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 include: Marriage 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.