A common maxim: a person celebrates what he really believes. Writ a little larger, a culture celebrates what it really believes. We saw a perfect display of this on Friday evening, when the Olympics opened for 2012 in London.
What's so interesting about what happened on Friday night was how different it was compared to China's opening ceremony four years ago. Largely considered one of the most impressive opening displays of all-time for the Olympics, China muscled the world into an impressive display of collective strength and coordination. Thousands of drummers in sequence coordinated audible yells, intimidating mannerisms, and a remarkable lighted catenation of percussive movement. Even at the time, I remember thinking that though it was a powerful and unprecedented display of bigness- grand enough for the billions watching on the world stage- it was remarkably communitarian and powerful. In other words, it told a dull story. Bigger might be more bold, but it is not beautiful. It might have been powerful, but it spoke to the values imbibed by the Chinese over the last century: power and the collective. In other words: communism.
It was London, on the other hand, that dazzled the world with a story on Friday night. The director of the opening show, Danny Boyle, remarked that because what China did was so remarkable and not reproducable on the same scale, he was free to be as creative as he liked. And so he told a story.
If you will permit a brief excursus, it's important to note that I'm not after some sort of cultural supremacy here. Not all in the West is good (example forthcoming), and not all in China is bad. What I'm after is to note, via the observation of the Olympic opening ceremonies, that the cultural value of storytelling supercedes the cultural value of power as a supreme virtue. Indeed, part of China's collective identity is virtuous, as their bonds to family members surpasses those in the West and our cultural values. If it sounds like I wish to criticize China, that's not quite right; I wish to criticize displays of power as a cultural value and wish to uphold storytelling. And so now I continue with Boyle and London.
What Boyle did was tell the story of England, and the British Isles. He started off with the pastoral scene pictured above, and worked through the Industrial Age through war era of the twentieth century, moving to the modern, all the while mixing in famous British people and classic, stern, understated British humor. It was the very opposite of a collective scene. Indeed, parts of it were chaotic, with the audience not knowing where to look to find the story line (perhaps the unintended effect of individualistic capitalism?), and yet what I could discern was beautiful.
I'm understandably biased to evaluate such beauty. Why? Because the story of the West is undoubtedly a Christian story. And Danny Boyle (and I have no idea what his religious disposition is) didn't deny such a story. To start out the pastoral scene, uniting the British countries, children's choirs sang songs indigenous to those areas. And most of those songs were Christian hymns. A few other hymn tunes even found their way further along the story, but were noticeably absent once we got the war era. Honestly, that's a pretty accurate description of Western Europe's historic Christian roots and subsequent abandonment of Christianity.
And yet it was a story that needed to be told, and London told it. And despite all its eccentricities, it was more captivating than China's story: a dull, flat tale. After all, power is boring. Tell me a story instead with heroes and mystery and magic and people dying and coming back to life again.
Indeed, Harry Potter, a very British tale, is more interesting than Confucius' proverbs, rules without a story. Even better, the Bible is much more messy, and much more enlivening, than The Little Red Book.