My story and “The” story

As I alluded to in my opening post, I am a person with multiple complex stories based on places where I’ve grown up and communities of which I’ve been a part. (Congo/Zaire, Mississippi, Liberia, North Carolina, Ivory Coast, Wheaton, DC, Capitol Hill, Paris and now Nairobi; missionary kid in the bush, new public high school student, red-head, HS athlete, factory worker, college student, UPS loader, bison ranch worker, lecturer in Liberia, office worker in DC, seminary student, white attendee of an all-black church, author driver, deacon, elder, preacher, manual laborer, at-home dad and now PhD student.) In all of these, the Christian story should be the predominant one, but occasionally my understanding of that story gets challenged by other stories that I encounter. I’d like to think that most of these stories have sharpened my understanding of the story and have made me a more whole person.

I suspect a lot of Kenyans are having a conflict of stories right now.

This old article by Robert McAfee Brown addresses this subject in an interesting way. (Theology Today 32.2 July 1975)

If things go well, my normative story is increasingly bolstered and authenticated as other stories confront it supportively and enable me to refine its details more clearly. Stories in sharp conflict with it are seen to be inaccurate and misleading and are discarded.

But things may not go well. My normative story may be rudely challenged by another story or by several stories. It may be so badly shattered that I must painfully reconstruct a new story for myself, either out of the debris of my former story or by using materials that come from one or another of the stories that created my predicament.

I (R. Brown) choose, as far as I can, to make the Christian story my normative story, and to keep the masculine story, the American story, and all the rest of my stories subordinate to it, so that they are defined by it, rather than the other way around. But I cannot tell my normative story in isolation from them, nor (a fact that is increasingly important for me) in isolation from stories that are not part of my original story but need to be increasingly interwoven with it-the black story, the Third World story, the Marxist story, and so on. All of these other stories both threaten and refine (even purge) my normative story. The black story tells me how much my Christian story has been tainted by my white story; the Third World story unmasks the uncritical way I have interwoven the American story and the Christian story, and so on. In principle, it is possible for one of these encounters-or a series of them-so to undermine the Christian story as to force me to discard it. But if that were to happen, it would not leave me bereft of any story (though for a while it might seem that way). It would simply leave me with the necessity of painfully constructing the outlines of another story, or series of stories, that would become normative for me.

. . .

(5) Finally, what may happen is that hearing another story can force us to tell our own story in a different way, transformed to such a degree that we can properly call the experience one of conversion. Either we must become participants in the other story or we must disengage fully from it.

. . .

So stories can change us, turn us about, be instruments in a process that can be called “conversion.” Sometimes they can even convey the power they describe-an abstract statement that can be redeemed from abstraction to specificity only by being itself recast in story form. Such a story constitutes our second example, a story about the power of telling a story “in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.”

There once was a rabbi, Martin Buber tells us, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, and who was asked to tell a story about him. He said:

My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story! (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Early Masters, Schocken Books, New York, 1947, pp.v-vi.)

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