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Abed, Eli, Hurley and the power of shared stories

“…because without a story to guide the culture of the West, we are unlikely to coalesce as a people in order to save our communities and lands.”
~Jeffrey A. Lockwood, “
The Cowboy Myth
Recently, my husband and I started watching all the original Star Trek episodes with our kids. While I started out simply wanting to share with them a series we both enjoyed in our own childhood, it took but a few episodes for me to realize I was sharing with them a foundational story or modern myth of our age. Like Star Wars, Westerns or comic books, Star Trek is the kind of story that infuses into the culture around us and becomes part of our shared experience. In some ways, these modern shared stories are like the ones our ancestors told around the campfires—and like other good stories, they reveal who we are and how the world works. And, as Jeffrey A. Lockwood says above, stories like that help to guide us.

And that probably goes a long way in explaining why I have such affection for characters like Abed Nadir (Community), Eli Wallace (Stargate Universe) and Hugo “Hurley” Reyes (Lost). These characters not only know the shared or foundational stories of our culture but also use those stories to help make sense of the world and help others around them—and their use of shared stories also deepen and enrich for us the narratives of which they are a part and help us better understand our own world and reality.

Hurley is my favorite of the three, perhaps because I’ve lived with his story longer than the others. As I’ve mentioned before, Hurley’s constant references to stories like Star Wars infused the Lost narrative (which is in itself has become a mini modern myth) with meaning and depth. For Hurley himself, these stories reflected a sense of right-and-wrong that guided his choices and how he saw the people around him. Whether he would articulate it or not, he saw the wisdom in them and used them to express the values by which he lived.

Eli Wallace bears some similarity to Hurley in SGU (which took a little longer to find its footing), though his comments are often more general, usually invoking common images or themes in the science fiction genre on the whole. Sometimes, his references to shared stories are a kind of wisdom, giving him clues to how a particular choice of action will go. Sometimes his references are simply comments on the experience at hand. Either way, they help to guide him and sometimes others as well. (And as an interesting note, his character got where he is because of another kind of shared story in our culture: video games.)

Abed is the most fleshed out or overt example of this type of character. I like how Wikipedia puts it:

… Abed seems to glean certain insights on life by comparing his life to various television shows and movies. This talent translates into him usually meta referencing their lives in relation to the show, by commenting on the dynamic of the characters together, their story lines, and can sometimes predict exactly what they will do at a given time. Sometimes he uses this gift and combines it with his ability to personify anyone he chooses, and uses this ability to help his friends work out their mental baggage.

Of all these characters, Abed most obviously exemplifies the power of shared stories. Within his own story, Abed more than any of the others uses shared stores to understand the world around him, help others make choices or understand the bigger picture, and bring together and even (as Lockwood puts it above) “save” his community.

Characters like these serve a purpose for we viewers as well. In addition to enjoying them as characters (and I do enjoy them), their references to shared stories infuse themes and meaning which deepen and enrich the narratives at hand. They serve as a kind of ancient Greek chorus, using larger shared stories to comment on themes or provide insight to help us understand the story at hand as well as greater truths that story is exploring.

This happens in real life too, and in referencing shared narratives we too often serve as a kind of chorus illuminating both our individual stories as well as the greater stories in which we live out our lives. How often do we struggle to find a way to express an idea or how we are feeling and use an example from a story both we and our listener share? Shared stories give us a way to deepen and enrich our conversations about what it means to be human and understand the world around us and, ultimately, who God is—and I do this all the time. Recently I used the transformation Jake Sully undergoes in Avatar as an image to help explain Paul’s teachings on how our bodies in the world to come will be different than they are now during a conversation with my 12-year-old daughter (who’s also seen Avatar). Heck, exploring the connections between the stories of this culture and God and faith is a huge chunk of what I write about, period.

Which brings me around to a point I frequently make on this blog: For me, the best shared stories reflect the Story itself. In the stories I love, I see threads and currents of that greater Story. The best of them flesh out its wisdom, truth, beauty, darkness and light, depth and breadth, helping us understand better who we are and who God is. And all this helps me understand better the need for and power of these kinds of shared stories to, as Lockwood puts it, bring us together and help us “save our communities and lands.”

(Images: Starship Enterprise, via Wikipedia; Hurley, ABC; Eli, SyFy; Abed, NBC; all via Wikipedia pages)