Stories, Fact And Meaning

The hunt was good and the people gathered around the camp fire are feasting. Nothing beats those juicy fresh strips of game roasted over an open fire. The enticing scent fills the air. There was a time when the neighboring clan took the smell of cooked food as an invitation to raid the camp. The one with the bigger stick is the king of the world. The result was a cycle of we kill them and they kill us and, in the winter, we starve together, because when it was time to gather food and preserve it, we wasted our time stealing each other’s stuff. The two clans long since became one. And in nights like this, sooner or later one of the hunters gets up and tells the story of uncle Joe, or whatever his name was. One day he had enough of hitting people on the head with a club. Instead, he went and invited them to dinner. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

No matter how often you heard that story before, every time it gives meaning to your life. You know the story. You know who of your fellow humans can tell it well, with just the right inflections, the right tone and tempo and those nerve wracking pauses when uncle Joe stares into the eyes of that angry guy with the club and instead of hitting first he puts a choice cut of meat on the ground between them. And then the miracle happens, they sit down, eat and talk. When the right person tells the story, you are there with uncle Joe, and being there tells you exactly who you are.

Since the beginning of time humans have told stories to fill their lives with meaning. For Christians those stories come from the bible. These life-giving stories are not ‘just’ stories, in the sense that hard facts would be infinitely better than something that is ‘just’ a story. However, the ‘facts’ our times are crazy about acquire meaning only when they are embedded in a story. 

At the moment, the James Webb telescope shakes up our cosmology. Those incredible images of the cosmos will produce facts that speak, for instance, to the age of the universe. Those facts will be mind-boggling and fascinating, but most likely they will not be life changing. Most like worrying about the age of the universe does not keep you up at night. As captivating as those or any facts may be, in themselves facts are meaningless. However, when you embed them in a story that changes fundamentally. Like in: We smart people have figured out the age of the universe, which sets us galaxies apart from those morons who think that God created the world on October 23, 4004 BC at 9 AM, as the Irish theologian James Ussher calculated in 1650. That of course calls for an immediate counter narrative. Those go to heaven who believe Ussher and those who believe in science go to hell. We return to the time before old uncle Joe got up to make peace. Once again, we are whacking each other over the head. One side uses facts as clubs, the other side shoots back with the bible verses. Respect for our fellow humans becomes a casualty of competing narratives. Unfortunately, for the warriors of the culture war, this war cannot be won. Every victory is just the start of the next round. 

That leads to the realization that stories are also problematic, especially because stories are not facts. Savor the irony. Stories are malleable, flexible, they can be weaponized and used to abuse. Or they can be told to heal and to make whole. 

For me the story of Christ is like the story of uncle Joe. The son of God stood up to bless the peace makers and commanded his disciples to love God and their neighbors as themselves. If you love someone as Jesus commands, you don’t tell nasty stories about them. Instead, you break bread with them, like Jesus did. 

What comes out of our mouth is our choice, and our responsibility. We are the stories we tell.

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Olaf Baumann

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