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The Single Story

In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered her famous TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” which discussed the problematic nature of reducing human beings and cultures to a single narrative. She talked about negotiating her own African identity in cultural contexts that often only countenanced a single narrative of what it meant to be “African.” For so many, Africans were poor and they were victims (of corruption or famine or war or some other combination of circumstances). This was just what it meant to be African. There was no room for anything else in the story. No room for an African who wasn’t poor or a victim or in need of Western aid. No room for her.

I think Adichie identifies something crucial (and virtually ineradicable) about human beings and how we think about the world. We are constantly drawn to the single story. Reality is complex. Identity is complex. Every story is a combination of history and sociology and biology and anthropology and psychology and, yes, often even theology. The story of who we are and what we do and how we arrived where we are is an incredibly complicated and nuanced one. But we human beings don’t always do complicated and nuanced very well. We don’t have the time or the inclination to dig into the whole story. We prefer clear, simple, understandable categories. The single story is easier, whether we’re talking about race or sexuality or this or that social problem or church dynamics or whatever. So the single story is the story we tell.

This morning I came across a CBC article called “Uprooted” that, in my view, admirably resists the temptation of telling a single story. The author, Terry Roberts, tells the tale of the tiny town of Roddickton, Newfoundland, which has over the last decade or so become a kind of home for numerous indigenous children from Nain, Labrador (nearly 1600 km away). As of December, according to government statistics, there were 45 foster homes in the area, caring for 55 indigenous children. A combination of addictions and inadequate housing and poor social support had led to these children ending up with social services and, eventually, foster care.

Now, the story at this point could go in one of two “single story” directions.” The single story could be of the heroic and compassionate white families taking in underprivileged non-white kids and caring for them. It could be a story of poor victims being given a chance by magnanimous westerners or Christians or whatever. This single story would be a feel-good one of opportunities, of rescue from hardship, of newness and hope.

Or, more likely in our present cultural climate, the single story could be one of a kind of well intentioned but misguided colonialism. We could talk about the loss of indigenous culture and language, the imposition of foreign customs and religion upon vulnerable children; we could talk about the severing of family bonds that are so crucial to navigating questions of identity and self-understanding. We could talk about the legacy of residential schools and all the destructive effects that have trickled down to the present. This single story would be one of lament and loss and injustice.

The remarkable thing about the way that Roberts tells this story is that he refuses either of these single stories. He acknowledges that both are true and that both contribute to the complex whole. He quotes indigenous leaders saying that it would be good for parents to see how white foster parents are raising their children, and to realize that they need to take care of their kids this way too. He includes indigenous voices that acknowledge that foster children in Roddickton seem well-adjusted and happy. He refers to an unnamed leader who, when asked about the loss of culture and identity that these kids will experience, said, “preserving a culture should not be a priority if it involves drunkenness, drug abuse and violence.” This is not a popular story or one that we hear often. Yet it is part of the truth.

He also tells the vitally important story of indigenous parents who grieve the loss of their children, of families torn apart, of communities struggling to cope. He includes critical voices that wonder if/how foster parents are profiting financially from these indigenous kids. There are some who quietly say that fostering has become something of an industry in Roddickton. The foster kids have allowed the school to stay open. Visits from parents from Nain provide a bit of a boost to what was a sleepy economy. And there are, of course, the big-picture truths about how Canada’s historical treatment of indigenous people has led to the social realities that make situations like this possible. Roberts does not shy away from our deep and troubled national history of colonialism and racism that persists to the present and that has played a massive role in the conditions that lead to indigenous kids needing to go into foster care in the first place. This, too, is part of the truth.

We need to encounter difficult and nuanced multilayered stories like this. We need to sit with stories that don’t neatly confirm what we already think or are inclined to think or would prefer to think. We need stories that resist easy categorization. We need stories that make us stop and think and question the official narratives we’re given or have chosen to accept, no matter which side of a given story we happen to fall on.

I had coffee with a man in his nineties the other day. He wanted to talk to me about the “Sixties Scoop.” He was angry about a story that he had read in the media that presented white foster parents as participants in colonialism. He proceeded to tell me about how in the 1960’s he and his wife had a procession of indigenous foster kids in their home, about how they had treated them with love and kindness, about how they did the best they could to show the love of God to kids coming out of horrible circumstances. He told me about one day when a social worker had dropped off a three month old baby boy with diaper rash on their front door with a jar of baby food and not much else. He told me about how they ended up adopting this little boy.

