The Power of Story

There is such a fine line between fact and fiction/memory and myth/truth and tall tale, yet fiction/myth/tall tale are no less “real” or “meaningful” or “valid” than fact/memory/truth.  In reality, they are all aspects of the same thing.  When I was younger, I had a friend, Dave, whose mother, Judy, and aunt, Anna, spun a family epic every time they got together.  The story went something like this:  In 1905, Judy and Anna’s grandmother Emma gave birth to their mother, Elizabeth.  Emma was all set to go to the hospital when terrible storms erupted, when her father, Gabriel, and her husband, Edward, had to go corral some livestock that got spooked by the weather and broke free of their pens.  The storms worsened and a tornado appeared on the horizon.  With the men-folk trapped in a drainage ditch and the shingles flapping off the roof, grandma Emma single-handedly delivered her own daughter.  Judy and Anna always told the story in hushed and reverent tones, obviously overwhelmed at the idea of delivering a baby without assistance in such terrifying circumstances.

On one occasion when I visited Dave, we got out some old family albums and started leafing through.  I stopped on one page, and before I thought to stop myself I said, “Hey, look, this is a birth certificate for your mom!”  A shocked silence followed.  Anna finally spoke up and said, “Well, I’m sure it was printed after the fact.”  “No!” I chimed in, “Look, there is an attending physician and a release date.  Your mom was born in a hospital; not at home in a storm!”  Both Judy and Anna got up and left the room.  I looked at Dave and said, “What’s the matter?”  He simply shook his head, then he left the room, too.

I visited again a couple of years later, and as we talked into the evening, old family stories came up, and Anna and Judy breathlessly told the tale of how grandma Emma delivered their mom single-handedly at home in a raging storm.  So much for evidence to the contrary.  This was an epic tale of courage, strength and overcoming incredible adversity for Dave’s family.  Nothing was going to shake the narrative that mattered so much.  This was a defining story — mixing myth and legend with fact and memory to create something bigger.  How often do we see this in our churches as well?

I once offered consultation to two old, rural congregations that were almost identical in every way.  They were the same size, had been founded the same year, drew from the same families and communities, and yet the atmosphere in the two congregations were as different as night and day.  One was calm, comfortable, pleasant and friendly.  The other was anxious, tense, cool and reserved.  The story the first church told was that they had a history of overcoming adversity and not ever letting anything slow them down.  They recounted a fire that leveled the original beloved structure, a pastor’s suicide, and another occasion where the pastor ran off with the church secretary and all the money in the bank.  These stories were recounted with gusto and vigor — symbols of the attitude that no force on earth could ever defeat the congregation.  The second church spoke of a series of disappointments that made them mistrustful and cautious — an early pastor turned out to be a white supremacist, a family conflict almost tore the church apart, the church closed for a time during the great depression, and a series of poor pastors during the years of World War II hurt the overall ministry.  They found nothing in their history to celebrate.

During the course of my work with them, I unearthed written histories of both churches; one written in 1948 and the other in 1955.  No one in the current congregations were aware of these histories.  Their discovery almost led to me being tarred and feathered and run out-of-town on a rail.

It seems the first church did indeed have a fire — that scorched one wall of the church, but was quickly put out.  The church was later relocated, but due to termites.  The only death of a serving pastor was a 61-year-old man who was 5’4″ and weighed 335 pounds.  He died at home in his bed.  The pastor who allegedly ran off with the secretary and the money was actually appointed a superintendent — though he did run off with the secretary, since he was married to her at the time.  As to the money, nothing was mentioned in the history to indicate fiscal impropriety.

The second churches history was even more perplexing.  Not only was the early pastor not a white supremacist, he went on to become a well-respected bishop in the Methodist Church.  During the time that people lamented the terrible family rift, the church actually enjoyed its greatest growth, and it added on two building additions.  Not only did the church not close during the depression, it actually established a farm co-op and employed dozens of men and women, and it served as a central soup kitchen for over five years.  The “series of poor pastors” were actually three men, under each of whom the church flourished and grew.

