A bishop looks at stories, how they figure into our lives, and their surprising power.
When looking at stories, I like to start with Aristotle, who famously declared that humans are the animal that talks. No question about that. We discuss the world’s problems, agreeing and disagreeing about what’s wrong and what to do about it. We make pronouncements, and sometimes genuinely enquire into the truth. We pray and joke and use kind words to reassure –– or use harsh words to hurt. But whether we are philosophizing or preaching or passing the time of day in idle conversation, you can bet there is a story being told. Often the story is implicit, and sometimes it’s a lie. But there is always a story we want to tell behind everything we say, and another’s story we can pick up if we listen hard.
Why do we yearn to talk about what we have done and haven’t? It’s not necessarily about self-aggrandizement, because we often confess to failures and fears about which we are genuinely ashamed. Nor is it, for that matter, about needing to come clean about things we wish we hadn’t done. More deeply, we tell our stories –– narratives of success and failure, courage and cowardice –– because we want to be known and acknowledged as significant, compassionate players on life’s stage.
It works the other way as well. We may be quiet about our own stories, and perhaps impatient with people who are too quick to tell us about themselves, but we are voracious consumers of narratives that come to us from one removed. Movies, novels, and news reports all offer real or imagined accounts of the human way. What is it in those mediums that grabs us?
Narrative theorists are quick to remind us that what grabs us is agency –– a technical term for our capacity for action. We are always fascinated by stories about how people manage to act effectively in the face of adversity. We’re easily transfixed by the stories of others’ external and internal battles, because we want both to learn from them and to be encouraged by them. We depend on the stories of others to serve as models for how to be agents in the world.
Sometimes the stories that guide us come from left field. My wife and I were spending two months in Mendocino, California, a remote coastal village about 150 miles north of San Francisco. There were ravens everywhere: examining bits of discarded food, engaging in “cawing” conversation with one another, and swooping about in play. The main (and very affectionate) story among locals is that the ravens regularly make off with bright objects: if you’re missing a ring or a pair of tweezers, look up.
This calls an earlier time in my life to mind. When I was a young curate in the Diocese of Oregon, I took my youth group to the tribal enactment of an indigenous story that has been told and retold up and down the northwest coast for centuries through what is now Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. It’s the story about how the Raven brought light to the earth. It’s a long story, but basically Raven tricked the hoarder of the sun out of his treasure and brought light to us all.
There is a deep correspondence between this story and ancient Christian teaching about what Christ did for us on the cross. Jesus tricked Satan by playing into the devil’s hands. The devil thought Jesus’ death spelled Jesus’ demise, but instead it sucked Jesus into the force field of evil and death, where he instantly claimed his authority as the Lord of Life, rescued Adam and Eve and all their offspring from the devil’s prison-house, and pulled them into light.
I don’t want to lose sight of the notion of Christ as one who tricked the devil. At the cost of his own life, Jesus went behind enemy lines to do Satan in. In the course of this expedition, he gave us light. This is the point of intersection between the two stories: Raven and Christ. Of course, they don’t have equal standing. Raven is a reflection of truth and Jesus is truth itself. Yet the raven myth is worth telling and retelling. It reminds us that spiritual heroism always involves a combination of bravery and cunning. The Bible and church history are full of men and women who served God and God’s people with courage and a dash of trickery. We mistake Jesus if we don’t see this in him, too. In the Gospels, he is constantly answering questions with another question, and teaching by means of parables, which are never as straightforward as they seem.
Of course, Jesus never misleads us or lies to us. He is the truth-teller par excellence. But he is always knocking us off balance. It’s not so much about trickery as it is about surprise. Jesus didn’t trick Satan – he surprised him. Satan didn’t know that the refusal to meet violence with violence was where true power lay. This is the truth that Mahatma Gandhi reminded us of, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived out in our own land. But it is a truth that is hidden from many, so those who know it have a spiritual advantage, and should use it strategically. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he says, “… be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)? We should not be afraid to witness artfully to the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
Which brings me back to story-telling and story-hearing as the key mark of our species. There is always an element of guile in every tale, however edifying. Every story has a slant. Whenever we tell a story, whether it be about our vacation, or our experience of abuse, or anything in between, we are spinning a yarn, trying to beguile our hearers into seeing things our way
That doesn’t mean that there is no truth. Truth always lies beyond our own limited perspective. The raven myth is ultimately about how we have been given the gift of light –– that is, the ability to see beyond our own private interests and our immediate context. But that ability depends on our willingness not only to tell our own story, but also to entertain a plethora of others. In a time when it is all too easy to hear only the stories that agree with ours, we Christians are called to escape our echo chambers and listen widely.
This is not only a matter of expanding our own horizons. We follow the crucified and risen one wherever he goes, and that means following him into places where others are spiritually imprisoned. This may mean hearing stories that offend or frighten us. I confess that there are media outlets that I routinely avoid because I disagree with their point of view. I know I am not alone in this. But if we don’t engage with those whom we assume to be prisoners, how can we assume we are not prisoners as well?
We can begin by sharing stories with each other. This is a risky undertaking, since it is inevitable that some of the stories we share will offer unsettling surprises, and others will confirm unwelcome suspicions. In every case, there will be more-or-less hidden agendas to be discerned. But this is a risk the risen Christ is encouraging us to take. To the extent that we are shut up within ourselves, we’re on the way to being spiritually dead. Jesus counters this. Through the Resurrection, he has snuck into our prison-house, has given us his hand, and is offering to lead us out of our isolation, our fear of the stranger, and our disinterest in voices different from ours.