Telling Stories by Natalie Weaver


Human beings tell stories. This may sound like a simple truth.  To folklorists, literature professors, and people who work in media and in government, I would sound like a rather simple-minded child to be arriving so late in life at this obvious fact.  We tell stories.  And, just as the phrase “telling a story” might connote, our stories are not always true to life.   Our stories are descriptors and meaning-making efforts, largely rooted in our grappling with self and group identity.

Take, for example, the story of human life as exceptional in the animal kingdom.   As a child I would try to answer for myself the question of what made human beings distinct from other animals, since I had learned somewhere along the way that we were and are exceptional.  I considered the stock answer “reason,” which seemed to me sufficient to explain how human beings did everything, from the writing of language to the building of skyscrapers. As a student of theology, I enlarged upon the rational faculty to see it as the divine in the human, operating as the co-creative element with which human beings gain structural manipulation over our environments.  We make things after our image, just as God made us after God’s.  

The story of human uniqueness in creation as bearers of the image of God plays a giant role in the entire theological apparatus.   By contrast, the more I learn about non-human animals, the less convinced I am that reason and culture-making are exclusive to humans.  Surely something akin to reason informs the behavior of, say, other large mammals, whether manifest in the ways they communicate, or their behaviors (including strategic applications of violence such as infanticide), or the structures they build to call home.   I find ever more evidence to support the claim that humans are less unique than we are simply advanced in degree on spectrums of common animal behaviors.  Yet, the story of human beings as bearers of the image of God demands an adequate rewrite from a theological point of view, just because the claim exists, just because it has been told.

Having recently attended a conference on representations of slavery at historic sites and monuments, I have new appreciation for the function of storytelling in United States history, and indeed in world history, where much of the story is actually an insidious untelling.  For, the legacy  of slavery is deep in the soil, deep in old money, deep in architecture, deep in roads and railways, deep in ocean DNA,  deep in governments, deep in the charters and seed money of the finest universities we can today attend, deep in housing and zoning laws, deep in the psychologies of racism and privilege, and on and on.  Yet, though it plagues everyone, though the trade itself took millions of lives, it is only recently being named a crime against humanity as opposed to the banal language of practice or economic structure.  How different would we be if we told a different origin story or acknowledged the common upbringing of a nation?

The power of storytelling, it seems to me, cannot be overstated.  For, stories shape what we think to be the case, whether from a sacred text or a stock history; whether about our family’s quirks which we claim with pride or our understanding of our form of life relative to other forms of life with which we share the planet.   Perhaps some of the most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves, about ourselves, to ourselves.  I recognize how greatly self-perception depends upon the narrative we write about our lives to connect the dots, to render meaning, to make something tolerable, to justify or explain, and on and on.  What we leave out is as important as what we include.  Indeed, perhaps it is in the telling of stories that we come closest to the creative act of God as storied in scripture, since our stories create the world we live in subjectively (i.e., in the mind) and objectively (i.e., in the world).

Human beings tell stories.  This simple observation actually gives me new hope.  For, imagine if we had the courage to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, such as we could apprehend.  I marvel at how expansive the story could be.  I marvel at the power of authorship and what might unfold from changing something as modest as the punctuation of transforming a period to a comma or even a question mark.

 

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books includeMarriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

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Categories: Myth, Slavery

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10 replies

  1. Thank you for this post, Natalie. To tell and re-tell stories is why I live and breathe. Although the story my father told me was that telling stories was not worthy, was not service, and I should be a social worker instead of a novelist. Our nation and yes our species are in need of new stories and new retellings of old stories. I have been pondering that story of humans as distinct and other for some time now. As a novelist, I have written mostly from human points of view. That is about to change…Thanks for the en-courage-ment!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Natalie. Am sharing just one stanza of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, easily accessible online, with that famous line: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

    Käthe Kollwitz
    By Muriel Rukeyser

    Held among wars, watching
    all of them
    all these people
    weavers,
    Carmagnole

    Looking at
    all of them
    death, the children
    patients in waiting-rooms
    famine
    the street

    A woman seeing
    the violent, inexorable
    movement of nakedness
    and the confession of No
    the confession of great weakness, war,
    all streaming to one son killed, Peter;
    even the son left living; repeated,
    the father, the mother; the grandson
    another Peter killed in another war; firestorm;
    dark, light, as two hands,
    this pole and that pole as the gates.

    What would happen if one woman told the truth about
    her life?
    The world would split open

    Like

  3. As I read this post the radio is on in the background. The interviewee is saying that we need to transform the story of migration to the US from “it’s a national security crisis” to “it’s a humanitarian crisis”. As I compose this response, it switches to the news about what will probably be the final hearing of the (Canadian) National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. More than 1000 family members have been telling their stories. And I recall reading recently that various animal species have exhibited mourning behaviour toward dead members of their group. Yes, stories matter. Thanks.

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    • Our open borders are a humanitarian crisis, indeed.

      Open borders facilitate HUMAN SMUGGLING of all types, including SEX TRAFFICKING and, of course, labor slavery.

      Like

  4. Thanks for revealing the long story of slavery. People seem to like to think the Civil War was fought for “political” reasons. That’s what my high school American history text said. But the real story is sadder: it was to preserve slavery. Now people are telling the same old story again. Led by the occupant of the Oval Office, the reinvented stories are poisonous.

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  5. Profoundly thought provoking essay I hope for many. Thank you.

    And yes, everything is about story and this is why I write primarily from a personal standpoint and highlight the intelligence and importance of non human species who are regularly communicating directly through behavior, as one flower did with me with morning just after I had written a piece on one of the women who was important to me. Interspecies intercommunication is normal. If only we would start paying attention….

    We have been educated out of this idea that all species are sentient expecting them to speak to us in our language instead of their own. What hubris.

    I am in such agreement with your words “the story of human beings as bearers of the image of God demands an adequate rewrite from a theological point of view, just because the claim exists, just because it has been told.”

    Like

  6. A very wonderful post, thanks Natalie. I love where you say: “Perhaps some of the most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves, about ourselves, to ourselves.”

    And sometimes we need to wait for a sort of spring, so we can open to ourselves as you say — and also open to our friends. Georgia O’Keeffe says: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

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  7. “Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence.” Carol P. Christ Diving Deep and Surfacing

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    • Carol, thank you for quoting your first (?) book. It was life-changing for me. I’ve never thanked you for that turn in my understanding of the world. I began to see that “the universe is made up of stories, not atoms,” as Muriel Rukeyser says.

      Like

  8. Great post! Stories – beginning with oral narratives – have helped mold and preserve cultures throughout history.

    It is important to scrutinize EVERY story with critical thought, however. Propanganda and other disinformation are in the mix. ;)

    Like

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