How Stories Matter

by Fr. Joseph Woodill

[Spring-Summer, 2000]

   Recently, one of my children came home from school and told me about a problem discussed in class. "Well, Jesus taught that…", I began to say, but my son, interrupting, said that his teacher and class would be interested only in what anyone would do. What difference, he said, would someone’s religion make? I asked him, but doesn’t it matter where you are from?

   Nothing is so characteristic of modern ethics, philosophy, education, and even theology, as the attempt to ground these in what is universally acceptable. Immanuel Kant, the "Father" of modern ethics, was convinced that only an autonomous will governed by universal principles could adequately anchor moral life. To tell Kant what your father had taught you or what your people said would have been to reveal yourself as tutored and, so, as not yet free. To be enlightened was to be liberated, to be free of such things. America has, until quite recently, been in pursuit of such liberation. We have imagined ourselves to be a people free from all encumbrances. Our "story" has been either that we need no story or that we will pick one, for our own reasons—that’s private, as we say. Nothing has been more American than to tell our children that they owe us nothing and are completely free of our commitments, our story. But recently that account has been waning and Americans have become obsessed with particularity. Once people left churches because they were too particular or ethnic, now people join churches because they have discovered whence their relatives hailed.

   The "universal viewpoint" (called by some the view from anywhere, by others the view from nowhere), that the local high school was teaching my son, has actually been under attack for quite some time. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s universal spirit because it dissolved the concreteness of life. The intellectual terrorist Nietzsche caused us to consider if the will to power lay disguised in our story of liberation. Freud undermined our presumption to know our own minds, without recourse to narratives that we have suppressed. In popular culture (and education) it was Alex Haley’s story of Kunta Kinte that marked our rejection of standing everywhere—which is to stand nowhere—and signaled a return to what is particular. The rediscovery of particularity is most evident in the recovery of the importance of stories: Bill Bennett publishes books of stories for conservatives, while the First Lady describes the village that it takes to raise a child. I think that recent interest in the place of stories is important, but story may also be used to trivialize. Let me suggest a little of each possibility.

   At one level, stories from the Scriptures, of saints and heroic people ought to be told to develop moral imagination. By "imagination" I mean gaining skill at seeing how things are, especially for others. Tending the Heart of Virtue, by Vigen Guroian, and The Holy Fire, stories of the Fathers by Robert Payne, are good examples of enriching the imagination by story. But the moral imagination needs more than just hero stories. For those Orthodox Churches where people of color are seldom seen, stories like that of Kunta Kinte enrich our moral imaginations where icons of Moses the Brigand have failed.

   I noted that story might also be used to trivialize. Story might serve to indicate that in the end everything is simply made up by us. Seeing this as analogous to liturgy might help. I don’t think liturgy that is simply made up can ever secure us—anymore than a made-up love. Liturgy does change, this is undeniable, but it changes within the tradition as a real struggle with and for God and one another. Story, like liturgy or love, if it isn’t trivial, is received as a grace, as a gift, and then must be answered as it makes its claims on us. As with liturgy and love so with story, we do contribute to the "story" and even its change, but only by being incorporated by it.

   I believe, then, that thinking about the faith in terms of story is helpful—but neither exhaustive nor without risks. It is helpful to think of Orthodox Christianity as the story of God’s love. It is the story recounted in the Bible, in Liturgy, in Tradition, in living and in suffering. It is the story of God’s love as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus comes to take us into a great Passover, the Pascha which is the lived narrative of God’s love. By receiving the story and living by it, I re-member (recapitulate, as St. Irenaeus put it) creation as called into being by the Father, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Liturgy might be understood as that story performed, as a love story enacted. In some sense we choose and even make our love stories, but more importantly we are made by our loves. Church is a particular story, but a story which opens upon a self-giving love reaching out to renew the Spirit in all of creation.

   Returning to the first paragraph, yes it is important where you come from, who you are, and what story has captured your imagination. The last century has shown that giving one’s life up to a story entails great risk—fascism and communism are also stories. So a story that has the power to enliven us must have resources from which to be critical of its misuse and misappropriation—by others and by myself. It must offer passage beyond myself. The story of Trinitarian love is all of this because it comes from beyond me, from what is not limited by me and, yet, calls me back to myself. The story that captures my heart will make all of the difference. Which is, perhaps, why both the first and final word of that story can only be love. Stories of particularity, recently embraced by so many Americans, seem so often to isolate us one from the other. The story of Orthodox Christianity ought not to do the same. We have but one story: Trinitarian love as revealed in Christ. That story has but one sign: the cross, by which we mark our story as hidden in Him.

[Fr. Joseph Woodill is the pastor of Holy Virgin Church, Waterbury, Connecticut.]


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