I thought back to the previous Sunday, and how the middle aged man that this three-month-old boy had become had made his way to the front of the church during communion, about how I had held out the cup to him and said, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you…”

Is this another story of colonialism? Another white Christian family snuffing out an indigenous identity? Or a story of hope and rescue and opportunity? Or both? It depends on how you tell the story. And it depends on whether you’re prepared to tolerate more than a single story.

Of course, I am not some dispassionate evaluator of the stories we tell when it comes to indigenous children and white parents (foster or adoptive). As a father of indigenous kids, I have a profoundly personal interest in stories that are big enough to encompass all the disparate components of the truth. I want my kids to know the story of colonialism. I even want them to be able to walk into the messy and painful parts of the story of how they came to be with us and how we came to be with them. I want them to be proud of their Ojibway and Metis heritage and for this to be a deep part of who they are and who they become.

But I don’t want them to stop with this single story. I also want them to know that there is a story that is being told and an identity that is being forged in their lives that goes beyond their ethnicity and the complex history that brought us together. I want them to know the truth of what Parker Palmer said in a recent post:

There is no more important work human hands can do than to hold a child with a fierce tenderness that says, in a way words never can, “You are loved, you are safe, you can trust.”

I want my kids to resist the lure of the single story—whether it’s the story of colonial lament or the story of paternalistic rescue—when it comes to how they understand who they are and where they are going.

And I want the same for all of us, in light of all the stories we read and hear and tell and share with others in all the various domains of our lives. The single story is easy and convenient. It’s just rarely big or true enough in a world as complex as ours.


The feature image for this post comes courtesy of Ruth Bergen Braun Photographics, and was taken at last weekend’s 2017 International Peace Pow-Wow, celebrating Blackfoot culture here in Lethbridge, AB.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. dkklassen #

    It takes so much work to hold a story long enough for it to be more than a single narrative, to tell it into its complex colors. It needs to be told many times, from many angles … same story. Love your storytelling.

    February 28, 2017
    • Well said. Thank you very much, Darlene.

      March 1, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    The story of your family and families like them, touch my heart. Heroism, at least as I would define it, is not some singular grand action or spectacle for public consumption. Rather my heroes, do the little things daily, on the fringes, not drawing attention to themselves or their works. Improving, over time, the quality of life for others around them.

    You are a family of heroes. 🙂

    As for your dismissal of a, “single story” approach to human culture, I respectfully disagree.

    As I hear the Spirit I hear the voice of a, “single story”. One Lord who is the way the truth and the life. One singular truth as to how human culture should operate…”do unto others”….one family,….no partiality….”neither male or female, Jew or Greek”….no priority of nationality, political affiliation or sexual orientation identities….one family under God.

    “One life, with each other, sisters, brothers”.

    Human truths and the multiplicity of nuance they inspire are the false truths of a material world that does not know God.

    Even on it’s own terms this approach to living has led us to a point where individual self interest, however strangely and selfishly one would choose to define it, trumps the common good. The political realm in the so called advanced world has distilled down to nothing more than a cacophony of petulant voices each prioritizing their own selfish interest (the real truth behind all this nuance) while simultaneously dismissing or even demonizing the humanity of others.

    Your voice, as I hear it here, can only lead to the woeful lament of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth”.

    When we disguise the simple truth under the bushel basket of opinion we create a world of self interest and violence.

    March 1, 2017
    • Thanks for your kind words, Paul. Really appreciate them.

      Re: the single story, I think you have perhaps gone beyond the scope and context of this post in your critique. Do you think that in the situation I describe above, that one of those two narratives should be privileged? Do you think that either of the “single stories” that are so often told capture the whole reality? Do you think we need to hear both stories to come closer to the truth? I do.

      On the macro level, of course as a Christian I believe that there is a single story of what God has done in Christ for the salvation of the world, and all people are called to participate in this story. But our encounter with this single story doesn’t look precisely the same in every culture and at every point in history. Not everyone’s Christian experience is identical. That’s why we need to hear multiple voices and listen the stories of those who have encountered Christ in particular ways at particular times and in particular places. This is, I am convinced, one of the ways in which God discloses himself to us and brings us ever closer to the truth.

      (And, incidentally I think that this is why a Catholic and a Mennonite can have good conversations about faith where we both hopefully come closer to the heart of Christ via encountering a story that is not our own. 🙂 )

      March 1, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for a thoughtful and challenging response, Ryan.

