I have a story. It’s a part of me, and in some way, it is me. People’s stories have a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship with them: in some way, people are defined by their stories even as they define their own stories by living them.
Off and on as I’ve thought about story over the past few years, something began to bother me, and I was never entirely certain why it bothered me… but for the past five or ten years the question has come and gone, nagging at me occasionally. I’ve been in the same church for 16 years, and nobody has really ever asked me for my story. Sure, some people have gotten bits of it in bits and pieces here and there, but never as a coherent presentation. I’m talking about church leaders here; I do have friends who have gotten most of it, but these are in personal exchanges. Somewhere along the line it began to bother me that none of the leaders of my church ever sat me down, leader-to-leader, and asked to hear my story.
Now, it’s not that my story is so much better or worse than anyone else’s. I’ve been through some stuff, but so have we all. I don’t really understand why this has bothered me, but it seems to me there’s something in it. So I’ve been thinking again about story. About “testimony.” I don’t have it all yet, but here’s what I know:
- Out of the blue, I Google’d the title of this post and found an appropriate quotation:
…stories are important to people, politics, and education. Stories are how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. In young children’s spontaneous stories that they act out as they play, we can see how they believe people relate to one another, who they hope to become, and how they will behave. We can see adolescents play roles in their own and other people’s stories in order to figure out where they fit into their ever-expanding worlds. As adults, the true and imaginary stories we wish to tell and believe suggest what we value most in this world. In a real sense, stories make people.
For this reason, stories are political. Whose stories get told? What can those stories mean? Who benefits from their telling? These are political questions because they address the ways in which people’s identities — their beliefs, attitudes, and values — are created and maintained. These identities determine how we live together in and out of schools as much as school rules or governmental laws.
Now I don’t know what all else he says on this site, so I have no real context for this, but it seems to be talking primarily about fiction. Nonetheless, I think the last part holds true our stories are linked with our identities, and they fundamentally affect how we live, and live together. Something tells me that’s significant to our understanding of community.
- Stories are important to God. Revelation 12:11 says,
And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
Other translations say “overcome” instead of “conquered,” but the vanquished one referred to is the Evil One, Satan. There’s something powerful in the word of our “testimony.” In this context I’m not referring to any kind of word-faith formula, but to a spiritual truth whereby voicing our story of what God has done for us has spiritual power over evil.
In this light, I recall one of the most “powerful” meetings I was ever in. Back in the early ’90s, we were in a church “family camp” where a speaker who many of us knew quite well had been giving us nightly teaching, but one evening he simply shared his story. He was extremely vulnerable in it, sharing things that he had never told anyone before, certainly not publicly… but he felt safe enough with that group of people on that evening to do so. Since it was simply his story, there was no outline, points, or application, just the good and bad of what he’d been through and what God had done for him. Being good charismatics, we started to do a “ministry time” following, and something quite unusual happened… people were being overcome by the Holy Spirit, and demonic manifestations were happening spontaneously. We would start praying for one person, and someone would cry out spontaneously elsewhere in the room so we would go to them one after another, but we could hardly keep up. By my recollection, it went on for a couple of hours like that. My analysis after-the-fact was to recall Revelation 12:11 and surmise that there can be spiritual power released in the context of our stories.
- Back when we led home groups in the church, we liked to do story evenings where someone in the group would simply tell their story. We tried to keep it to one person per evening, and after they told their story we would pray for them. People went to various depths with their stories, but there was one couple that was determined not to do it at all. As the group leader, we left it open and they eventually were able to share a “highlights” version; if I recall correctly, they both shared their stories on the same evening, just the facts. In some way, it was a breakthrough for them. In fact, I think for everyone who shared their story with the group, there was a healing effect from it, and a deepening of relationships with the others in the group. It was both cathartic and involving as people were able to demonstrate the sentiment, “We know who you are and where you’ve been and we love you and want you in our lives.” Powerful stuff, that.
- I had a Seminary prof a while back that partially explained the penchant for genealogy in the Bible by relating it to land. In the Bible, all of the genealogies trace ancestry back to landowners, or to Israelites who had or were promised land. It all related to a place of being, of belonging. When the people had no land, genealogy and “family” became that much more important. Now, the area we’re in is influenced heavily by Mennonites. Mennonites have something in common with Isrealites in this respect historically they know what it’s like to lose their land and be without it, and they have a real penchant for genealogies. If you ever marry a Mennonite, most of them comes with an “owners’ manual,” often two. These take the form of inexpensively-bound documents, normally 8.5×11″ and about 1/2″ thick, detailing every aunt, uncle, cousin, and ancestor for several generations back. There’s a passtime called “The Mennonite Game” where two Mennonites who have never met will sit down and figure out how they are related. I’ve witnessed this game played and won an alarming number of times. I say all this about genealogy because it’s in some way related to story. The only real distinction between this and the testimony of Revelation 12:11 is that in a testimony about Jesus, our heritage and genealogy changes from natural to spiritual.
- It could be just me, but our present experience is very different from our past experience with story. As I mentioned, the church we’ve been in didn’t really ask for our story, they just got the bits and pieces as we went along; past that, it was enough that we committed ourselves to the church and were willing to lead and serve, which we were. Recently though, I’ve seen a sharp contrast between that and where we are now. As we’ve started renewing friendships with people who we’ve known who are doing or considering missional lives, house churches, or just deconstructing the program churches they’re in, the most common question we’ve heard (and asked) is, “Tell us your story.” This is not something deliberate or intentional, it just seems to be an almost-universal understanding that everything is revealed in the story. The story is important. In sharing stories and comparing notes, we are finding many points of similarities, many resonant themes, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. We’re engaging one another through story, and in some fashion, it’s building community in a way we don’t yet fully understand. It also strikes me that if you aren’t interested in my story, you aren’t interested in me. Bad basis for relationship, that.
So these are my current thoughts on why story is important. I know there’s more to this whole subject, so far this is really just thought-fodder, but it does start to take shape when summarized in this fashion. There’s probably something postmodern about the importance of story as well, but somehow it doesn’t seem likely to just label it a modern/pomo clash… but I think there’s something in it that we’ve undervalued for some years now. Story is important. Step one toward loving people is just hearing their story.