Past rants – ‘Stories’

Best way to give an idea of what sort of thing you’re likely to find here is to put up a few of my older LJ posts.

This is first in a loose series where I am trying to get a handle on the role myth, stories and metaphor has on us – and what happens when people mistake story for The Truth

The first is from 10 February 2006

Stories – a rant

Over the years, I have tried to describe, to myself and occasionally to others (who have my sympathy!), just what it is that I believe. I’ve spent most of my life looking for answers to this, like we all do. My path has gone on some twisty routes along the way – and the more I see, the less I ‘believe’.

But today one of those beliefs has started to come into focus more clearly than ever.

It’s all stories. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The things we believe. The memories of our past. The news. Religion. Politics. All stories.

What do stories do? Ever since we’ve had them, told them to ourselves and others, they have taught and guided us, given us joy or fear or pride or wonder when we needed it – and sometimes when we didn’t. They give us most of what we call our ‘culture’, our entire spoken and symbol-enriched world. Which, since we’re such a symbol-minded bunch, is pretty much everything we say and do.

But the thing is…
Stories aren’t perfect. Stories aren’t The Truth.
And stories differ.
And stories can change in the retelling. They have to.

I know that even saying something like ‘Religion is a story’ will immediately offend some people. I think I know why… when they hear an idea like that, I suspect they interpret it to mean,’Your religion is just a story – and my religion is The Truth.’

But that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that all religion is a story, or group of stories. Metaphors for the world. None of it is any kind of Single Perfect Truth.
Even mine. Especially mine.

That’s why seeing angry religious protests about ‘offensive’ cartoons, or musicals, or books or whatever just confuses me. The people screaming for Danish newspaper editors, or those who dare to allow performances of ‘Jerry Springer The Opera’, to be murdered are saying their belief, their Story, is more important than the life of another human being. And I guess it has always been this way – but I just don’t understand why.

I am not saying that their stories (or mine) don’t matter, or aren’t important or meaningful.
I’m trying to say that those stories simply aren’t the Whole Truth, aren’t the only story – and the quickest way for people, cultures or even our whole mad species to grow up is to be able to better deal with this idea, to listen to the stories of others without just running away from them (or towards, angry and armed).

All stories are equal – or at least, they’re equally stories. But not all stories are as useful as others – at certain times, in certain places. And right now there’s a lot of news about various Stories battling for supremacy – and many of those are the Big Stories we call ‘religion’.

For instance:
We have two versions of a most basic kind of Story competing right now – Origin Stories.
The Story of Evolution versus The Story of God’s Creation.
Both sides equally vehement that their story is the only real one and that the opposition story is wrong. Both sides feeling that if the other gains ground, their story is lessened somehow. And since this is that fundamental story, ‘where we all come from’, the stakes are pretty high.
(The way we can tell that this is such a divisive issue is how those involved on either side react to the idea that both stories could possibly coexist…)
But which one is True?
I dunno. And, if they’re honest, nobody knows.
(And I’m tempted to add – if they say they Know, they’re not honest.)

Perhaps we can better ask, which story is more useful in this time and place.

To Scientists, Evolution is the more useful story – it explains a lot of stuff, it can be clearly seen to happen in a laboratory, without it a lot of biological science just doesn’t make sense.

To Christians (at least those involved in the debate), it seems to me that God Made Us is the beginning of their entire story, the whole saga – and if they give up that part (or it seems, any part), the Truth of the rest is called into question… so to those entwined with that story, it’s very important. Vital, more than merely useful.
(Yes, I’m sidelining the knock-on political ramifications, the use of ‘Intelligent’ Design as a wedge driven into the secular world and all that. That’s a whole other story.)

In the above example, I have problems with both versions of the Story…
I think though evolution as a process is pretty much proven, the models describing that process are not yet complete (the born heretic in me thinks elements of Lamarckianism may turn out to be valid).
The xtian creation myth only works for me as metaphor, as a story. And not very well.
To me, evolution as a metaphor is so much more powerful and useful than ‘God did it’…

So which one is more useful depends on who asks the question… and what questions they ask next.

