Enlarging the Single Story

 

In the adult forum last Sunday at St Martin’s we began to talk about the experience of our community reading of The Story. This is a re-editing of the Bible to accentuate the narrative flow that tells of the relationship between God and humanity, as recorded and interpreted within the Judeo-Christian experience.

The idea of there being the story is highly misleading. As we are beginning to discover from our reading together of The Story, there are in fact multiple stories. The Story, while trying to preserve the narrative flow achieves its purpose. However, there is a risk of an enterprise like The Story glossing over the fact that the Biblical record is not one story but a compilation of multiple stories, not always fitting together in a way that our modern attention demands. To make matters even more complex, there are not only multiple storylines but also multiple interpretations of the same storyline.

St Martin’s has embarked on a community reading of The Story as one of the fruits of a program for spiritual development called RenewalWorks. In our community reading of The Story we are starting on what will be a longer process of embedding the Bible into an unfolding of our story, as a parish, as a community.

As we gathered last Sunday in the adult forum, people began to have an opportunity to talk about how they felt about the storylines recorded in the Book of Genesis. Because The Story covers the whole of Genesis in three chapters, it glosses over huge chunks of the book in order to bring out the essential elements of the narrative flow. This device concentrates our minds. We experience not on a distanced dispassionate reading, but on an intimate feeling-full reading that confronts and leaves us feeling a range of emotions among them, shocked and angry.

The story begins well. Genesis, chapter 1 opens on a grand vista of creation with humanity as its crowning glory. Men and women seem equal and God seems to hint at the possibility of humanity being a reflection of divinity itself. But things thereafter seem to go pear shaped. From chapter 2 on, God increasingly is portrayed as authoritarian. In chapter 2, women are inferior and subservient to men. Events in the garden further stigmatize women. I was pleased to see that people were able to give vent to the visceral nature of the impact of this kind of portrayal, upon them. We then enter the saga cycles of the patriarchs, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, all who strike our modern sensibilities as morally compromised characters and far from the honest Joe’s of Sunday school fame.

Someone commented, why do we have to read this stuff? My answer is because we are storied beings and we are shaped by our faith-family narrative. We read this stuff because we need to know our faith-family history. But we need to know that this is where that narrative starts. It’s important to remember it’s not where it ends. It’s only where it starts. Like most things in life, it’s always helpful to start at the beginning.

I was delighted to see people struggling with their feelings and being honest with each other about how they felt. There was a level of engagement and excitement in the room that spoke volumes about the seriousness with which middle class, highly educated, professional Episcopalians like those at St Martin’s on Providence’s East Side are beginning to engage with the raw material of a shared faith journey. Don’t miss our next discussion installment of The Story’s chapters 4-6 on May 15th.

**

In his op-ed piece in the New York Times on April 19th, David Brooks spoke about the danger of a single story. He takes his title from his inspiration with the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk The danger of a single story. Brooks is concerned, and I believe rightly so, that the current political race to the White House is favoring candidates who are able to offer a single story to account for the state we are in as a nation. The difficulty for Clinton and Kasich is that unlike Trump, Cruz, and Sanders, their worldview is not comprised from a single explanatory narrative. We see how little appetite there is in the general population, at least at this point in the game, for anything that is not a single story explanation.

Single stories are seductive, but they also do grave violence to the multiple complexities of real life. The paradox of reading The Story is that we need to start somewhere, but the danger is we develop an overview of the flow of the narrative at the risk of reducing the history of salvation to a single storyline. Yet, to return to the point I made above, we need to start somewhere. Single storylines get us going. They are places from which to begin our explorative journeys. The problem is when the single storyline becomes the only explanatory narrative, leading us to an already predetermined endpoint along the pathway already well trod. What is needed are storylines that open, even jolt us onto new paths; ones forged through learning from the mistakes of the past instead of simply repeating them. It seems that at St Martin’s our experience of The Story is helping us to work through our realizations that God is not a single storyline, God is a complex multiplicity of storylines that offer the potential for us to set out on new paths.

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At first sight, the compilers of the Lectionary seem to have taken leave of their senses in offering us on Easter 5 the same gospel verses that ended the one read on Maundy Thursday. I mean, get real, don’t they know the storyline has moved on since then? Between Maundy Thursday and Easter 5, an event called the resurrection has changed everything.

We are here being presented with a challenge to our assumption that the meaning of a story derives from its linear flow, i.e. it follows a straight line from beginning through its middle, to the end. Hearing John 13:31-35, which is the promise at the end of the story of the events at the Last Supper five weeks on from Easter reminds us that part of the complexity of life is the we are never in the same place twice. This means the same storyline opens to fresh meanings when we encounter it at a different time, a different location, i.e. now and not then.

On Maundy Thursday, we heard John narrating events at Last Supper. We listened to verses 31-35 but we didn’t really hear them. In 31-35 Jesus goes off into one of his enigmatic Johannine explanations of the nature of his true relationship with God – something about glory and who is glorified, and by whom.

When we hear the same story on the fifth Sunday after Easter, we do so now in the fuller knowledge of what Jesus actually means by the promise of becoming gloried. On Maundy Thursday, it’s a promise of something new, the outlines of which are still enshrouded in future mists. But when heard on Easter 5 it’s no longer in the future, it is now in the immediate past-present. In this location, we hear it not as a promise but a direct invitation to participate in the experience of new life.

****

The story of new life is what’s happening now. The hearing of the story is now. Now it is an invitation, if we can allow it to be, to not just believe in it, but to live it. Last Sunday at St Martin’s in the adult forum we had a particular experience of living it.

How so? We live the promise of new life when we take our God story seriously. We do this when we explore it, when we allow ourselves to be affected by it. We explore our God story when we feel angry, disillusioned, or repulsed, or inspired, attracted, encouraged, and moved through our engagement with it. Our story about God contains all these possibilities because it’s a narravtive with multiple storylines, multiple interpretations on each major storyline. It’s not a single story. I followed up Brooks’ reference to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She ends her TED talk with these words:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”

We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our world takes on the qualities of the stories we tell about our experience in it. When we come to realize that there is not a single God story, but many stories of our human perception of God, we come to see that faith is not an accept all or reject all proposition. Elements in our God story can give us permission to dispossess, malign and scapegoat others. Mostly, however, our God story supports our desires to embrace, empower and humanize. In the story of raising Jesus from the dead, God invites us into a new story with wide-ranging implications for the way we can live our lives. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie again:

I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

To paraphrase a line from the second reading for Easter 5 from the dream of the Book of Revelation:

See the home of God is with humanity. God will dwell with us; we will be God’s peoples.

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