As I mentioned at the end of the most recent post in this series on searching for common ground between the spiritual values promoted by Indigenous cultures and the Christian tradition, today’s post will shift the focus away from values themselves to the mechanisms through which those tools are embodied. Specifically, today I’d like to talk about story and story-telling.
It can be said without much exaggeration that to be human is to tell stories. We make meaning, seek patterns in what we see in the world, and look for connections between people and events. We do it every hour of every day. Richard Wagamese put it like this:
All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world, one story at a time. (quoted in Hilton)*
Kaitlin Curtice notes that “no matter how hard we try to get rid of them, our stories are our stories. They are carried inside us; they hover over us; they are the tools we use to explain ourselves to one another, to connect.” This means that the stories we tell — especially the big cultural stories that shape how entire communities understand the world and their place in it — are incredibly important. It should come as no surprise then that storytelling is considered to be an essential part of Indigenous cultures. It’s telling that one of the first major works of Indigenous cultural resurgence in Canada, Basil Johnson’s Ojibway Heritage (1976), roots its entire discussion of Anishinaabe cultural values in stories: You want to know about how we relate to the land? Here’s a story about Muskrat and the Turtle’s back. You want to know about medicinal plants? Here’s a story about strawberries. A similar approach that understands philosophy and theory to be essentially embedded in stories — whether ‘historical’, ‘legendary,’ or ‘mythological’ — has been taken up by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who for example, infers an Anishinaabe theory of international relations from a story of Nanabush being sent out to visit the peoples of the world:
Nanabush sets off on foot on a trip around the world. Nanabush visits with every aspect of creation: the rivers, the lakes, the oceans, the plants, the animals, the spirits, the mountains, the prairies, the northlands. Nanabush greets and recognizes every aspect of creation, and Nanabush names each of those beings in each of those nations. Nanabush develops a deep relationship of reciprocity with each of these, many of which are recorded in our oral stories. Nanabush introduces the Nishnaabeg to the practices of consent, recognition, and reciprocity. Nanabush listens. Nanabush shares of himself. Nanabush learns about the plants, for instance, and therefore learns about himself. Nanabush doesn’t interview anyone or hand out surveys. Nanabush visits. Nanabush observes. Nanabush reflects. Nanabush does ceremony. Nanabush listens. Nanabush shares and receives stories. Nanabush actively participates. Nanabush experiments. Nanabush prays, sings, and dances. Nanabush struggles. Nanabush dreams. Nanabush participates. (Simpson 2017, 183)
As this example shows, stories embody cultural values and ways of life. E. Richard Atleo (2004) notes that in his Nuu-chah-nulth culture, “Story serves to transmit the knowledge of the primary protocols — respect for life, respect for others, and how to behave or conduct oneself. … Their primary purpose is to ensure that life forms exercise mutual recognition, mutual responsibility and mutual respect.” At the same time as stories explain protocol and ceremony, they are often an integral part of ceremony, told only in certain settings or at certain times of year. Randy Woodley (2022) goes so far as to call Indigenous narrative theologies “ceremonially centered.” In a similar way, stories also can emerge from but also reinforce the value of visions and dreams as sources of truth and wisdom.
The importance of stories means that there are important considerations for both storytellers and story-hearers. Wagamese (2011) writes about storytellers:
They brought us the secrets of the world we call our home, taught us to invent, to create, to imagine the space around us. They are the ones who showed us that the earth is alive, and we are joined to her by breath. The storytellers culled teachings from her mysteries. They discerned the truth that the planet we live on is but one small part of a greater, more marvelous creative energy that we are all part of as well.
To tell a story means to create a world; in the context of peoples reasserting their identity as distinct from broader North American society, this is an incredible responsibility. About this responsibility, Simpson (2011) writes:
Storytelling is at its core decolonizing, because it is a process of remembering, visioning, and creating a just reality where Nishnaabeg live as both Nishnaabeg and peoples. Storytelling then becomes a lens through which we can envision our way out of cognitive imperialism, where we can create models and mirrors where none existed, and where we can experience the spaces of freedom and justice.
This is particularly true for oral storytelling, since a story changes by virtue of the immediate context: when it’s being told, where it’s being told, and who is in the room: “The [oral] storyteller … has to work with emergence and flux, developing a unique relationship with the audience based entirely on context and relationships” (Simpson 2011).
