Monday, February 01, 2010

Why We Tell Stories

“Why We Tell Stories”
A Chapel Address at Greenville College
February 1, 2010

At the time, I did not think my childhood and adolescence was all that odd. But in retrospect, I have come to understand just how different was my experience from most. Because my father was a Free Methodist minister, more often than not we moved from community to community every few years. Something of a recluse by nature, this meant that I never could form long-term attachments with people so I simply opted for creating my own reality. As a result, I lived much of my childhood and adolescence in an interior world shaped by stories and books.

That world was absent of many of today’s current distractions. There were no computers, no cell phones, no video games, and, at least in our tradition, no going to the movies and very little television. My father did have a cabinet stereo which included such outstanding vocalists as Frank Sinatra and the Ink Spots—still two of my favorite performing artists. But, by and large, my primary form of entertainment was either listening to old southern men spin stories or retreating into a corner to bury myself in a book. This meant that I either hung out uptown where the whittling and storytelling was going on or, particularly as I got older, at the community library. In addition to reading my Bible, which began at about age five or so, I early on discovered the great heroic narratives which have shaped Western civilization: Howard Pyle’s retelling of King Arthur and His Knights and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the lavishly decorative prose of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Andrew Lang’s 12-volume collection of Fairy Tales (which I own to this day).

My favorite haunts were the library in the winter in front of a warm grate or fireplace or an isolated spot under a shade tree in the summer. On long, languid Saturdays, I would make a full day of it, packing up the briefcase my mother had given me for a birthday present with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot sticks, and the occasional homemade cookie. Away from the noise of people and the taunts and jeers of my peers who were off playing ball somewhere, I discovered that I could be anyone I wanted to be. When I was in about fifth grade my parents, neither of whom had gone away to college and both of whom were working multiple jobs, responded to my heartfelt plea and purchased our prized possession—the Encyclopedia Britannica. These were special books—arrayed in cream-colored calfskin and stamped on the spine in gold lettering, each page made of smooth onion-skin and breathing the wisdom of the ages. And along with our new Britannica came a “Reading Guide,” put together by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler from the esteemed and far-off University of Chicago. Inside the guide was a plan of action for becoming an educated citizen—a plan marketed under the awe-inspiring title, the “Great Books.” The authors suggested that one start with the Bible, Shakespeare, and the Greek Tragedians—Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. So that is exactly what I did.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to revel in the poetic language such works contained! They introduced me to a new vocabulary and a new world beyond the rather constrained one in which I lived. As my colleague at Westmont College, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, says in her recent book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009): “We need story, poetry, play, and song to replenish the wellsprings of imagination, to feed the spirit, to foster compassion. Indeed,” she concludes, “I would go so far as to claim that there are certain kinds of understanding that we have no access to except by means of story,” (112-113). The combination of these narratives, oftentimes dubbed “classics” within the Western literary canon, alongside the familiar Biblical stories which framed my church experience came to deeply shape my own self-understanding and notions of the mysterious world spun by these ancient storytellers.

In their liturgical response which is ordered by God Himself in Deuteronomy 26, the people of Israel were ordered to declare as the priest received their offering: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (26:5), following which they would enumerate the story that gave to them their primary tribal identity. The Bible itself, scholars like my mentor Northrop Frye have suggested, is one long narrative from Genesis to Revelation which is meant to draw us into its contents. As Eugene Peterson claims in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (2006), “story is the primary verbal means of bringing God’s word to us. . . story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation. A good storyteller gathers us into the story,” (40).

I had learned this lesson quite early, under my grandfather’s tutelage, and would learn it again, as a father myself. My grandfather Holcomb, though devoid of much formal training, had a propensity towards the spinning of yarns which mark to this day so many mountain people. I grew up nourished by his accounts of the Civil War and of the men and women who had cut and hacked their way through the Cumberland Gap, the Midwestern frontier, and the Ozark brush to build a cabin and try to raise a vegetable garden on the flinty soil of Arkansas and southern Missouri. I would hang on his every word and try to make sure that I got the story just right in its retelling. Later, as a young father who meticulously attempted to spend time with his children before sending them off to bed, I would most often read to them age-appropriate materials, whether Goodnight Moon or later, Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. But, invariably, they cried out for a “made-up” story from my rather meager repertoire. And so it was that I began to branch out and invent characters to their liking, whether Tito the Baby Rhino whose horn always caused him to bounce between the thicket of rubber trees which encircled him, or Underwear Bear, on Her Majesty’s Service, “fighting for truth and justice everywhere, all the while popping underwear!” Or, to put it in rather crass terms, a proper British bear who performs wedgies on nasty, brutish types who dare to pick on people weaker than they, who are usually of superior intellect but mediocre physical ability.

Why did my daughters always request these stories, I have come to wonder? What is there within each of us that causes us to lean out on the edge of our seats whenever a good story is being told? This morning I would like to propose several possible answers to these questions as a means of challenging much of the pablum that is being thrown at us these days by a culture which is concerned primarily with the immediate and the consumable. In an “information age” in which much of the familiar narrative is pre-packaged in thirty-second sound bites meant to market consumable goods, “the church needs to be a place,” says McEntyre, “where stories are told, where we are invited back into the stories we live by, and where we come to find ourselves at home again in a dwelling made of words that is reconstructed in every telling,” (122). Stories are necessary not only for stretching our imagination and providing us with an alternative worldview, but for proclaiming the gospel, giving us words of poetry with which to pray, and for making of us a people of both passion and compassion.

