One of the things that the world’s religious traditions attest to is the degree to which human life is constituted by stories, by narrative. After all, the sacred texts of the world’s religions are comprised primarily of stories that are designed to connect human lives to meaning, and to the source of that meaning. The stories are offered so that they might interact with our personal stories, offering not only deeper meaning but also the opportunity for our personal narratives to be transformed through the power of sacred narrative. In the absence of narrative, our lives have no meaning — indeed, they cannot even be understood.
Think about it for a moment. You carry with you a narrative about your own life. You began to construct this narrative as a child, once you acquired language, and initially, much of that narrative was offered to you through the shared stories of your family, your culture, your community, and, yes, your religion, if you grew up with one. As your life has moved forward, this narrative has been continuously revised in light of your life experience. Embedded in this narrative is the way you see yourself, how you understand your connection to other people and the larger world, and the frame of reference through which you understand the world around you. When you meet someone for the first time, you and this new person, as you get to know one another, will exchange stories about your lives; you will offer each other your narratives, and through that exchange, you will come to know certain facts about each other, but you will also come to know something about how each of you interprets your lives, how each of you sees and interprets the world in light of the experiences you have taken up into your narratives. And, most likely, the parts of your narratives that offer interpretation and meaning will be much more interesting than most of the facts, or data points, that your narratives also include.
The way in which narrative largely constitutes our reality is given prominent position in the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with the the stories of creation found in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis depicts creation as being spoken into being by God. It is as if God tells a story of creation, and the story constitutes the creation. Incidentally, if you doubt the power of story and its place in constituting our reality, you need to look no further than the debate raging in our culture about competing narratives of creation, from various religious narratives to scientific narratives. One may wish to argue about which of these narratives is “true” (which is, in my mind, to ask the wrong question), but regardless of how that argument ends up, what really matters is which of these narratives people adopt as part of their own narrative.
But beginning with God’s speaking creation into being, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures echo from one end to the other with talk of the word of God, the suggestion that God is constantly seeking to offer us a new narrative designed to transform — and sometimes to subvert — our own narratives. We see this in terms of the Exodus narrative the forms the heart of Jewish identity; we see this in the various narratives offered through the prophetic tradition; and we see this in the Christian scriptures as the narrative of the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is offered as the new narrative that is meant to reshape our lives, the narrative of the “Word made flesh.”
I do not mean to suggest by all this that the various narratives of our faith traditions are merely stories, with no basis in concrete experiences. What I do want to suggest is that the concrete experiences in which they are rooted mean nothing in the absence of narrative. It is the stories about these experiences — stories that ultimately go beyond the mere facts of those experiences — where the power of these experiences lie. If you doubt that, try to imagine your life without any narrative that takes up and interprets your experiences. Try to imagine a narrative-less life. I doubt that you can, because we are designed for narrative — we are designed to be the stories that constitute our lives.
When we appreciate the power of story in our lives, when we realize that our narratives constitute our reality, then we gain a new insight into the controversies and arguments that beset our culture. A big part of what is unfolding in our society is that we have a constellation of competing narratives that constitute different realities for people. And when these narratives — these realities — collide, then sparks fly. Perhaps if we were able to take a step back and understand each others narratives, allow our stories to be told and heard and interact in new ways, some new narrative could emerge that might have a better chance of uniting our society in positive ways. Not that we will all share the same narrative completely: each of us will always have our own personal narrative. But if together we can create a common narrative about what it means to be human, to be a part of this culture, this society, in this time and place, we can begin to tell a common story about our country that will lead us to work together, rather than divide us.