    Laddie, if we aren’t looking at the macro implications of all our musings, then what in good gravy are we doing here!… 🙂

    Beyond your intended scope, I accept as only you can know your intentions. That being said the opening statement reads specifically,…”The dangers of a single story and the problematic nature of reducing people and cultures to a single narrative”…

    If I understand the message of Jesus correctly, that is in fact precisely the truth of it all. We are to , “die to self” ( and all of humanities cultural personas) and become one people of a single narrative, bound to Christ Jesus, eternally.

    I do not mean to suggest that other interpretations aren’t real experiences but rather they are false choices we make by stubbornly refusing to be, “born again”. Born again as we are intended to be. As we are required to be.

    Ms. Adichie’s premise then, strikes me as anti ethical to Christianity. Ultimately leading us to a live as you would so choose ethic. Not the live as you ought ethic that Christ demands of us.

    So do I think that a single narrative accurately explains the human experience, no I do not. But frankly all human experience, apart from God, is death. It may be real, shockingly brutal in its experience and lead to the abuse and destruction of many but it was and is a false reality not intended for us. So why pursue the lie?

    Why hold on to false understandings and experiences, especially if all they bring is hurt? Be born again. Born into what has always been true.

    And what is this truth? To love God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the whole of the law. This is the truth about how we are to live. So if any human endeavor or experience is not founded on love of God and neighbor, It is a false choice. A wrong way of living. It is a lie. Why bother with perspective and nuance. It is enough to know it is false and let it all go.

    As for you and I muddling through the differences to come to a place where we both edify God and support one another spiritually, I am truly grateful. That being said we have taken the long way home to get here and likely still have some way to go.

    What did Our Lord mean when he spoke of a house divided not being able to stand? What did St. Paul mean when he spoke of only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism? Chastising communities for their differences in creed?

    It is our refusal to embrace the singular nature of our narrative that keeps us from God. We would do well to reject those voices that encourage us otherwise.

    March 2, 2017
    • I am not denying the single story on the macro level. I couldn’t agree more with this:

      And what is this truth? To love God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the whole of the law. This is the truth about how we are to live.

      As I see it, the reason that we have to be open to encountering more than a single story when it comes to this or that social issue or even theology is down to at least 2 factors:

      1. We are finite and we are fallen. Sin and weakness and ignorance and self-interest affects how we understand and tell every story we are a part of. Even the Christian story

      2. We all encounter the single story (macro or micro) from a particular perspective (cultural, linguistic, economic, etc) that shapes how we understand and tell it.

      I think we can all think of examples where someone, whether an individual or a church or a missionary enterprise or whatever, arrived in a different context armed with their “single story” and did damage. Sometimes deeply so (Canada’s residential school history is just one example among many). We have to come to a place where we hold our beliefs with unapologetic conviction and and are willing to invite others to consider them too, while at the same time being open to what other perspectives and stories might have to teach us, perhaps sharpening our own views or nuancing them or chastening them or whatever. This is how we grow in the love of God and neighbour, in my view.

      What did Our Lord mean when he spoke of a house divided not being able to stand? What did St. Paul mean when he spoke of only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism? Chastising communities for their differences in creed?

      It is our refusal to embrace the singular nature of our narrative that keeps us from God. We would do well to reject those voices that encourage us otherwise.

      Difficult questions, these. But if I refer to your quoted statement above then I am hopeful that across our various creeds and communions, we are unified by our common commitment to the “truth of the whole law.” I am heartened by my own relationships with clergy members in our community (including Roman Catholic) and our willingness to work and worship together.

      March 2, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Forgive the length of time I am taking to respond, Ryan. Between church (it is a busy week in the Catholic community) family and work obligations….. Paul just ain’t keepin’ up! Lol

        Am off to work now, have first Friday Mass after work and I think I owe the love of my life some karaoke time after that ( our guilty pleasure 🙂

        I look forward to continuing this discussion tomorrow and as always thank you for addressing important issues that force me to really think hard about my understanding of what is true and good.



        March 3, 2017
      • Sounds like you have far more important and life-giving things to do than worry about a blog response! I commend you for keeping your priorities appropriately straight.

        March 3, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes, different stories/perspectives need to be heard and respected and I love how you say it,” This is how we grow in love of God and neighbour”.

        That being said, I am deeply troubled by a relativistic ethic that seems to value all stories/opinions and perspectives as being equally valid and true.Debates of conscience, of humility of a willingness to re-examine and self correct are replaced by intolerant political activity that declares the winner to be true and the loser to be false as if truth were something won subjectively and subject to change at the whim of the next winner(s).

        I think you have helped me understand that a more patient and compassionate approach to the myriad of story that engulfs us is a Godly approach to listening. In the end I think we both agree that the answer to distilling the truth is to measure what we think is so, against the the commandment to Love God and Neighbour. A standard that our political institutions have purposefully abandoned…for me this makes it near impossible to trust in and participate in our political processes.

