15 October 2019

Why We Tell Stories

By Clive Marsh, Vice-President of the Conference.

I heard a great African story recently. It was told in order to make sense of the arrival of White settlers, with the purpose of seeking to find a peaceful way of welcoming and living with those who arrived. Spoken out of the context of what would now be called an ‘African Traditional Religion’ (ATR), storytellers told the tale of a long-lost Aunt who had travelled North many years before. She had been away so long in the cold North, and her offspring and heirs had likewise lived in the North so long, that over time their skin had become paler and paler. After many generations they had now returned. But even though they looked different now, they should be welcomed because they were relatives: descendants of the long-lost Aunt.

It is a powerful story because it was clearly intended to keep peace, to forge good relations and to contribute to the building of a healthy multi-ethnic society. That it was offered at a time when White settlers were claiming land, disparaging existing religious beliefs and cultural practices, and imposing a new religion and a new (and often unjust) political and economic structure is striking. That such a story would be submerged within the more dominant narratives (including forms of ‘the Christian story’) presented by White settlers is, sadly, not at all surprising.

With hindsight, of course, the story of the Aunt returning from the North is but another version of any story which reminds us that all human beings are made in the image of the one God. They are therefore to be treated equally whatever differences between them there may be. But the issue of how such a story was to be used and received, and whether it could carry the peace hoped for, is a different matter.

This simple example reminds us that stories have different purposes. It also shows us that stories cannot always guarantee that what they are intended for can necessarily come about. In any story-telling situation, there is someone telling the story, there is the content of a story itself, and then there are those who hear. There may also be someone behind the story-teller (who wrote, or told, the story originally). The point is that there are many kinds of stories, told for many different purposes. This is true in Christianity itself. It is true of the great many stories contained in the Bible. It is also true of stories told of Christianity’s history: of its sinners and saints.

In the study book we have written for our Presidential Year, So What’s the Story…? (DLT 2019) Barbara Glasson and I have tried to explore the many ways in which story and stories work within Christian faith. Chapter 1 of that work looks at the different types of stories that we tell.

We tell stories to describe events we have witnessed. These are historical accounts of happenings as we think they actually occurred. We tell stories to make sense of things, be it our own lives, other people’s lives, places, ideas. In the case of our own lives, we turn our lives into a coherent narrative which not only ‘puts things in order’ (chronologically), but also gives shape to what we think our own life is about and where it is heading. When we weave our story into God’s story, then it becomes ‘testimony’ (on which more in a later month!).

We tell stories to persuade. We want to influence others and pass on narratives that we believe will help others in their decisions about how to behave. This includes telling political stories (‘don’t you see that this is why you should vote the same way as me!?’) and religious stories (‘I really do want you to see why faith is so important in life’). It is not wrong to try and persuade when the purpose is to commend. Only when persuasion becomes manipulation do things become a bit dodgy.

We tell stories to entertain, too. Some of the best jokes are long, convoluted stories. Some of the most entertaining stories are captivatingly-told tales, told as much for the pleasure of the telling as the rapt attention of the hearers. Their purpose is to create the excitement, the suspense, the thrill which the ‘event’ of the story requires.

We tell stories to build and sustain communities. Stories link to identities, and people of different backgrounds (of ethnicity, social background, political persuasion, religious conviction, geographical origin) will tell stories to describe or explain who they are or what is important to them.

For all these reasons, then, we tell stories. And all these types of stories are found in Christian faith too. But are all Christian stories true? It may seem an odd question. One might expect the answer to be ‘yes, of course!’ In fact, things aren’t so simple. For one thing, we have so often come to assume that ‘true stories’ are those which are historically accurate. But historical accounts are not the only kind of truth which exist. And even historical narratives differ from each other. That’s why historians exist and have an important job to do. Fictional accounts can be true in so far as they are truthful about human life, even if the stories are ‘made up’. So even in the Bible there is a mix of history and fiction as the writers seek to be truthful about God. And simply because stories are told by Christians, that doesn’t make them all true. One of the Church’s job is to provide a communal context in which we can keep on checking out that what we say, in faith, remains true.

There are, then, many stories to be told. Throughout our Presidential year we shall keep on reflecting on how these work, in and for faith.

This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 30 August 2019

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