Telling our Story Well
My parents came down for a visit last weekend and left me with some listening material for the frequent drives out to Abbotsford that I am making these days. The Massey Lectures are an annual Canadian event in which a noted scholar gives a series of addresses on some topic of current interest. Among the many notable past Massey lecturers are Noam Chomsky, Jean Vanier, Margaret Visser, John Ralston Saul, and Stephen Lewis.
In 2003 the guest of honour was the Canadian novelist and current professor of English at the University of Guelph, Thomas King. The title of his lecture series was “The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative,” and I spent today’s commute listening to his first lecture called “‘You’ll Never Believe What Happened’ is Always a Good Way to Start.” It was an absorbing and thought-provoking talk which left me wondering about the nature of stories and how our story-telling affects who we are and the influence we have on the world around us.
In the opening lecture, a wonderful example of King’s skill in storytelling, we are taken on a whirlwind tour through a Native creation myth. King skillfully weaves in everything from comedy to metaphysics, painting a picture of a world brought into being by the collaboration of animals and semi-divine human figures which is characterized by balance, harmony, and respect for non-human creation. It is a wonderful story, and a story well-told at that. King then contrasts this with the creation story which gave rise to, and continues to nourish “the West”—that cultural entity which traces its origins to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This creation story gets much less time than the Native one—in part because it is likely a familiar one to King’s audience, but also because King sees this story as giving rise to many of the evils which have plagued our world, not the least of which were perpetrated against the Native North American population of which King is a part. “How would the world be different,” King wonders, “if a Native creation myth had shaped Western culture? ” What if we’ve started out with the wrong story?
I’ve been picking away at the November issue of The Walrus for the last month or so. It’s a special issue devoted to Canada’s Arctic, and I have to admit that I was less than enthusiastic to see show up on my doorstep. “The Arctic” is just not an area of the world that grabs my interest, and it took me a long time to get into this issue. Gradually, however, I began to be drawn in by the stories of struggle and beauty which characterize life in this most extreme and unforgiving of environments. I was especially moved by the suffering and loss experienced by the Inuit people – the manner in which their culture has been steadily eroded by the encroachment of Western mass media, technology, and cultural values. The Arctic issue contains stories of courage, beauty, and hope, certainly, but just as many which are characterized by substance abuse, suicide, and hopelessness. Much of this is pinned, rightly or wrongly, on “the West” and, indirectly, on the Christian story which undergirds it, if only in an unacknowledged or indirect manner. As I read these stories of suffering and misery and continue to process King’s lecture, the question persists: what if we’ve started out with the wrong story?
“Once we tell a story, it is loose in the world,” says Thomas King, and it seems rather obvious that the Christian story—with all of its intentional and unintentional negative consequences—is here to stay. While I am inclined to question King’s characterization of Western religions as inherently “martial and hierarchical” and while I disagree with his characterization of “crime and punishment” being the “basis of Christian doctrine,” it is hard for me to disagree that the Christian story has been used by some to justify the gross mistreatment of others. It’s even harder for me to speak against an interpretation of the world that comes from a member of a group of people that have suffered at the hands of those committed to the story I adhere to. It is simply a fact that the Christian story has historically led to the privilege of some and the marginalization of others. This is not to suggest that those who built the world we live in were using this story correctly, but the fact remains: our story has not historically been kind to Native people. It’s not obvious that the story that gave rise to the West was or is or could be seen as “good news” by the Native peoples of North America.
In the question period following King’s inaugural lecture, one person asked the obvious “now what?” question. What do we do now? The Christian story is “loose in the world” and the effects—negative and positive, intentional and unintentional—brought forth by those who have historically subscribed to it cannot be undone. King responded by saying that we have to privilege the right kinds of stories, and we have to tell our stories well. He is careful to remind us that “the same story can be used to help or to hurt.” For me, this was the ray of hope for all of us who occupy positions of historical, cultural, racial, religious, or any other kind of privilege that has come at the expense of others. We can tell our story better. We can tell the Christian story—a story associated by so many, rightly or wrongly, with the many evils of our world—in ways that help rather than hurt. Even though we cannot undo the pain caused to, for example, the Native peoples of North America by those who have understood and told our story badly, we can resolve to tell it better. We can tell it in ways that bring life, healing, harmony, justice, and peace rather than the ways that our world is already, tragically, far too familiar with.
God has given us a story worth telling, but he has also given us the freedom to choose how we will tell it. I am grateful for Thomas King’s reminder that a well-told story can (and does) make all the difference in the world.