful relationship with their dueling body and mind?” Entertaining this question will start to open up all sorts of deeper, transcendent writing possibilities.
*Essays on Moral Development, Lawrence Kohlberg