Our being as humans is largely constituted and made sensible by narrative.
When we deal with questions of identity and meaning, we tell stories. And those stories contain facts, certain data points that are objectively verifiable; and they include subjective interpretation, the way in which we personally connect the data points together in a narrative that makes them meaningful and sensible to us. It is this story-telling that creates and sustains our identities, and in the absence of story-telling, we would not be able to say much of anything about who we are and what our lives mean. Indeed, we would scarcely be able to make any sense of the world in which we find ourselves. It is likely that you have no sensible memory of your life prior to the acquisition of language, when the ability to receive stories, and then to tell your own stories, began.
Just as story-telling, or narrative, is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us, so is story-telling central to religion. Sacred narratives share the basic properties of our own personal narratives: they include some factual data points and they include subjective interpretation. Sacred stories are meant to open us up to something, to induct us into a larger ocean of transcendent meaning. They are meant to call our own personal narratives into question, and to point out how our personal narratives contain limits that block our spiritual development.
The Judeo-Christian tradition underscores the importance of narrative by naming it as a divine power. In the first story of creation in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the various elements of creation come into being because God “speaks” them into being.
Beginning with “Let there be light” (Genesis 3a) and ending with “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 26a), every element of creation named in these first words of the Hebrew Bible comes into being because God “says” something. One might say that the early Jewish tradition imagined God telling the story of creation, and as God told the story, it took form. The early biblical writers who told this story did not intend to describe how the world was made — they knew very well that they weren’t present at the time, and had no way of knowing. What they did wish to do was affirm a connection between creation and the transcendent Other whom they named God. Interestingly, they affirmed that connection by telling a story of God telling a story. They knew, I think, better than we do, the power of story to create identity and their dependence on narrative to understand themselves and the world around them. In a very real sense, they knew themselves as having been created as a people by story, and that led them to experience the creative power of God as rooted in and expressed through narrative. Indeed, in the Bible, and in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the word of God is arguably the most potent expression of God’s power in relationship to us and the universe.
In Christianity, John’s Gospel makes God’s narrative power central to the mystery of Jesus:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1–4,14).
Building on the Genesis narrative, John perceives Jesus as the creative, narrative power of God “made flesh” in a particular human life, Jesus of Nazareth. John identifies Christ as the divine Word who is both God and with God, through whom everything has been made. When we think about how language works, and about the power of story, this identification makes a certain sense. When we speak, the thoughts expressed by our words carry a power with them that both reveals something of who we are and can creatively impact others. Yet, we cannot be entirely reduced to the words that we say. In a similar way, John sees Jesus as the Word of God expressing something of who God is and creatively acting on us, yet, God cannot be reduced to Jesus.
Recognizing the power of narrative in our lives, and in our sacred traditions, can invite us to reflect on the way in which the power of narrative can build up or tear down. While the divine narrative power is seeking to heal us and make us whole, our own stories often block our own healing and the healing of others, because they contain too many limits, too many judgments. That old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is patently untrue. Words weaved into narrative can produce great harm. It is important for us to allow the divine narrative to change our personal narratives, so that we can experience the grace of liberation from all that binds us and limits us.