Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Dark Side of Story

It was a lovely little gathering at a denominational meeting, as I and another dual-class pastor/author sat with folks and talked faith and storytelling.

We chatted about our books, about the literature that we loved, about the stories that shaped us.  We talked about how story is the ground of faith, and how mythopoetic narratives create a sense of self in a way that data simply cannot.  We talked about the use of fiction in liturgy and teaching, and gave examples. It was a good, solid, earnest Presbyterian bit of thinkery.

After many other good questions and conversation, my colleague offered up the rich question: we've talked about how story can shape us in positive ways.  In what ways can story be less helpful?

There were some well-considered answers around the table, thoughtful reflections on the obscurity of narrative as a means of speaking truth, and about human subjectivity and our capacity for misunderstanding as we engage with such truth.

There were reflections on the dangers of stories that were cloyingly sweet, the clumsy Christian tendency to create bludgeoningly didactic books and films, in which all of the characters are transparent stereotypes and THE MESSAGE IS IN ALL CAPS.  It is no small irony that our "evangelical" stories are so often told in ways that only those who already believe can enjoy them.

It was a wonderful dialogue.  As one of the two folks at the "front" of the room, I pitched out my thoughts on the subject early.  Well, one of my thoughts. As the conversation continued, another occurred to me.  But the role of the person at the front of the room isn't to pontificate endlessly, no matter how much caffeine you drank right before the session.  You contribute, give a perspective, and then support, and listen.

The answer I left unspoken was this: Story is a soul-shaping magic, but it is not necessarily a good magic. 

Stories can be evil.

Storytelling as a means of forming personal and collective identity can make us more just, more compassionate, more open, and more gracious. It can force open our imaginations to receive a new blessing. It can deepen our welcome to the stranger, and set our souls at peace. 

And it can also do precisely the opposite thing.  We can tell stories of our own lives that make us more anxious, more hateful, and more bitter.  Our narratives of the people around us can twist them into chimerae, allowing us to project our anxiety and rage onto that false Other.  They abuse us! They are monsters! We, the victims, the paragons of virtue! We can mutter these things to ourselves for a lifetime.

We can tell stories of our lives together that deepen our collective resentments towards the stranger, that heighten our distrust of neighbor, and that dehumanize those we need to hate.  We recount their corruption and brutality, heightening our contempt of Them, reinforcing the bright shiny truth of Us.  We make up stories that cast Us as perfect and noble and good, and Them as demonic god-foe monstrosities, irredeemable enemies, unworthy of love.

Our stories can make our hearts leap at the thrill of violence, hunger for possessions, and view others as meat for our pleasure. They can make us cynical and cold and brutal.

Fiction can call us into a higher truth. It can also be a deepening lie upon a lie. 

A story can tell a deep magic of compassion.  It can just as easily be a coldwoven curse, written in the blood of ego, filling our soul with worms.