Affirming the life and stories of the Storyteller: Part Three

by Geoff Hall on September 22, 2011

We’ve pondered the thoughts of Susan Sontag and the soteriological function of the storyteller and we have gone back to the oldest stories ever told to a community, the story of Creation.


Kevin J Vanhoozer writes this about ‘the text’,


In an age that views interpretation in terms of violence and coercion, Augustine’s call to faith and charity is needed more than ever. There is something in the text that is not of the reader’s own making. The believing reader must not violate but venerate this “other”. For readers come not only to knowledge, but also to self-knowledge when they allow the text to have its say.  [In ‘Is There a Meaning in This Text?’ Published by Zondervan, 1998, p32.]


Vanhoozer confirms that stories are not only a way of knowing the world, but also of knowing ourselves. Whilst Vanhoozer is here speaking of text on a page, I would like to extend this to other media such as music, film, theatre and dance. When we succumb, surrender to the story, we open the doors of knowledge. This is why on seeing a film or reading a book we do not suspend belief, but disbelief, for incredulity is a way of unknowing the world and yourself, it is the path of denial and annihilation.[i] Incredulity, disbelief, unravels the threads of the story, tarnishes the mirror so that it is difficult to see our own reflection. Whilst claiming individuality we are slaves to peer pressure, our identity diffused in the mob of personal dissipation.


Then I thought again about the storyteller and something in Wenders’ film got me thinking. It was this,


the storyteller, he who has been thrust to the edge of the world…”


There is a sense here of alienation, that with new media the storyteller no longer spoke at the gathering of the community, but was now divorced from such assemblies (if they still exist) by means of the now well-established ‘writer/agent/publisher/bookstore’ path to publication and access to the avid reader. I’ve mused over this a while and considered whether or not this is part of our problem with identity – there is no one to tell our stories in the throng of a gathering under a starlit sky; stories of Creation, Fall and Redemption. (You may recall that James Bragg and myself did this at the Imaging God Conference in Bristol with our Creation Meditation) Maybe it is not only the problem of identity, but also of community, we don’t have grand tales to tell but are caught up in stories of self-aggrandisement or mundane minutiae?

Michael Polanyi wrote,

You can destroy meaning wholesale by reducing everything to its uninterpreted particulars…we create an atomised, totally depersonalised universe. [In ‘Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy’, Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1974, p199]


Added to this, there was something my friend Mary Palmer mentioned and that was her love of not telling the story but of ‘performing the story’, whereby the teller indwells the story, embodies it, brings it alive in our imagination.


And here’s another clue. The Edge, in the documentary on the Classic Albums series of ‘The Joshua Tree’ spoke of the “cinematic aspect of music” where music can “evoke a landscape, a place” and referred to in the documentary as ‘cinematic landscape’. Good stories evoke a landscape, a place for people to participate in stories told or performed. The method utilised by U2 was of creating this landscape and then for Bono to come up with the story, the lyrics. This is a great analogy for songwriting, but also for storytelling and the capacity of the writer to evoke a landscape and then create a cast of characters with which we interact.


The oral tradition of storytelling and its more recent development of story performance creates this cinematic landscape of the imagination, through telling and retelling. It becomes a familiar location, a place where we understand meaning and purpose, identity and calling. The grand, expansive landscape becomes the overarching territory of the grand narrative. Setting the particulars of character and plot in the context of this meta-landscape reveals a purpose otherwise lost in the humdrum scenario of the everyday. In cinematic terms it is the difference between Social Realism and the poetic landscapes of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Wenders.


So, I’m now thinking that if we lack an image, an identity for our community, perhaps we need the storytellers to step forward and regale our gatherings with grand stories under the curvature of a starry sky? The place of the storyteller helps us understand the nature of our creation. Seerveld puts it this way.


But our scripture reveals that God is the Creator of our human fragility and takes our temporality seriously and approves of our screaming in faith at God when the hurt simply gets to be too much and we really need Him to come quickly to give us who hang on by the skin of our faith the new change of clean clothes. [Calvin Seerveld, ‘On Being Human’, Published by Welch Publishing Company, 1988, p40]


To close, this give us another view of the role of the storyteller and it is to do with the paean of pain, the voice of lament. Some have chastised me and said this will make people miserable, without realising that some of us already are and if we were to share one another’s weight of discouragement at times, then who better to help us than the storyteller, who can ‘scream in faith at God’ on our behalf. Sometimes we need others to speak up for us, to appeal to God on our behalf, because there are times in our lives when we are speechless with the hurt within.


When I write of my hurt, I also voice the hurt of others, you feel pain I feel pain, because we are all connected. It is through this that we experience Sontag’s salvation.

[i] I shall explore this a little more in the final book of the series ‘Spiritual Direction in a Postmodern Landscape’, published by Upptacka Press in the forthcoming book ‘The Artist’s Autobiography’.

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