Fundiementals 3: Stories as Truth

So in this ongoing monologue I’m having with myself about the nature of truth, I think we need a separate post about storytelling. Every major religion in the world involves storytelling. Even atheists tell themselves stories to make meaning, although not all of them see it that way. Storytelling seems to be foundational to humanity. We tell stories to pass the time, we tell stories to pass on information, we tell stories to explain things, we tell stories to scare ourselves and others, we tell stories to laugh, we tell stories to connect. We tell stories on Sundays behind pulpits, we tell stories on pages in coded black lines, we tell stories around campfires, we tell stories over bottles of wine. We have whole industries built around telling stories in images cast across giant screens, in words on paper, in ones and zeroes. We sing stories across the airwaves, especially on county-western stations. We compress stories into 30-second bits between SuperBowl downs. We pay commentators to turn the SuperBowl downs themselves into narratives with protagonists and antagonists, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy.

So what is a story? It’s a compression and interpretation of reality. A story is a lot like origami (shout out to Yoon Ha Lee for this metaphor) – we take the full onslaught of reality and we fold in the less important details so that the important details are prominent and give it a meaningful shape.

Think about the most boring storyteller you know. His stories are probably boring because they include way too many details. Her story about being at a convenience store while it was being held up would include a discussion about which items were on special, and the new stain on the linoleum in front of the freezer. You never need all of reality in a story – if you don’t fold enough details in, the story doesn’t take shape, and it becomes meaningless.

But, as anyone who does origami knows, any square can be folded in different ways to bring out a multitude of shapes. So it goes with storytelling. Five people watching the same convenience-store hold-up will tell five different stories. They will be similar in certain basic details (one hopes), but the folds will be different enough to be notable. They will emphasize different things. They will choose different details to include. Depending on how different the perspectives are between the storytellers (remember the discussion of perspective in Fundiementals 1?), the folds might be wildly different, almost to the point of unrecognizability.

Furthermore, some stories fold in more details than others. Stories told about recent, personal events tend to have the fewest folds – they are the origami equivalent of a kite. Pretty, simple, clear.

As the story lingers, separates from its origins, we start to emphasize certain points more strongly, sometimes to the point of exaggeration, and we start leaving more tangential details out. It becomes something of a tall tale (but if it’s still being told after all this time, it’s probably a good story, either because of its entertainment value, or because of its significance in our life). It becomes the origami equivalent of a boat.

The best stories are the ones that have been folded so many times that you can’t even guess what their origins were, you can only wonder at the beauty, mystery, and form of the final result.

Let’s go back to that quote from Richard Rohr:

“Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes, and they use it ‘figuratively’ when it gets in the way of their cultural biases; willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

Pure literalism is saying of the picture above: “It’s a bird. It is exactly no more and no less than a bird, and it tells us everything we need to know about the nature of birds.” But it’s not a bird. It’s a piece of paper with a hundred hidden folded corners, shaped to resemble a bird. It tells us something of birds, of their essence, but it neither breathes nor eats nor flies, and so cannot tell us literally about birds. It is less than a bird. But it is also not accurate to say that it is merely a piece of paper. It has a meaning, a name, a description, and a symbolic representation in our minds that goes far beyond “piece of paper.” So it is less than a bird but more than a piece of paper. Origami is an in-between kind of thing.

So with stories. Stories are sculptures of words that tell of people and their actions and the events that changed them. Stories are not the people, the actions, or the events. They are less than reality. But they are more than mere words – they capture something of the essence of the human story. They are more than lists, more than schedules, more than exposition or description. Stories, especially the good ones, have hundreds of hidden, folded pockets of insight, meaning, snapshots of life and love, humor, grief, shame, and triumph. Stories are not the answer to the meaning of life, but they point to it in millions of moments of brilliance. Stories capture metaphysical questions and then pass them onto us dressed as ordinary things.

Our job with stories is not to evaluate them based on their literal meaning, (“It was realistic. I liked it.” “It was accurate. It held up to scrutiny.”) but to engage with them as a child, or an explorer, and let ourselves discover their inner pockets, play with their hidden corners, and allow them to change us (“It was inspiring.” “It made me cry.” “It made me realize….” “It made me wonder….”).

The more ancient and sacred the text, the more this is true. This is my belief, anyway. Sacred stories are not meant to illuminate the physical, literal world, and need not be judged on their ability to do so. Trying to judge sacred stories in this way is a common mistake of secular fundies. Nor should stories be contorted so that it appears that they do illuminate the physical, literal world.  Trying to twist stories into relevance in this way is a common mistake of religious fundies. Ancient, sacred stories don’t need to be literally true to be relevant – their relevance is demonstrated by their continued ability to inspire, across thousands of years and a multiplicity of cultures.

Another pitfall here, though, is assuming that ancient, sacred stories provide clear prescriptions for specific ethical situations that are unique to the modern world. The more ancient the text, the more  pockets of context, culture, values, and assumptions have been folded into them and then lost over the millennia; we will never be able to unfold them, or reverse-engineer them, and see the reality from which they sprang in all its gorgeous and heartbreaking complexity, and so trying to draw linear analogies is problematic.

And returning to the over-arching theme of this series, this is exactly why we should be extremely slow to judge those who engage the same stories and arrive at different interpretations. The very fact that the story can still be engaged and interpreted millennia after its creation is evidence enough of its depth, “truth,” and universality. The very fact that different people and cultures can interpret it in vastly different ways is evidence of our limited perspective.

And when we try to force others to comply with our interpretations, we wander into the realm of spiritual abuse, which the next Fundiementals post is devoted to.

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5 Comments

Filed under Art topics, religion

5 responses to “Fundiementals 3: Stories as Truth

  1. Stephen River Smith

    Beautifully written…all the room for mystery, and for the filling in of the ‘blanks’ by the ‘child’ and the ‘explorer’. Leaves me taking in deep, sweet breaths and looking forward to the stories of this life– some old, some new, and some mine. 🙂 Wherever you’re going with this, you have my undivided attention.

    • thanks as always stephen. if you’re interested, i’m actually planning a second blog devoted more narrowly to the intersections of art (in all its forms), spirituality and community. I’ve been a teaching artist for 10 years, and i’m branching into art-based experiential processing services (similar to art therapy), so i have a lot to say about these topics professionally. This post would actually fit pretty nicely with that blog i think. coming in the fall. In the design stages now. again, thanks for stopping by- it’s always good to hear from you! May you encounter some stories today with childlike wonder. 🙂

      • Stephen River Smith

        As I’ve said, you have my attention. That’s an ‘intersection’ I’ve attempted to live at for years now, but your own direction with it sounds intriguing. Look forward to it.

  2. “…willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

    Afraid not. Willing people let the Spirit which gave forth Scripture change them. A subtle difference, but a difference.

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