But there is also responsibility for those hearing the story to be good hearers. Dr. Jo-Ann (Q’um Q’um Xiiem) Archibald, from the Stó:lō and St’at’imc peoples of what is now British Columbia, refers to this as “principles for becoming story-ready.” Unsurprisingly, these are principles we’ve already seen often in this series: respect, responsibility, reverence, and reciprocity. She adds, “As the Elders say, it is more important to listen with three ears: two on the sides of our head and the one that is in our heart” (Quoted in M’Lot and Ferguson). While she would no doubt agree with Archibald’s principles, Simpson (2011) also adds that in her experience, in Indigenous storytelling, “we are taught to insert ourselves into story:” “By inserting ourselves into these stories, we assume responsibilities — responsibilities that are not necessarily bestowed upon us by the collective, but that we take on according to our own gifts, abilities and affiliations.” Thus, based on an insight from one of her Elders, she uses the story of Muskrat diving deep into the waters to find mud upon which to rebuild the earth following the flood as an image for the task of Indigenous resurgence.
None of this should come as any surprise to followers of any faith tradition, Christianity included. Storytelling is at the core of our own traditions as much as it is for Indigenous peoples. I don’t want to belabor this, but let’s quickly look at how all three of the aspects of storytelling discussed above — story as world-creating, storytelling as a dynamic exercise, and the importance of listening well — play out within the Christian tradition.
First, when it comes to the importance of story itself, we need to look no further than Jesus himself. Jesus taught almost exclusively using stories, which we call parables. As a Jewish man who attended synagogue services, he — and the Christian tradition as a whole — also inherited the custom of telling and retelling stories that is at the heart of the Jewish synagogue and festal traditions. While in English we refer to the first books of the Bible, known in Hebrew as ‘Torah’, as ‘the Law’, this is a misleading and unrepresentative term, for it is primarily a collection of stories, not legislation. Moreover, the stories in the Old Testament demonstrate a certain self-awareness or intentionality in terms of community world-creation. For example, the so-called ‘Deuteronomistic history’ casts all of Israel and Judah’s history in terms of the ethic of Deuteronomy, demonstrating a desire for a cohesive interpretation of history for the community of faith. And, the creation story in Genesis appears to be an intentional and critical, one might even say ironic, retelling of the Babylonian creation story, in which the accidental creation of the world as a consequence of struggles between amoral gods is reframed as an intentional act of a moral God, who creates everything, including the gods themselves. This intentional world-building is also seen in Jesus’ storytelling, as he sought to explain the ethic of the Kingdom of God by allusion to aspects of everyday life.
Turning to the responsibility of storytelling, while Christians (following our Jewish forebears) have codified our stories by writing them down in authoritative versions we call ‘Scripture’, the interactive aspect of storytelling remains in Christian preaching. Anyone who has ever had to preach regularly will attest to just how much one’s retelling of a Bible story — and the lesson one takes from it — might shift depending on who is in the room.
In terms of the third aspect of storytelling, being a good listener, I think we would do well as Christians to be more intentional about this. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the reading of Scripture is introduced by the words “Wisdom! Let us attend!” These words suggest an urgency and importance to the act of listening that we struggle with in Western society as a whole. We would only benefit from enacting our own “principles for making ourselves story-ready.” Do we expect or even want to be changed by our stories, to have our worldviews and expectations shaped by them? The issue is less with Christianity itself than with the fact that as a whole we are pretty bad at being Christians.
As I often say, we are all — every single one of us — shaped by stories. The question is which stories are shaping us. Are they stories of scarcity of resources, power, or love? Or are they stories of sufficiency, or even abundance? Are they stories that tell us to ‘look out for number one’, or stories that promote sharing and responsibility to those around us? If we as Christians care about being Christian, about being disciples of Jesus, the stories that shape us must be his stories. This shouldn’t be a shocking or earth-shattering idea, but it seems to me that we have spent much of the past two thousand years more invested in other stories — stories of glory and empire, stories of progress, stories of chosenness.
And so I’d like to leave this post by asking some simple questions: What stories are shaping Christianity today? Are they the story of Jesus or something else? And, as people embedded in Western civilization, what are the stories that shape how we engage with the world? What is the story of ‘Canada’? How are these stories helpful? How are they harmful? How might we tell better stories? How might we tell our story better?
* For details, please see the Bibliography for the series