The Power of Another’s Story by Peter Horne
Our Bibles contain four gospels. Each gospel author includes different details, different wording and sometimes different events in telling the story. As early as the second century Christian leaders began the quest to harmonise the four gospels.
Scholars often undertook this project to defend the Bible against claims of contradictions. Others sought to harmonise the gospel accounts as an attempt to identify “what really happened”. Like a jigsaw, if each gospel contributes a unique detail, then by assembling all four details we can get a complete story that we’ll never see by reading each gospel individually. Or so the thinking goes.
Many people go through life with a similar approach to the world we live in. We each tell our life stories based on our knowledge of the truth. At the core of this quest is a belief that a factual event occurred. If we can accurately gather all the facts then we can communicate the exact details of that event. In this way truth will be revealed.
This approach has merit. If carried out precisely we can answer a wide variety of How, What, When, and Who questions. However, this methodology cannot answer the Why questions that are so essential to storytelling. In the case of Gospel harmonies our quest for factual truth may even distract us from more significant heart truths.
Let’s think about those Why’s using a predictable, routine event: Sunday morning worship.
Why did an event take place? We can easily answer the How, What, When and Who questions of Sunday worship through observation and record keeping. When we turn to consider why people assemble in that place, at that time, there’s suddenly no single accurate answer. Any attempt to harmonise the motivations of the people present each Sunday morning is a generalization at best and at worst woefully inaccurate.
Why did an individual act that way? We might think it’s easier to define the motivation of a particular individual, but if you’re anything like me, that may even change from week to week. Sometimes I attend Sunday worship to worship God. Sometimes I attend because I’m a minister and paid to be there. Sometimes I’m there because I have a responsibility, and sometimes I just long to see friends. Most Sundays I find myself motivated by a complex mix of all these thoughts.
When we tell our stories, the ‘Why’s of motivation’ provide vital insights as we interpret our world. We also need to deal with the ‘Why’s of interpretation’.
Why is this event significant? We can all agree that Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon was a significant event. It’s highly unlikely that we will all agree on the reason of that significance. Was it because it symbolized American (or human) ingenuity? Was it because it opened the door to further space travel? Was it because it inspired a nation? Was it because of the technological advances it represented?
Why does this story need to be told? Stories are summaries. We summarise our lives. We summarise events. We summarise history. Because we summarise, we naturally editorialise. We make decisions about what information to include and omit.
We omit things on purpose. We omit some stories because they contain shame. We gloss over some events because we deem them trivial. We leave out details because we want to portray ourselves in a particular light. Sometimes we shorten our stories simply because of time constraints.
In a similar fashion we tell stories for a purpose. We seek to inspire others. We long to preserve our legacy within our family or maybe in a broader sphere. We tell stories to warn of dangers. We sometimes tell a story to honor a friend, or to humiliate a rival.
Whatever our motivation in telling a story, the act of storytelling is actually a ‘Why of interpretation’. We tell our stories the way we do because they explain the world as we understand it.
Because our stories begin and end with Why’s, we need to appreciate that people different from us may describe the same event through different Why’s. While a person focused on facts also focuses upon right and wrong, someone who understands the Why’s will seek to learn from the stories of others. Men and women, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, will inevitably give significance to different aspects of stories.
Some of these perspectives may be unhelpful because they’re based on only part of the story. Some tellings may have so much personal significance that they are largely irrelevant to others. Sometimes other people tell stories with such a narrow focus that they don’t include my perspective. And that hurts. But we can’t make these determinations simply because their story doesn’t align perfectly with mine. These judgements can only be made after we’ve listened and engaged the stories of others.
And then we realise…
We realise that facts don’t tell a story, because they can’t answer the Why’s.
We realise that our story is just one side of a story, one facet of a jewel, and we need the stories of others to reveal a reality bigger than we can see or imagine.
We realise that we need to listen before we speak. To learn before we teach.
We realise that other races, other genders, other ages, other nations have stories that add value to our own.
And we realise that God gave us four gospels for a reason.
Peter Horne moved from Australia to the United States in 1999. Having filled the roles of children’s minister, youth minister, and college minister in various locations around Australia and the US, he now happily serves as the preacher at the Lawson Rd Church of Christ in Rochester, NY. He would love for you to check out the three blogs which he irregularly maintains:
Peter’s Patter: Discussion of the weekly sermon.
God Meets Ball: Viewing God through Sport
Cultural Mosaic: Resources for Multi-Ethnic Churches