We tell stories

I was out to dinner this week with a friend of mine and we got to talking, or I should say my friend got to talking and I got to listening, which is how these conversations often happen. (I am very much an introvert and my friend is very much an extravert. It takes real work to shape our conversations into any other form. But I digress.) I don’t remember exactly how we got there, but as the conversation unfolded my friend wandered into some parts of the tale that were beautiful and intimate and tender – and not mine to retell – and as the conversation came to a close my friend looked across the table and said, “And you know, I don’t think I’ve told anybody that whole story before…”

All I could do was smile. “Maybe you were saving it?”

We tell stories. It’s what human beings do. We are myth-makers and meaning-makers and we understand the world by telling – and receiving – stories.

I’m not a big follower of pop culture – there’s just too much of it and not enough hours in the day already – but I see enough references to the various shows and series out there that it seems to me we are using fiction to fill our deep need for mythology. It’s obvious in SF/F fandom – the subcultures that rise up around a particular shared fictional universe – but I see this need also bubbling up in the way people get deeply involved with TV dramas and even sports teams. This is not a new phenomenon and there’s plenty been written on the subject already, but I was not thinking so much about what we do as about why we do it.

We – at least the broad white anglophone north-american middle-class cultural-protestant “we” – don’t “do” a whole lot of mythology in the sense of sacred stories woven into our lives. I am basing this line of thought on some Karen Armstrong I read probably ten years ago, so no direct quotes (the book – I believe it was “The Battle for God” – is in this house, somewhere), just a long-dormant seed that’s starting to sprout and not fully formed yet. The basic gist of what I remember was her history of how the development of Modern thought (in the Enlightenment sense) had led cultural thought away from supernatural / mythological understanding into approaching the world from a scientific angle: what is empirical, what is measurable, what can be taken apart and put back together again to be understood. This was what made possible the last 500 years or so of technological advancement, etc. Armstrong’s book was on how the modern manifestations of religious fundamentalism / ultra-orthodoxy in the Abrahamic religions grew broadly in reaction to and rejection of this cultural arc toward secularism and rationalism…

It’s been so long that I can’t remember now whether I read it in her words or came to the understanding at the time, but it seems to me that what happened, on a deep level, that makes (Christian) fundamentalist theology so very toxic is that it has lost the distinction between “factual” and “true” – which is a flaw it inherits directly from the rationalists. Factual things are the things you can measure, things you can demonstrate – think science lab experiments. Factuality is a good thing to know. But it’s not the same as truth. The rationalist error is to insist that “not factual” means “not true.” The fundamentalist error is to insist that “true” means “factual.”

True is broader than factual. (I am reminded again of the prof who taught Greek and Roman mythology when I was an undergrad, and his favorite saying: “A myth is a story in which everything is true except the story itself.”) This in-between space is the land of stories – where myth and metaphor and allegory describe the shape of things we cannot count and measure. This is what healthy religion is for.

We tell stories in the dark to make sense of what we cannot measure.

We tell stories.

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