The story–from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace–is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
–Ursula Le Guin
In the rooms of recovery, where alcoholics and addicts of all types gather to share their experience, strength and hope, stories are the medium of the message. They are the way that those in recovery talk about the disease of addiction and the remedy for that disease. Anyone who has ever been to such a meeting will attest that, other than a few standard readings, and a few short prayers, it is through stories that we relate to one another and move past our pasts—“our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now,” to quote the AA Big Book. More times than I can count have I sat in meetings and heard incredible stories of addiction and chaos, emptiness and desperation, rescue, recovery and new life. And it is the stories, more than anything else, that stay with me.
In point of fact, the 12 Steps themselves are phrased, not in the language of philosophical or spiritual principles, but rather in words of story, of experience: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable” (First Step); We “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (Third Step); We “made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” (Ninth Step), to mention just three of the Twelve Steps, all of which are phrased in the past (storied) tense.
In fact, the way recovering addicts learn and grow, it seems, is not primarily by attempting to implement abstract principles, personal or philosophical, ie, “the secret to recovery is to be of service,” or “what I must do is to understand when my mind is operating in a self-defeating pattern,” or other such ideas. Rather, it is by hearing, and then emulating, the stories of others.
I remember hearing one guy, Greg, with many years of recovery, telling the story of a complex business transaction he had entered into, only to learn a few days later of another, better, opportunity. He chose to stay with his original commitment. A few months later, the second, more attractive, company went bankrupt. Had he decided to break his commitment, he, too, would have been dragged down. The point of all this was when he highlighted his own story by saying, “but there was never any doubt in my mind that I would keep my commitment; after twenty years in recovery, I would crawl over broken glass to keep my word—because for much of my life my word meant nothing, and now it does.” Ever since I heard that story nearly a decade ago, when I am confronted with a situation that tests my honesty, I remember Greg’s story and his summary—far moreso than any abstract principle about the centrality of honesty in a program of recovery—and I, too, try to crawl over broken glass to keep my word.
Of course, I there is nothing especially unique about the fact that the rooms of recovery are filled with story-tellers, except that the stories are so powerful and gritty. Indeed, in my three-fold life as a man in recovery, a trial lawyer, and a lay-theologian, I see over and over again that it is mostly through stories that most human beings live and move and have their being. Barbara Allen Burke’s wonderful blog I Am Story (from which I borrowed the Ursula LeGuin quote above) is built around this reality. Says Barbara:
As human beings, we are all–every single one of us–in the story-making business. We tell stories to entertain each other at dinner parties. We pay good money to watch stories in theaters and cinemas that help us experience love or terror, excitement or redemption. We share stories to illustrate what we find valuable, meaningful for even funny. We are, at a very basic level, the stories we tell.
Building on this idea, I would say that if Christians stop to think about it, it is through stories, far more than through abstract theology or doctrine, that our Faith has been given to us. This idea, though simple, is often lost in theological discussions, debates and arguments. Now, I am all in favor of learning theology—I spent a decade getting a master’s degree in theology, one course at a time fer cryin’ out loud—but academic theology and theoretical doctrine are picture frames, accenting and defining the Gospel Picture, they are not themselves the Picture.
Christians don’t often enough consider the implications of the fact that the Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of stories about God’s people and how God has interacted with and intervened in human, and humans’, history. Indeed, it can be said that biblical stories consist of both the “Macro-Story”—what might be called, “How God Intervened in History and Saved His People, Parts I and II”—as well as thousands of “micro-stories” about individuals and communities encountering each other, and the world, and God, which, taken together, make up the Macro-Story. We learn who Christ is, first through the Gospels—the stories about Jesus—and only secondarily by reading what the earliest Christians thought and did in response to him, or the later theologians and saints.
Even Jesus himself taught in terms of parables, sometimes to the consternation of the Pharisees and others who tried to pin him down on fine points of doctrine. “Then Jesus told them the following parable,” is the opening line to dozens of passages from the New Testament. And of course the entire Book of Acts is the story of the early Church, its heroes and villains.
Great Christian thinkers, too, have noted this story-telling aspect of our faith. The great Karl Barth—arguably the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th Century—in speaking of New Testament ethics, stressed over and over again that we are to learn our ethics, not as if the Bible were a handbook of ethical principles, but rather by reading about, and emulating, the ways in which the faithful amongst God’s people conducted themselves in relation to God and humanity. In fact, there is an entire school of theology that developed in the 20th Century called “narrative theology” that considers how it is that God reveals Himself to His people through stories, and how God’s people are in fact “hardwired” for stories and story-telling.
Let us, then celebrate our own stories, and those of those we love, as a way of imitating our Lord and our God.
It seems fitting to close this post with an excerpt from a story, one of my favorite novels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the story of an aristocratic Catholic family in England in the 1920s and 30s, and their eccentric youngest son, Sebastian. Here, Sebastian is trying to get his agnostic Protestant friend Charles Ryder, the book’s narrator, to understand what it is to be a Catholic in England. Along the way, he reveals something very profound about himself—how it is that he believes.
We never discussed the matter [of Sebastian’s being a Catholic] until on the second Sunday at Brideshead, when Father Phipps had left us and we sat in the colonnade with the newspapers, he surprised me by saying:
‘Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.’
‘Does it make much difference to you?’
‘Of course. All the time.’
‘Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. You don’t seem very much more virtuous than me.’
‘Oh, I’m very, very much wickeder,’ said Sebastian indignantly.
‘I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?’
‘Is it nonsense? I wish it were.’
‘But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.’
‘I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.’
‘Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.’
‘But, Sebastian, you can’t believe things because they’re lovely ideas!’
‘Well, I do. That’s how I believe.’
Sebastian was onto something, however improbable it might be that this naïve and simple fellow understood it: that it is through stories that we come to know ourselves, and the universe, and the meaning of things. And, yes, there is a part of us that is hardwired, built—created—to receive stories, and tell them, and to be changed by them. After all, we were created in the image and likeness of God, who is, it seems a story-telling God.