Both congregations were very angry with me for finding these historical records.  It took me awhile to figure out why everyone got so angry, though.  I came to understand that I wasn’t merely revealing facts and clearing up confusion — I was deconstructing identity, meaning, and reality that wasn’t a mere artifact of the past, but the foundation upon which the congregations built their present.  I was messing with powerful forces far beyond my understanding.  I wonder how much we are doing this today with our myth-making about The United Methodist Church — who we used to be, who we are now, and what we can become in the future.  We have not just lost members.  We are not just struggling with our money.  We have not just muddied our vision.  We have rewritten our myth so that who we used to be is better than who we are today, and what we can become in the future is limited by our fictions.

Take some time to go to your conference archives and read some old journals and general minutes.  They are eye-opening.  First, they are much more similar to our current conversations than they are different.  Second, we have never truly known how to treat each other with civility and respect when we disagree.  The levels of conflict, strife, discord and dissension have been through-the-roof many times in the past.  While we might like to think there was a golden era of growth, vitality, vision, unity, and shared purpose, we need to understand that this is our myth, our story, but it cannot stand up to very close scrutiny.  Those who think our church is fractured today beyond salvation need to read the records of our debates over race, war, economics, gender equality, ordination changes, and social reform from earlier times.  They will make you cringe.  Not only will those who are ignorant of history repeat it, they will simply rewrite it.

Maybe we are not meant to learn from the past — we seem to do an exceptionally poor job of it.  Ours is a story of repeating most of our worst mistakes again and again — from restructure to human sexuality, from equal rights to pastoral privilege, from politics to piety — we will find some way to divide and debate and denigrate and destroy.  Unless we decide together to write a new story; to create a new myth — or perhaps to live up to the best myth possible, the one that says we are the body of Christ for the world — we will continue to fail to live up to our potential.  We glorify “our Wesleyan past,” we wax nostalgic for the glory days of the 1950s (which were an aberration, not a norm), and we wallow in the story of our decline and decay of the past 20/30/40/50 etc., years.  We need to wake up to the fact that the early days weren’t that much better and the recent days haven’t been all that bad — and that none of it defines what we can be in the future.  Stories have power — so let’s tell a good one!

6 replies

  1. “. . . maybe that warm, pleasant church would’ve been better off without your intervention,” writes Shannon. I disagree. Our notion of church as the warm, pleasant place of comfort has contributed to our current existence as a reflection of the culture. When the prophet cries Comfort Ye! it is a call home to become a light to the nations, not to nest at a warm, cozy hearth.

    A vigorous, challenging encounter with the divine pulls us (kicking and screaming) to true life and to hope. Like Jacob, we will not escape unscarred. Dan calls us out of complacency into light. It’s bright out there and scary, but when we go together and with God, we might just transform the world.

  2. Martin Seligman was one of the founders of the “positive psychology” movement in which the goal was not to study unhealthy mental states but actually look at *happy* mental states. One of his findings horrified me when I read it.

    Turns out that optimists do better in life. This is no shocker. The shocker was that part of that outlook was believing that one had control over events that happened… even if it was demonstrably false. Depressed people had a more accurate picture of reality while performing an experiment over which they had no control (i.e., pushing a lever and getting a result, except that there was actually no link between the two). Non-depressed people fell prey to the “illusion of control,” thinking that they just needed to replicate the correct pattern or otherwise believing that they were doing something to get the result.

    Depressed people, at least in this sense, literally have a better grasp of reality. And it does not serve them well.

    (, search on “illusion of control” for the relevant paragraph).

    I did not like this. I thought people needed to be brought out of their delusions and into reality. But maybe not. Maybe we need to intervene where the story is unhelpful… but maybe that warm, pleasant church would’ve been better off without your intervention!

    That said, I agree that the UMC’s “story” is not helping right now.

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