Another example:
I’ve always found it hard to understand why people raised in a heavily religious manner who discover they are gay or have some other kind of sexual preference their religion/culture/Big Story doesn’t like, manage to alter their belief system to allow for their sexuality, but not to actually question any other aspect of their faith.
(The recent heart-breaking duet of documentaries about gay Muslems and Christian priests on Channel 4 brought this home to me deeply.)
Surely if you’ve managed to change your mind enough to question the Big Story in regards to your sexuality, you can start to question the rest of it? But most folk don’t.
Certainly it takes a lot of energy and courage to get that far, and the comfort of keeping at least some of their religion-Story must be a great aid to them…
…but I don’t understand why the new Story, the one where they’ve make their own mind up about the nature of God instead of just retelling the Stories of others, ends there. They’ve already done the hardest bit – they’ve rewritten a key part of the Big Story that their culture has reinforced as The Only Truth, changed their entire understanding of their place in the universe and in relation to their beliefs. Why stop there? Why not ask the next question – if the religion doesn’t fit in comparison to this part of my life… what else about it doesn’t?

And if it doesn’t fit, then how useful is it, really?

It often seems to me that one of the most powerful and useful ideas of the late Twentieth Century is what is usually (and often disparagingly) called ‘Post-Modernism’.
(And when I use the term, I am emphatically not saying that there’s ‘no such thing as reality’. No matter how much you believe otherwise, all cars and other hard objects continue to be real. But your Internal Story shapes how you experience that ‘hard reality’… like someone seeing what to me looks like a random pattern on a foodstuff or stain and declaring it’s a miraculously appeared image of Their Deity. And of course our Stories directly affect the shape of the solid objects we build or buy or use.)

The idea that Truth can be a relative thing is a thought many, perhaps most, people just can’t handle – especially as more and more stories are available for us to compare, stories from people all over the world becoming easily accessible, the sheer choice overwhelming.
But of course the people those stories come from, like all the others, are scared that their Story-As-The-Truth is going to be chewed up and swallowed (or at best recycled as mere fashion) by that other big scary concept – Globalisation. All those cultures want to survive, those Stories (in a sense) want to be told, those memes want to breed. But do they have to fight it out? Is it all about survival-of-the-fittest-story? Or is it possible for the stories to mix and meld, to share and change each other? To grow in the retelling, like all good tales should?

Admittedly I’ve had a lot of practice in rewriting my own internal Story – my whole life I’ve been nicking bits from other Stories (both allegedly true and avowedly fictional), mixing them with my experiences (which as soon as they move to memory become another, very malleable, Story) and comparing that Story to what happens next. And I’ve always loved stories that mix up and blend ideas and tropes from different cultures and genres. I guess this makes it much easier for me to see these things as stories, as metaphor, rather than declaring one story or set of stories as The Truth and stopping there.
(Of course this doesn’t stop me occasionally getting pissed off when someone or something contradicts My Story. Despite trying really hard, I’m still human and fall into those easy patterns of habit. The need we all have for some kind of solid basis for our perceived reality, for some Final Truth Out There, is strong indeed. But that doesn’t make it true.)

The optimist in me hopes, even prays sometimes (though I couldn’t tell you exactly to what…) that folk could just get over the idea of, “My Story is The Truth and your Story is Lies and if you disagree I’ll kill you.” But it takes an odd sort of mind to be able to question the Story one is raised with at all, it takes a lot of work – and often the sheer luck to be exposed to a Story or idea that moves one enough to actually bother. If you’re deep enough in a Story, even the idea that someone out there truly believes a totally different Story from yours is scary.
Humans do not as a rule deal well with scary.

But in this huge, complicated stew of different Stories our world is, we have to find a way for them to coexist – or we’ll all be crushed between them. Acknowledging the Stories for what they are, no more and no less, seems a good way to start. Then maybe we can make better ones, Stories that have room for the new, the strange, the scary, without having to kill or torture in the name of Truth.

So – that’s my Story.
But I’m not sticking to it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Truth! Truth! Truth! Crieth the Lord of the Abyss of Hallucination.
Aleister Crowley.

They’re just beliefs, they’re not real…
Bill Hicks

Here. Share with us. These are our stories and these are our customs. We think they are very beautiful and we hope you will like them too, but they are merely our stories and customs. We would be honoured if you would share yours with us, and then let us go, together, to see what is true, to do what we can, and to see what all our poets can make of us after we are gone.
From ‘Earth Made of Glass’ by John Barnes

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One Response to Past rants – ‘Stories’

  1. jim cranford says:

    Howdy! thanks for stopping by.

    Good stuff! It is rare for folks to be able to back off enough to recognize their own stories as such. One story is as good as another, right?

    Cheers,
    jim

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