There’s Something About a Story

There is a body of research literature around the whole idea of storytelling. Romantic writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century saw narrative as a way of exploring existential issues; the first form critics of the Bible text came to the same conclusions. Cultural anthropologists in the twentieth century have looked for the power of storytelling in the blurred moments in our past when humans acquired language and consciousness. Bruno Bettelheim, the Austrian Psychoanalyst and student of Freud, makes a good case for locating the origins of storytelling at this critical point in our humanity. Post Modern writers bring another perspective; their emphasis is on the power of narrative to conflate subject with object. That is, we must always acknowledge that the story cannot ever be independent of the person telling the story and the person hearing the story. This is all a bit heavy when we come to the experience of telling a story and the joy of hearing a story. Here’s how it works in practice.
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this to be true from their own experience. They knew that the membrane between subject and object in the story telling experience is permeable indeed. There’s a wonderful moment in the Aeneid when Aeneas and his fellow Trojans are welcomed into the palace of Queen Dido. A room in the palace is hung with tapestries showing the fall of Troy and the scattering of the last remnants of Trojan nobility. Aeneas recognises himself in one of the tapestries and he cries in grief for what he has lost in his homeland.

Readers of the Gospels will have had the same experience as they recognise themselves in the stories: the rich young ruler who cannot give up his wealth when Jesus invites him to join his fellowship; the desperate father who brings his epileptic son to Jesus when every other healer has failed; the woman with “an issue of blood” who puts everything on the line just for the chance to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. We are there is all these moments.

Stories make sense of the world for us: they qualify the poverty of thinking in our post-industrial world and bring compassion to the marketplace that has taken over from an ethical foundation for our society. And even if the story starts: “Just wait ‘til I tell you what happened to me on Saturday night!”, it has the power to enrich and bless.