The Perils of Storytelling
We may be uncomfortable with the gospel’s storytelling style if we want “just the facts, please.” We might prefer the precise architectural drawing or accounting spreadsheet to what seems rambling or inconsistent. But if we compare the Bible with our own life stories, we grow more comfortable with its mixed genres. For example…
The early years of my parents’ marriage were interrupted by my father’s Navy service during World War II. My college studies were filled with news of the Viet Nam war—and protests against it. My son began graduate school at Georgetown just as the dean of his school, with her family, were killed in a flight from Dulles to Los Angeles and Sydney, where she’d teach at the university there–9/11/01. My friend missed his daughter’s birth, because he’s a Marine in Afghanistan.
Those are a few examples of the stories that nest within stories like a set of Russian dolls. The hinges between levels connect them: my story—our story—The Story. We search for links where the larger Story intersects my personal one.
So when Lent begins, we reflect not only on Jesus’ and the Hebrews’ experience in the desert, but also on ours. Wandering in the wilderness has brought valuable insights we haven’t learned from secure kitchens. We’ve found God in the “spaces between certainties.”
Much as we enjoy the intriguing connections, storytelling has its problems. It’s not scientific, it’s subject to personal interpretation, and sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate. Ask two people about the party Saturday; they might tell radically different accounts.
So too, each gospel writer has a different emphasis. Even within John, there are apparent contradictions: “Jesus was deeply troubled” (13:21) but in the next chapter says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1).
Those who tell stories and enjoy them listen beneath the words, because their primary interest is the meaning stories give our experience. We don’t read the gospels primarily for scientific accuracy or historical fact, but to better follow Jesus.
We read through the lens of a human author, who will sometimes shade, condense or exaggerate. Sometimes we also need to read exegesis or commentary, but most important is our response. It’s an old saying: the gospel gives the chapter headings; we write the texts in our lives.
To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic