Over on a friend’s blog, I saw some musing which included comments about the purpose of stories, and it got me thinking. I actually stopped reading, mid-paragraph, so as to see where this thought would lead me, so here it is, after mulling for a few days. I’m going to make a rather sweeping generalization, but I think I can defend it. Here goes.
The purpose of every story is to create community.
Each of us, as a human being, which is to say, an animal that talks and thinks in words, or, if you will, is reflective of the Divine act of creation that begins with a Word (as above, so below), lives inside a story, or really a vast cycle of stories, partly of our own making: The story of my life, my family, my tribe, my town, my county, my valley, my nation, my planet, my dog, my dreams. This personal story in all of its particularities is what we are talking about when we talk about personal identity. It is of the intersection of personal stories that community is forged, and it is the overlapping of communal stories that creates a sense of individuality. We tell stories, we hear stories, and a person who does not have a story does not yet feel like a person, does not yet have a place. Some stories are powerful, and shape us. Religions and mythologies are essentially the stories that are broad enough that hearers and tellers see themselves as living inside of them; the same with political ideologies.
Of course there are larger stories and smaller stories, just as there are larger communities and smaller communities. Stories within stories. Variations, versions. But having a story in common is what binds people together. Marriages dissolve when the story of his life and the story of her life begin to diverge from one another into mutual unrecognizability, it is said, then, that they have become estranged.
When the stories a person tells himself are unintelligible by anyone else, that person becomes —has become — isolated, alienated, alone. When such a person is able to bring someone else into the circle of those who can understand, you have something else: a new community, a cult, perhaps.
When I was still in high school, my brother came home from college and told me an interesting tale. He had been reading, off and on, Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce, a book whose idiom and vocabulary was (is) so unique as to be nigh on unto unintelligible to the casual reader. He had been slogging through it, working at deciphering the many-layered plays on words, multilingual puns, metaphors and so on. One night, duplicating a ritual common to many undergraduates, he got, as he said, “royally drunk” and late in the evening was back in his room, picked up Finnegan’s Wake, and began reading — and to no little surprise, found he could read it fluently and understand it perfectly. He was engrossed in this process when a roommate entered, spoke to him, and seemed, to his ears, to be speaking gibberish. Another roommate entered and the same phenomenon continued. At this point, so it seemed to him, he was being offered a choice, a binary fork. He perceived that he could choose, at that moment, to always be able to understand Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, but only at the cost of also being unable, from that point forward, to comprehend normal human discourse. Or, he could opt for human interaction, and let this treasure of literature become again for him the difficult set of literary enigmas that he had hitherto found it. That was his story, and of course it was evident that he had reluctantly chosen to close the door to the magical world that had sprung so creatively from one great writer’s skull, and return to having to parse it, phrase by phrase, as best he could, as before. Whether this choice was real or actual or not is not the point here (he was, after all, “royally drunk”). What is relevant is that for a brief moment he saw the possibility of inhabiting a world shared only by himself and a brilliant, deceased writer. Sanity then became defined for him as the ability to communicate meaningfully, something which itself has meaning only in relation to those with whom one is communicating: a long-dead author and his fictional characters, or living, breathing persons in the room?
Cultures clash when peoples with different defining stories encounter each other. Personal and family crises happen when different stories compete, as it were, for the role of the main narrative. Religious and political movements draw people in with the promise of a role to play in a larger story with a purposeful ending. These larger stories are called, by certain classes of academics who study such things, myths. When used in this way, the word “myth” does not mean, necessarily, an untrue story or a fantasy; it simply means a large story that provides a meaningful framework for the lives of those people who embrace it. In this sense, ideas such as progress or democracy are myths, just as much as religious ideas embedded in ancient tales. These stories tell a people who they are, how they came into being, what struggles confront them, how best to confront those struggles, and what future is in store.
The most powerful people, then, in any culture, are the storytellers, because they wield the magic that creates and sustains their communities. Sometimes these have been bards and poets, priests and elders, kings and prophets also. In modern times, they can be preachers or politicians, entertainers or reporters; less often these days, historians. Sometimes they are comedians, or talk show hosts. What has changed in the last few decades is the way these voices overtake one another. There is a battle going on everywhere for the hearts and minds of people, for the establishment of the definitive and defining story of our time. Is it a story of progress and victory of one nation, ideology, or religious persuasion over all others? Is it a story of decay and decline? If it is a story of victory, how is that victory achieved? If it is one of heroic struggle, who are the heroes, who are the villains, and how is the courage of the heroes manifested?
Perhaps an apt illustration of this ongoing, multifaceted clash of narratives is the increasingly common sight on television of pundits or partisans talking over one another, neither one giving ground, neither wanting the other’s story to be heard coherently by the audience. It seems like in those settings there is an idea that whoever shouts the loudest or the longest wins.
What, then, is the defining story of planet Earth? What is the story of America? What is the story of Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam? Ah, now we come to something interesting: it is the monotheistic religions, in particular, that is to say, the entire Abrahamic tradition, which embeds all of life’s meaning into narrative. Creation is told as a story, the human condition is understood in terms of a narrative, and the story of the possibility of a better future begins with a narrative about one man hearing the call of God and responding: “Abraham believed God.” So the Abrahamic religions see history itself as an unfolding tale, and the power they have is the power to get people to see themselves as actors within such a cosmic narrative. In this cosmic narrative, all humans, even all that exists, enter into comm-unity.
All of this is old ground, I know. My own project is to tell the story of the search for integrity: my own story, my own search, but one that is embedded (so I would like the story to go) in the cosmic search for meaning and truth that binds me into common cause with all my fellow humans. Birth, growth, life, creation, renewal, disease, disaster, struggle death… and rebirth, new creation, the promise of a better future, or else finality, despair, the victory of destruction. What story do we want to live in? I choose the full-blown adventure with all its parts: tragic, comic, cosmic, petty, with moments of terror and isolation trumped by rare and precious moments of comfort and joy. As a Christian, I choose a narrative that does not end in despair or destruction but in renewal and hope, born beyond all hope from a clear-eyed confrontation of all that could destroy it; a story that is not limited to a single tribe, nation, ideology, or religion. It is a story that recognizes and acknowledges death, but chooses life. It is a tale of transformation that will ultimately encompass the universe. The story of faith is the tale upon which the hope of the world turns.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.