When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel and stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, “What are you going to paint?”
“God,” he said.
“And do you know what God looks like?”
“I will when I finish the painting,” he said as he began to paint.
Isn’t that an amazing insight? Why do I find it important?
We do indeed give form and meaning to concepts and ideas in works of the imagination that we create including paintings and stories. We are the meaning seekers. We are the creators of meaning. The bible, for example, means by means of its stories. Think for a moment of the Christian hero, Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of “salvation”. [Lane, Reading the Bible]
I think of the Biblical Gospel writers as being like my young son.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Do you know Jesus? “I will when I finish my story.”
The second lesson came from our second son. As I was sitting in the living room after classes one day reading the newspaper, I heard a an argument on the front porch and after some harsh words a scream from our daughter. I went outside and she reported that her brother had pushed her off the porch. She was not hurt; just angry.
I looked at her tormenter with my harshest look and said to him, “If I were you I would NOT do that!” He apologized to his sister and they went on playing. I went back in to finish reading the paper.
After a few minutes he came in and looked at me, and when he had my attention he said, “But Daddy, you are wrong; if you were me you would have done what I did.”
The law of identity! I had to explain that we humans are not always to be taken literally and that what I had uttered was a threat.
Third, I learned about the importance of point of view, not from my graduate classes, but from our little daughter in a stroller. As I grow older I find my mind circling back on a few vivid memories from the past. One of my favorites is of a time when our family went to the zoo in Seattle for a Sunday visit. Our daughter, Margaret, was a little girl, still riding in a stroller. We went to see the apes and the lions, the monkeys and the polar bears.
“What do the monkeys say, Margaret?” “Monkeys say, uhhn, uhhn uhn!”
“What does the bear say?” “Bear says, rrroaar, rroaarr.”
We then were walking along one of the many paths, pushing the stroller and trying to keep Margaret’s older brothers from climbing into the fields with the ruminants. At one point we saw a water buffalo grazing in the field just on the other side of the fence that the boys kept looking at as a challenge to be overcome. As we stopped by the fence we watched as the water buffalo walked towards us, curious, I suppose, about this group of non-water buffalo. As it came closer Margaret was equally curious perched there in her stroller at the height of the first strand of barbed wire. It came right up to the fence. Its broad nose was almost touching Margaret as it smelled her to determine, I guess, if she were friend or foe, or food. The five of us stood there looking at the beast for several minutes. If finally made whatever determination it needed to make and continued its grazing in the field.
“What does the water buffalo say?” “Says, woof, woof, woof.”
“Oh, no,” I laughed, “that’s what a dog says.” “No,” she insisted, “ bufflo say woof, woof.”
I thought about that for a moment and then I came to realize an important lesson about reading the world. So much depends upon point of view. From Margaret’s point of view, down there close to the bufflo’s nose, it did indeed say “woof, woof” – the sound of its breathing through those big silky nostrils. To my ears, four or so feet above hers, there was no such sound, and I also had some preconceived idea of what a bufflo should say! But Margaret simply reported what she experienced. She didn’t know what bufflo were supposed to say, only what that one on that day did say.
Later when I went on to graduate school to study literature I came to realize the importance of that lesson. Literature taught me again, what Margaret taught me that day in Seattle, point of view is important.
Just as a narrative structure is necessary for the story of Margaret and the water buffalo so is a structure necessary for any story. And stories, like other experiences, are both told from and “read” from a point of view.