The Stories We Tell

We are all very good story tellers. We tend to reserve that praise for professional story tellers or talented grandparents and great actors, but we are all good at telling stories. And we come by it honestly as humans, according to the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Apparently our edge as a species comes from our ability to tell stories as a group. We tell small ones all the way up in scale to the big picture ones, grand narratives and myths about the nature of the world and reality itself. This is how we achieved human things like societies and governments and religions. When we all buy into these big stories, they, in turn, influence our behavior. This ability to buy into larger stories is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. For example, my puppy sees a slice of pizza on the counter and goes for it, snatching it up along with the paper towel underneath, and quickly devours both. Following all of her instincts, she seems to be winning at the moment. But my advantage is the collective human narrative that dogs can be trained, an idea that created obedience schools and professional dog trainers and which will affect my behavior. The puppy’s pizza snatching days in a house full of humans are numbered. Clearly, there is power in how we tell our stories.

The season of Lent is a perfect time to take an honest look at the stories we tell ourselves. We all have them. Say you’re fasting in one way or another. Maybe you have given up sugar or alcohol or pizza slices and paper towels for Lent. Or maybe you’ve taken on eating chocolate covered strawberries for 40 days. That’s becoming a thing, actually. After years of negative self-worth measured by a number on the scale, a young woman decided she would have a daily treat in Lent to remind herself that she is beloved by God – no matter what the scale says. Whether one gives something up or takes something on, a Lenten fast is meant to remind us that our ultimate worth and true provision come from God. Lent is a good time to deconstruct all of the stories that we tell ourselves to the contrary.

As a species, Lent also offers an important time to look honestly at the big, collective stories we tell, especially the harmful ones. There is a story for us to consider today in light of Luke’s Gospel, and it’s one of the biggest ones that we humans tell. Probably from as far back as when humans started story telling, a story emerged about violence. We have a strange belief that violence is inevitable, and that it saves us. Not just that it protects us in conflict or from harm, but that it saves us in a religious sense. We’ll see how this plays out in a moment, but for now we can note that Jesus exposed this belief over and over again as false, even idolatrous. It is not violence, but God alone who saves, he insisted. Thinking about violence as a story we live by might sound abstract and strange. But after the heartbreaking headlines from New Zealand this weekend, perhaps we should take a good, hard look at this story we carry around about violence. Luke sets the stage for us to do just that.

Some Pharisees told Jesus to move along, because Herod wanted to kill him. Herod was threatened by Jesus. And he was going to use violence to solve his problem. It appeared that Jesus had two options. He could run, or he could fight back as the underdog against Rome. When backed into a corner like this one, time and again, Jesus chose neither option. “Go and tell that fox for me” he quipped back about Herod, rejecting the idea that Herod had any real power over him. Jesus went on healing people and casting out demons, offering signs of God’s grace in a world of limited imagination. Such signs were the embodiment of the good news. Those cured of demons and sicknesses were restored to their neighbors and their communities. Those miracles were not just moments of individual healing but the stitching back together of communities previously torn apart by chaotic, seemingly uncontrollable forces. (Eric D. Barreto). Jesus had a counter narrative for those chaotic forces, not one of defeat but of healing.

All these years after Herod, we live in a world that still believes that violence is the only answer. Theologian Walter Wink called this the myth of redemptive violence. The story of violence and redemption gets more play in our culture than any other. The story goes something like this: there is a hero who is opposed by an evil and seemingly indestructible villain. The hero suffers greatly and appears hopelessly doomed to fail. As the plot unfolds to the climax, the hero miraculously overcomes the villain in battle, and restores peace and order. Violence was required, and violence saves.

The myth of redemptive violence presumes that violence is the final resort that the good guy must turn to. Wink argued that this is the dominant religion in our society today. It’s the story of every superhero and underdog movie ever made. Our children are raised on this stuff. And, as we saw in New Zealand on Friday, it can be twisted and used against the innocent. It’s not just the good guys who rely on the promise of redemptive violence.

Jesus knew this myth. He knew that the people around him expected him to be the hero. They expected a messiah who would vanquish the enemy’s threat once and for all, who would stand up against the powers and win. At the very least they expected him to not go willingly to his death on the cross. He refused to run, and he refused to fight violence with violence. He chose to break the cycle, because true redemption, true restoration in the chaos, comes not from violence, but from love.

After calling Herod a fox, Jesus lamented the violence of this chaotic world. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” And then he countered that reality with a vision. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” What a beautiful image of divine love and providence. What a powerful counter narrative to the one we’re used to. Love and the protection of all are on the mind of God. Imagine for a moment if we humans could accept that as our truest, biggest story. Imagine if that’s the story that could bind us together. The Gospel today reminds us there there is power in how we tell our story, and a real alternative of grace to the myths we carry around.

Lent is a good time to examine the stories we tell, our personal stories and our collective ones. It’s a time to lament the false ones, and to let them go. It’s a time to remember that Jesus invites us into an entirely different story than what we see around us and in the news. By his life, death, and resurrection, he showed us a different way and a bigger truth. Let’s make that story of grace the one that binds us humans together.

Kate Alexander