Monday, August 15, 2005

Sharing our stories

As a seminary-trained Christian with hopes of following a church vocation, I have been instructed in many matters of theology, doctrine and "right behavior." But more and more, I find that what is far more important to people, both Christian and non-Christian, is the sharing of each other's stories. As we learn more about each other's experiences, and the ways in which we have interpreted them for our own lives, we find meaning.

A wonderful secular illustration of this phenomenon is found in the movie Big Fish. As a man nears the end of his life due to a long bout with cancer, his son desperately tries to find out the truth about the father that he feels he's never really known. The reason for this distance is that the father has a penchant for telling about his life using stories that can best be understood as "tall tales." For example, he encounters Chinese showgirl "twins" that have two independently operating upper bodies, but one lower body. He befriends a man-eating giant that lives outside of town in a cave. He single-handedly defeats an entire squad of soldiers in his attempts to escape from enemy lines in wartime.

The son, particularly hurt by a repeatedly-told tale in which the father misses the son's birth while attempting to catch a particularly elusive fish, dismisses these stories as lies, and is convinced that he has never known a single fact about his father throughout his whole life. The father, when pressed to tell his son the truth, is hurt that his son has not understood him. He maintains that he has told his son the truth, but that he told "the truth" with enough "flavor" to make the stories interesting. "Just the facts," without the "flavor," is not the way in which the father wishes to be remembered.

Through the course of the movie, as the son sifts through family documents and keepsakes, and talks with other people who knew the father, the son learns that there were, indeed, true events behind the stories that his father told. We learn, for example, that his father did indeed know a pair of Chinese twins (although not actually conjoined), and that one of his friends was indeed a taller than average man (presumably not a cannibal) [incidentally, the actor who played this "giant" sadly passed away about a week ago]. In the climactic scene in the movie, near the father's death, the son makes his peace with his father by telling his father the father's one unfinished story: the story of how the father dies. This story, like all the others, is presented with "flavor," rather than being a strict retelling of the facts.

It is said by some that the Bible is told in much this way. I do not mean here to get into the debate of how much of the Bible is "flavor" rather than fact (and certainly not which parts of the Bible use such "flavor"). However, the Bible is presented to us as (mostly) a collection of stories. And it does seem that at least some of the truth of the biblical tales has been presented to us in the form of tales that an outside observer might have retold with different "flavor." This does not diminish the truth of these stories, but does add an extra layer of interpretation that we must be aware of when we interpret the meaning of the biblical tales for our own lives.

This way of looking at the Bible also has the added implication that the people of today also have stories to tell that have meaning for how we understand how God works in the world today. I do not mean to suggest that Christians telling their stories to each other can supplant the importance of Scripture in our lives. But we neglect sharing each other's stories to our detriment.

To some extent, sharing one's stories is what a blog is about, anyway. But from time to time, I intend to share a few pieces of my story as it is appropriate. It is my hope that others may feel free to do so, as well.

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