        You likely know what I will say next. 🙂 I remain convinced we must live together in open and purposefully Christian communities if the truth is to survive among us. Sadly I suspect it will take open persecution to make that happen. ( Perhaps not as far off as I once would have thought.)

        We are a lukewarm people of faith, trapped in the stories and comforts of modernity.

        Maybe we need the world to, “spit us out” before the Lord does.

        March 4, 2017
      • Yes, I share many of your concerns, Paul. I am certainly no relativist—not by a long shot. That there is a single truth has never been in doubt for me. But the human ability to apprehend/receive/articulate it has always been in doubt (at least a little). 🙂

        I remain convinced we must live together in open and purposefully Christian communities if the truth is to survive among us.

        Yes, if the Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and if the church is to represent him on earth, then this, clearly is the way the truth will make its way in the world until he comes again.

        March 6, 2017
  4. chris #

    This post reminded me of the ‘suspicion of metanarratives’ associated with postmodernism.

    People typically prefer narrative to more abstract, philosophical forms of thought and expression. But I wonder if the latter has the potential to be more universal. Narrative is particular. The most universal thing I can think of is mathematics, and it is also the most abstract and non-narrative. Philosophy is not mathematics, but there is a similar abstraction, a desire for clarity, definition, and demonstration. I find that listening to philosophical ideas often helps me understand my experience more than listening to a narrative. Although, I like narratives too.

    Full disclosure, I am listening to lectures on modern philosophy right now in the Great Courses. Great stuff. 🙂

    March 3, 2017
    • Yes, I understand well the pull toward the abstract and the universal. That’s probably on one level what drew me to philosophy in university. Narrative is so often messy and ugly and complicated and and leaves far too many explanatory loose ends. I would much prefer a system with comprehensive clarity and precision. I just don’t think such a system is available out there—at least not one that accounts for the bewildering mystery of being human.

      At the risk of presumption, I’m including a portion of a sermon I wrote a few years ago. It expresses (I hope) both some of my ambiguity and even resentment about the fact that we are storied creatures living in a storied world, and at the same time my conviction that this is inevitable and ultimately hopeful.

      I think that it is a strange thing that, as followers of Jesus, we are dwellers in stories.

      Religion often sets itself up as ideology or a philosophy or an ethical system that provides answers to deep questions about the meaning of life and the nature of salvation.

      But as Christians, we are not given a generic, “universal” set of principles or techniques or transcendent truths or ethical absolutes by which to live; we are, rather, thrust into a story.

      And a messy story, at that, full of strange places and people and names that are hard to pronounce—much of which took place a very long time ago, in a world that looks very unlike the one we live in today.

      Where we might prefer 10 steps to authentic spirituality, we are given the story of a baby born in a cattle trough in a barn.

      Where we might prefer a simple, straightforward description of the nature of God, we are given a long meandering journey with a human community and shown how God deals with these people.

      Where we would might prefer inspiration for the process of self-actualization, we are confronted by a Jewish Palestinian revolutionary who hung out with lepers and whores and misfits, and who spoke uncomfortable, uncompromising words about dying to ourselves, talking up a cross, loving enemies, resisting the allure of money… about a world where last are first and first are last.

      Where we might prefer principles and techniques and rational answers to abstract questions, we get a colourful cast of characters—real human beings responding to real situations in the real world.

      The German philosopher Gottheld Lessing famously said that there was an “ugly ditch” between the messy events of history and the pure truths of reason—a ditch that he could not and would not cross.

      Many people feel the same. They don’t like the idea that God would expect us to encounter truth through the particularities of human stories and human history.

      But as Christians we are convinced that God comes to us through stories. We do not encounter God in any other way. We are given a story with characters and people and places, and we are invited to see our stories in those stories.

      March 3, 2017
      • Chris #

        “Truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgement on him.” (Montaigne) Perhaps the ambiguity of stories merely reflects the ambiguity in each human person.

        Thanks for the sermon section. In the last paragraph I stumbled at “We do not encounter God in any other way [than stories].” Do I not encounter God through, say, the beauty of the world? But even then, my perception of the world’s beauty, and my attribution of this beauty to something I call God, this is part of my own story in the world. Stories are difficult to escape. Even philosophy comes to us in a story, from the pre-Socratics to Derrida.

        Thanks as always for your eloquence and insight. Peace.

        March 3, 2017
      • That’s a great quote from Montaigne, Chris! Thanks for sharing it.

