Who has the power to tell our story?
Suzanne Cooke reflects on the significance, relevance and importance of telling stories.
Do you have a favourite story that you like a friend or a loved one to tell and re-tell? If you do, then I bet you’ve heard the story many, many times, but you still like to hear it told again. Maybe it makes you laugh, or cry or maybe both.
I know there are stories in our house that we like to tell each other. We love these stories, they remind us that we share a family history, they remind us of who we are, they give us a certain family identity.
However, one of the strange things about these stories is that, even though they feel very real to us, of course the only place they really exist is in our minds, in our consciousness.
They are fragile threads of experience, a remembered reality, moving, drifting in that strange and numinous, hard to grasp, world of our minds eye. And yet time is linear, experience concrete – so how do we make sense of that paradox, how do we make sense of the fact that time is linear and memory is not?
Well, we create narratives, stories, some of them become very important to us and they tell the stories about our lives and help to make us who we are – to form our identity. For most of us these stories never get written down – they are simply part of our family's ‘oral tradition’ if you like.
Hopefully that doesn’t devalue their power or their importance – because over the centuries, especially in the developed world – stories only told by word of mouth – one generation to another – seem to have become less valuable. It is printed stories, stories in books, in scripture – the written word, that hold the real value and worth.
But in the Jewish tradition this isn’t entirely the case – because for Jews they have something called Midrash. Midrash is a way of interpreting the Jewish Bible and has been part of the tradition for 1000’s of years.
“Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text.” www.myjewishleaning.com/article/midrash-101 7/9/19
There are differing streams, but traditional Midrash was something that was written down long ago and the reading of it, of what we might call commentaries, on various books of the Jewish bible, now forms part of the Jewish tradition, taken out and remembered at various points in the Jewish year. So, this way of ‘re-telling’ or reinterpreting powerful, traditional bible stories, is embedded in the Jewish tradition, in the Jewish psyche.
Now, you might want to say that the sermon is the same kind of thing. That what we try to do on a Sunday is, in the same way, a version of re-telling traditional stories. But I think there are subtle but important differences.
I believe there has always been a heavy influence in British, European and therefore American, Christianity on a scholarly understanding and approach to our faith in general, but definitely to that element that once was the moment we told each other stories and became the moment we now preach a sermon.
Preaching is just as powerful, but very different to story-telling. It is very different to the way that a story invites us, in our own way, to participate in the telling – to experience something of what is happening in the story. Listening to a story is at the same time an experience and a way of understanding ourselves and our world. It’s interactive, the ‘meaning’ flows both ways, from the story to me and from me to the story – Jesus knew this, He knew the power a story has to affect who we are because it would have been part of His tradition, that’s why He told parables. To my mind a sermon is coming from a very different place, less story, more academic discourse.
So – part of the way in which we understand our experience, ourselves, our communities, is by telling stories about it and of course that is what we still do at Communion, we tell the story of how our Christian community came into being.
But what happens when we stop telling stories, when people stop coming to listen and when the occasions where we told stories is taken away or lost? We still need to make sense of our experience, so I want to leave you with a question. Who today might be the keeper of our stories? To whom have we given permission to tell the story of our times, of our lives?
I think this is one of the great questions of our times – because it is the story makers, the story tellers that affect who and what we are, whether we acknowledge it or whether we don’t.
So – have a think – who has power to tell the story of our lives today and did we give them permission to do so?
The image above is courtesy of Trixie Liko from Pixabay
Suzanne Cooke is the vicar of four rural churches, sitting at the foot of the Cheviot Hills in the far north of Northumberland. Her call to ministry came whilst living with her family in North Norfolk and she is proud to have begun her ordained life in the Norwich Diocese.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive and good-natured debate between website users.