In a little essay entitled, “On Fairy-Stories,” the Roman Catholic scholar of Early English Language and Literature, J. R. R. Tolkien, suggests that stories awaken in us a desire for something beyond the known. He claims that true stories provide for us a fleeting glimpse of joy that partakes of an underlying reality or truth. That is, I would suggest, that stories are to some extent sacramental—they impart to us a certain nourishment which sustains us whether we are four or sixty-four. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s colleague who specialized in Medieval English Literature, says in his own essay, “On Stories,” that, “no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to have grown out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all,” (Essays in Honor of Charles Williams, 100). That is why Lewis can go on to say that, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only,” (102).

Tolkien claims that the reason we tell stories in the first place is because we are made in the image of God: a peculiarly Christian thing to say. If God is by nature a creator and storyteller, because we have God’s DNA in our systems, we should expect to be storytellers as well. Stories serve to remind us of not only who we are, then, but whose we are. That is why Lewis was so vehement in his attack on movies, which he believed shut down and limited the human imagination. “Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace written fiction,” he thundered. “The elements which film excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera,” (102). Marilyn McEntyre agrees when she says that while some films have become cultural touchstones, they are “mostly commercial products, scripted and recorded in such a way that they often subordinate the verbal to the visual. They can be rewound and replayed, but not retold. They may help to draw us into communities as viewers and reviewers, but they engage us in a way that forfeits face-to-face human presence and spontaneous revision,” (118-119). She, along with Lewis, Tolkien, and current writers like Frederick Buechner, believe strongly in this sacramental nature of storytelling—that stories which are true (not historically or factually, mind you, but true in terms of their truth content) have the ability to get at and shadow the Truth, with a capital T.

But I think that stories go beyond both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s Platonic and Augustinian categories. From the very first words we encounter in the Bible, the Hebrew Torah, we see God speaking and imposing an order on His creation. The very Hebrew word for that chaotic void—tohuwabohu—conveys verbally something of the disorder which opposes the Creator. The liturgical sameness of this creation story framing each day of creation in the same way, even suggests that its original context may well have been the sacred sanctuary of worship. For a people caught up in a world that appeared untrustworthy and spinning out of control, such a perspective is nothing less than a radical reorientation towards nature. Leaving the sanctuary or the temple, one would have emerged with the sense that words give to the world an order by which we can understand God, ourselves, and that world—all of which is impossible without the very gift of narrative which speech makes possible.

Fr. Walter Ong suggests just such a thing in his voluminous writings on Orality and Literacy. In the age of the ancient Hebrew prophets, the very speaking of a word from God brought terror to the most powerful and wealthy of kings. The language of the prophets conveys this fear as such messengers as Isaiah draw on the temple imagery of hot coals to suggest the burning nature of the Word of God. The prophets and the scribes which followed in their wake, came to understand that the words they spoke and wrote had enormous power to shake or to shape the communities to which they were sent.

Perhaps no one in recent history had this kind of ability in our American culture more so than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we recently celebrated. Dr. King’s speeches cut to the quick for Americans because he knew how to tell the story and he understood the power of words. A trained rhetorician in the African-American tradition, he, like all great storytellers, could shame us by reminding us what we had not yet achieved, while uplifting us by describing for us what we could yet be. Beaten by police and hunted down by dogs, discouraged Civil Rights workers discovered that it was primarily King’s ability as a storyteller and prophet which sustained them in their darkest days. Drawing on the great motifs of Biblical narrative and the rhetorical pathos of the American Revolution set alongside the Black experience, Dr. King described for us not only the possibilities of our greater communal selves but spun a story and revealed a dream that re-described how we could get there.

We all need stories to sustain us. Not as some kind of escapist entertainment, but as a way of helping us to hear the truth and begin to live it. For the Creator of the Universe has laid alongside each one of us a story about God’s calling on our lives. But, today, some of us are orphans. We don’t yet have a story. Some of us, too, need to be claimed by a story in the first place. Some others of us have been told a story but it is a lie. We may have been told that we are no good, that we are evil, worthless, and of no significance. We may need to have that story re-scripted in our life and there is no better place for that to happen than right here at Greenville College.

Those of us who serve on the faculty and staff are here because we feel called to this place and we long to see you rediscover who you are as a child of God. I want to especially commend those of you who feel weighed down by these negative images and stories to seek out those who can assist you. This begins by coming to know and to trust your faculty advisor and my colleagues who are passionate about inviting you into the gospel story and the life of discipline to which Christ calls us. I also know that those in the counseling office and Dr. Hall and all the Residence Life staff stand ready, willing, and able to assist you in writing a new story while you are here. And, believe it or not, as you will hear from the lips of members of our own community often this semester, those of us who are among you have struggled with many of the same issues and long to help you re-claim your birthright.

I know that Greenville certainly helped me in this regard. A bookish boy with only a smattering of social skills, I was deeply in need of some mature models who might show me what I could yet become. I had my fair share of failures here: relationships wasted, opportunities missed, and hoped-for appointments unfulfilled. But here, I also found people who loved me and saw in me potential of which I was unaware. My hope and firm belief is that you will, too.

This semester we want to explore something of the world of narrative and to ask how stories function and shape us, both individually and collectively. So for the next couple of months I want to walk us through the basic patterns, the rhythms of a story, using as a touchstone one of the most powerful little pieces in the First Testament: the book of Ruth. We will examine not only the various aspects of narrative but focus, in particular, on how stories shape and build community. For, at its heart, God’s greatest story is not just about us individually, but about how God is building for God’s self a people and reconciling and redeeming the world not for our private purposes but for God’s cosmic purposes. And it is into that story that we are, each of us, invited.