        Now that I reread the portion I quoted to you, I find myself stumbling at precisely the same part. We understand ourselves and our interaction with the world in storied terms, to be sure, but you are surely correct to point out that the natural world speaks loudly of God, apart from any human or historical mediation. I suppose I may have been thinking that we don’t encounter the person of Christ in any other way than stories, and Christ is said to be the image of the invisible God, but… Still, I think the original statement reaches too far.

        March 4, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I’m left with a few thoughts regarding the specific story referenced here. That being the treatment of indigenous peoples by the churches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Canada.

    I think we do harm to the truth when we apply 21st century understandings to the story. Were the churches ( at the very least) complicit in what we now term to be cultural genocide? Absolutely. Was there a frame of reference or understanding of that concept then? No, there wasn’t.

    The belief was that indigenous people lived a savage existence, vis a vis, nature. Were centuries behind every understanding of civilization and more importantly, from a church perspective at least, did not know the living God and were consequently, based on the theism of the times, consigned to damnation.

    However crudely and abusively we would now see the churches actions to be, I think a case can be made, that relative to the times they were in, Canada’s joint efforts by church and government may have been the most humane response afforded indigenous peoples.

    Canada’s indigenous populations did dip but for the most part remained viable and eventually began to increase.

    Looking at two other histories of the times, the Canadian experience seems almost progressive. The annihilation of indigenous people in what is now the United States of America is a much darker tale then was the Canadian story. From what I have been able to read over the past few days most historians agree that somewhere between 4 to 10 million native peoples were exterminated.

    In Australia, though the numbers are significantly smaller, the Australian government itself now agrees that fully 80% of the indigenous population was massacred.

    In neither of these two instances were the christian churches at the forefront of the colonization. A case can be made, though I make it with great distaste, that the churches of Canada, however wrongly and abusively they pursued their ends, kept a bad story by modern standards from becoming a much worse one.

    All I can offer any of the effected parties in the end is this. Let your response be reflective of your abiding love in God, self and others. Only then might we approach the truth as to what the best solution, going forward, might look like.

    March 6, 2017
    • I find myself nodding along with parts of your assessment here, Paul. It is undoubtedly problematic to retroactively insert into past events moral understandings and assumptions that are the product of long periods of trial and error and reflection and (we believe) divine prodding and pulling. We very often survey the past with a deep sense of moral superiority and (even more often, it seems to me) strident condemnation for those who did what they did. The truth is, we have no idea have no idea the ways in which we might have been complicit in the very injustices we decry, had we been in that time and place.

      And yet even though I think a case could probably be made that other countries did worse by their indigenous populations than Canada did, I still find myself pausing at this statement:

      Were the churches ( at the very least) complicit in what we now term to be cultural genocide? Absolutely. Was there a frame of reference or understanding of that concept then? No, there wasn’t.

      My initial reaction is to agree with this statement. But then I think, wait a minute. If they claimed to be Christians (and the vast majority of those responsible for Canada’s treatment of indigenous people did), then they did have a frame of reference for evaluating the actions that were undertaken. They had a Saviour who commanded them to love their enemies. They had a Teacher who told stories about Samaritans and crossing rigid boundaries for love’s sake. They had a Lord who died for love of his friends and his enemies. They had a King who proclaimed a kingdom that operates on different assumptions than anything the world had ever seen before. They had a story that should have been good news for any people (indigenous or otherwise) that its adherents came into contact with.

      None of this means that we get to throw self-righteous stones at those who came before us. But I think we must also say that anyone who claims Christ as Lord, at any point in history, has a frame of reference utterly unlike any other that has always called us to better than we have proved willing or able to do.

      March 7, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        I can’t disagree with what you say here, Ryan, particularly with regard to what our for father’s responses could have and likely should have been. That being said I was born in the 50’s and can vaguely remember a church life that was far more severe and strict then the Christian culture I move in, is today.

        Love was understood as less of an emotional response and more of an outcome of right discipline. “Spare the rod” was an essential component to that discipline and corporal punishment was an accepted practice.

        If that is what the mid 50’s through to the mid 60’s looked like I can only shudder at what some of the practises of, “love” looked like in the preceding 100 years…..

        If I could wish anything true it would be that my own Catholic church would embark on a program similar to the government’s and give Christian voice and prayer to the sins of our past.

        March 7, 2017
      • I wish for the same, Paul. This, it seems to me, is all that we can do, in light of our many failures and betrayals of Christ and of his way. To seek mercy and take refuge in the one who inexplicably holds out the hope of, “seventy times seven…”

        March 7, 2017

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