By Bob Lane
|“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
– Umberto Eco
|The truth about stories is –
that’s all we are.
– Thomas King
Massey Lectures 2003
My general notion of literature includes these claims: literature is about the world, interpretation is a creative act, intention is a necessary condition for writing of any kind, there are four focal points for any work of literature: poet, text, world, and reader. The biblical text is complex and sophisticated narrative exhibiting many layers of intention in its final form. In the second book of Samuel, for example, we read the exciting love story of David and Bathsheba, and learn how David, driven by desire for the beautiful Bathsheba, brings her to his bed and makes her pregnant while her husband Uriah is in David’s army fighting the enemies of Israel. David eliminates Uriah by sending a letter (carried by Uriah) to the commander telling him to place Uriah in the fiercest fighting and then to fall back leaving him alone to be killed. After Uriah is killed Bathsheba mourns for him for the appropriate time and then David brings her into his house and takes her as his wife. (2 Sam. 11,12) Shortly after this we are told “what David had done was wrong in the eyes of the Lord.” And then, as we read in the King James Version:
And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto
him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one
rich and the other poor.
- The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
- But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb,
which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together
with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and
drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a
- And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he
spared to take of his own flock and his own herd, to dress for the
wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s
lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
- And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man;
and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done
this thing shall surely die:
- And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did
this thing, and because he had no pity.
- And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.
David will pay for his lust; the child he conceived in sin will die and the other threats will also come to pass. The punishment will fit the crime: the child conceived in sin will die; the man who could not control his sexual appetites will be punished by having his wives taken in front of everyone. Note the layers of narrative here. Nathan tells David a parable. David is moved by the story. He sentences the fictional man to die. Nathan tells David that he is the man. The story is used to get the king to see himself and to judge his own acts. Just as Uriah carries his own death warrant to Joab in the form of a letter of execution, David comes to issue a death sentence on himself through Nathan’s story. When Joab opens the letter carried by Uriah he will see David’s intention; when David “opens” the story carried by Nathan he will see the Lord’s intention.
Nathan relates a fictional narrative in order to get the king to see the truth about his own situation. Nathan’s intention is clear – he uses story to reveal truth. Once he gets David to see that the rich man in the story has done wrong then all he has to do is get him to see that he is like the rich man in the appropriate moral way. Self-delusion, though powerful in human affairs, can be broken by story. David has then judged himself. But there is another layer of intentional meaning here also. “The Lord sent Nathan…” adds a layer to the narrative which reveals another story of alleged divine intervention in the understanding of the events. And this story in turn is related by a writer or editor who is shaping the larger story of the books of Samuel for his audience. We get the sense that David would never have admitted guilt for killing Uriah in order to have Bathsheba, but he is able to see and respond to characters in stories. As readers we too are to respond to the stories and to that end have been given narrative access to the larger story pointed to by phrases like “The Lord sent Nathan….”
One of the most interesting assignments I gave to students was to have them write their own creation myth. What they learned was that what they valued was what they put into the story. Their papers were always a way into a discussion of the two creation myths that are redacted into one in the book of Genesis. In one male and female are created equal and in the other, better known story, man is created first and woman made from his rib. The Genesis story emphasizes authority, hierarchy, creation by divine order, and a transcendent divine. Other creation stories from, for example, North American Indians, emphasize cooperation, the feminine, and the equality of all animals. As Camus asks in a notebook entry, “What would the human face look like if we had not been told for two thousand years that we are evil?”
One way of approaching these early stories is to think of them as maps. They were constructed after the fact as ways of explaining and charting the unknown past of how and why. In that respect they are backwards looking. But they also contain a perspective from the present projecting into the future. They contain within them a story about how we ought to be. And the language of these stories is often the language of dream – symbolic language – a language that means more than it says, a language that is found in poetry and in children. When our immediate family experienced the first death in the family which our kids experienced it happened like this: the phone call came saying that Grandpa Jim had died and that his funeral would be in a military cemetery in a few days. Margaret, our daughter, was about three years old. She heard her mother on the phone and guessed that something was wrong. She asked her older brothers (seven and eight) what was going on. “Grandpa Jim is dead.”
“What does that mean?”
“They will put him in a hole in the ground.”
“And put dirt over top of him.”
“And you will never see him again.”
She was puzzled. Later she went off to bed without saying much of anything. In the middle of the night I heard her weeping quietly in her crib. I went to pick her up and held her against my chest. She was in that state between sleeping and waking and was sobbing over and over again: “I don’t want to go down in that hole; I don’t want to go down in that hole.” That is symbolic language. What heart knew head guessed. The stories of the Bible are written in that kind of language. At the level where the human cry of mortality and mystery emerges is to be found the story line of the best of the stories from the Bible collection. At another level, of course, is the official line, which offers an explanation, a reading of the stories, proclaims an interpretation, an ordering conceptual map.
A valuable approach as reader is to consider that reading a text is a performing art. I do not mean by this that one needs to learn to be an oral interpreter, although that is a good skill to develop. I mean that in reading a text one must engage every bit of creativity, of sensitivity, of intellect and feeling that one possesses. The story is in the text, but its full experience is in the mind of the reader. The story provides form and directs responses, and the reader completes the communicative act. Think of the text as a musical score and yourself as a performing musician. The notes are there – are in the score – and you must be able to perform them on your musical instrument. You need to bring technical skill, sensitivity to nuance, and knowledge of the language of musical notation to the task.
God, like beauty, is to be found in the stories, the works of art, of the Bible. 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.
In some sense we are all and always looking for Eutopia. Eutopia means the good place and is to be distinguished from Utopia which means no place. Eutopia is a place in which human society, natural conditions, etc., are so ideally perfect that there is complete contentment. Philosophers and poets have over the years given us glimpses of what Eutopia might be like. In my Eutopia human solidarity would be seen not as a hoped for after-life but as a goal in the here and now. It is to be achieved not by further inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by contemplation but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar kinds of people. We need to come to see other human beings as “one of us” and not as “them” – story can help us in this quest.
Let me end with an example of a story, the truth of which, I do not know. I relate it because its truth is not important. It changed my attitude. For years I have been prejudiced against a certain group of humans. Even long ago as a college student I used to shy away from members of this group. Confronted with them I withdrew with fear and repugnance. I knew I was wrong to do so but I could not seem to get what I knew incorporated into what I do.
A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and kissed him and said: “This will make it better.”
Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story.
Why? Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course.
Each of us creates a narrative in our life, writes a STORY as we walk toward the grave. Choose your stories with care, for “the truth about stories is – that’s all we are.”