In my Introduction to Theology class this week we viewed “The Danger of a Single Story” by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie spells out the danger of cultures captivated by a single narrative, especially when that narrative is told by colonizers who turn tales to their advantage. We were all inspired by her challenge to ponder what kinds of stories are told by us, and of us.
A good discussion followed. Some pondered how the Bible itself is a compilation of multiple narratives. Others worried about the manner in which those same stories can be made into a monolithic master-plan. Yet still others noted our need to have some sort of over-arching story making sense of our existence. Counseling students heard the lecture more at the level of a commentary on personal narrative, and drew insights regarding how narrative can be used to heal souls. Everyone took something different from Adichie. In sum, the discussion that followed demonstrated that not only a plurality of stories makes community rich, but a plurality of hearings as well. Yet the richness of the hearing was only possible because we took the time to listen to what each heard from the presentation.
It strikes me that we don’t really take enough time together to tell tales and to relate tales told. Increasingly, technology turns us in on ourselves. We spend more time on our own, consuming popular culture, and less time creating cultures that retell our realities. Why is this? Public story telling was once a noble vocation. Every family, every village, every people had and celebrated great story tellers because telling stories is the way that peoples the world over renew their compassion, their community and their creativity. In large part storytelling today is relegated to billion dollar businesses that benefit few and numb the imaginations of many.
I suspect that we can only renew this life giving gift by sacrificing those very things that strip us of a rich narrative existence: mass communication, obsession with stars, and the relegation of the arts to spin doctors and slick salesmen. What would happen if everyone in our communities found and celebrated their own ability to tell tales, or sing sagas, or paint strong truths? What would happen if we refused to delegate our collective creativity to those only too happy to tell us a single story?