Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
--Philippians 4:8 NRSV
The stories we tell matter.
Recent studies in neurology, psychology and other fields demonstrate that we are wired to respond to stories over facts and figures. Have you ever noticed that in their marketing charities and nonprofits will often tell the story of a single person, child or animal in need? Studies show that statistics about how big a need exists in society actually decrease giving. Our brains see numbers of people who are homeless, children who are hungry, and animals without shelter and we make an unconscious calculation that the need exceeds our ability to do anything about it. If they tell the story of one person, child or animal however, giving increases, because our brains see a need we can meet. Furthermore, a story of an individual is something we can identify with and empathize with, while numbers remain an abstraction. A good story has power.
After the January 6 Capitol riot, many people (myself included) are bewildered by the news of people motivated by QAnon conspiracy theories. Despite the lack of evidence to support such ideas and much evidence to the contrary, people really believe there is a Satanic pedophile ring run by government officials, Bill Gates is injecting tracking chips via COVID vaccines and more. Although some adherents of these ideas may be mentally ill, most are not. Despite the facts, they are caught up in a story of good vs. evil which places them in the role of heroes conquering evildoers. As crazy as the stories may seem to people who don’t believe them, the stories make sense to their adherents and provide a cohesive narrative in a confusing world.
The stories told by QAnon may be bonkers, but the desire of humans to use stories to find meaning, establish a worldview and establish values is as old as our species. I was fascinated by an article by Wiliam J. Bernstein, neurologist, historian and financial theorist, titled “What if the Stories We Tell Happen to Be Conspiracy Theories?” I’m not a neurologist or a historian, so I have to take Bernstein’s research at his word but his points make sense to me. He says that mass delusions of the QAnon kind are not new, not limited to our culture and apparently have always been a part of human experience. He writes “we are condemned to navigate the Space Age world with Stone Age minds; because of this inherent biological anachronism, [humanity] is the ape that imitates, tells stories, and morally condemns others.”
Humans imitate one another, and imitation enabled our species to thrive and spread. Some human in the past was the first to make a spear, blowgun or kayak and other humans imitated that one. Rather than each ancient human having to make a new discovery on their own, they merely imitated one another and the spread of tools, traditions and knowledge enabled our survival. We are wired to imitate one another, and that pull is often stronger than reason. It turns out your parents were right to worry about which friends you hung out with as a teenager.
Humans tell stories to make sense of the world, teach behaviors that ensure survival and ensure cohesion of the group. Our ancient forebears were not using geometry to hunt bison, molecular biology to discern which plants were poisonous or statistical analysis to grasp the spread of a contagion. Instead they told stories and the stories helped them to survive.
Finally, humans made moral judgments. They imitated one another and told stories about their own tribe, but when they encountered different tribes they judged as wrong, immoral or ungodly, traditions and stories which were not their own. This ensured their tribe survived when they encountered other tribes which could be competition or a threat. Demonizing the other tribe also made it easy to destroy them.
We evolved to be storytelling creatures, so the kind of stories and the messages we take from stories matter greatly. From the parables of Jesus to the fables of Aesop to the stories of George Washington’s childhood (“I shall not tell a lie. . .”) help us to know who we are. The stories we tell and the ones we do not tell (the stories of native Americans, African Americans, women, etc.) shape us. When school children are taught the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than about slavery and other misleading stories of “the Lost Cause” mythology of the South, their understanding of racism, history and politics is shaped by them. When the story of the United States’ westward expansion is one only of cowboys, gold miners and wagon trains, while the stories of Native Americans, broken treaties and ethnic cleansing is omitted, identity culture and politics are molded.
Yet stories can also be a powerful force for social reform and liberation. The writer and social critic Rebecca Solnit cites the #MeToo movement as an example of the positive power of storytelling.
“Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.”
She goes on to describe how our stories contain the power to do ourselves and others great harm or to offer help and healing.
“We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
People of faith know the power of stories. Each religious tradition has its own stories. As Christians, we experience the power of the stories we tell of God creating order out of chaos, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, Jesus hanging around with tax collectors and prostitutes, and Christ rising from the dead. We may have different interpretations of what these stories mean and even whether they actually happened the way the Bible depicts them, but those stories shape who we are, who we imitate and our judgments about others different from us. How those stories are told, who tells them and what lessons we learn from them matter greatly.
Christian stories about the End Times became enmeshed in QAnon conspiracies to motivate the rioters at the Capitol last week. As we honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. this coming week, we remember the stories of Christianity inspired him and other Civil Rights leaders to risk death for the cause of racial justice. The stories are in the same book, but who tells them and for what purpose make all the difference in the world.
As we move through 2021, may we commit ourselves to telling stories that liberate, that value diversity, acknowledge the inherent worth of every person, that reveal the truth about people whose voices have been silenced and cherish the natural world and its resources.
The stories we tell matter.
Grace and Peace,
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