Saturday, June 11, 2016


2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Luke 7:36-8:3

            Not quite ten years ago a friend of mine invited me to join about a hundred people in a Buddhist Center in Colorado.  We were going to spend a week, he said, examining the “story field,” at what was called “The Story Field Conference.” He explained that “story field” meant the rich ground from which spring all of the stories of humans:  the big stories or meta-narratives, the medium sized stories of various traditions, the tribal, national, family, and personal stories that everybody has some acquaintance with. 

            I got pretty interested in this process.  I have always been a lover of stories, and, like my father before me, I appreciate few things more than a good yarn.  A friend of mine once compared my stories to a Bruckner symphony—“they just go on and on,” he said, “never an ending in sight.”  He should have known my dad.  Compared to his, my stories are little ditties and jingles.  At the Story Field Conference I began to view stories differently.  I began to understand why it is that so many people attach themselves to stories that actually are quite destructive both for them and for the planet they live on.  I began to see more clearly why it is that our self-understanding is often tied to stories that might or might not be true (few stories are completely factual), but which anchor us to some context that gives our lives meaning. 

            On my next birthday after the Story Field Conference, my partner Joe gave me a book written by an Australian named Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories. [1]   It is hands down the best and most important book I’ve read in the last decade.  Boyd shows in a fantastically readable way that all of our stories, not just the oral and written ones, but those told through art, sports, theatre, dance, architecture, and all our other human enterprises, are the way that our species has evolved to gather and pass on survival information.  We are always telling stories and listening to them, just as I’m telling one now and you are listening to it.  And in one way or another we are always telling stories as a way of surviving.  Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes that survival is the passing on of critical information, and sometimes it is simply shared to give us a chance to cut loose and laugh as a necessary experience to help us get through and carry on. 

            Now all that I have said so far is backdrop to what I have to say about two stories in particular.  One is the story the prophet Nathan tells King David which climaxes in the line, “You are the man!”  The other is the story in which Jesus tells a riddle to his host, Simon the Pharisee, and then asks the question, “Do you see this woman?”  Both of theses stories, sliding together on this June Sunday, have to do with self-recognition.  One a parable, one a riddle:  both function like traps for the purpose of exposing inescapable truth.  One person, David, gets it, hearing the message that the story has for him.  The other person, Simon, might or might not have gotten the message—we don’t know.  But there is another layer on each of these stories, as there always is.  Why are they told?  Why were they preserved?  Each contains some survival information for the one who hears them.  And that would be you and I.  The story is never complete, indeed not even alive, until there is a hearer.  Art hanging in a museum may be ever so powerful, but not until there is at least one viewer.  The relationship between story and hearer is essential to the story itself.

            So let’s take a brief look at each of these stories.  I’ve already said that they are about self-recognition.  Nathan’s skillful fabrication of a parable about a little pet lamb of a poor man that the rich man stole and slaughtered for his own use aptly captures the dynamics of David’s recent sexual history.  Wandering up to his roof deck overlooking Jerusalem one spring afternoon, he had spied a woman bathing.  Aroused by the sight, he had sent for her, brought her to his palace, had his way with her, and gotten her pregnant.  He then had had his general summon her soldier-husband from the front to come home as a way of setting up a scene to cover up his own unfortunate development.  The plot had failed because of Uriah the husband’s unwillingness to cooperate with the trap being laid for him, so David had had him killed.  So far, so good, until the storyteller appears on the scene in the person of Nathan, the court prophet.  Knowing what had gone on and seeing the enormity of the king’s behavior, Nathan picks the parable—the story—as a way of making his point.  David falls for it.  Hearing about a fictional crime, he pronounces judgment:  “the man who did this deserves to die!”  And with that, Nathan has him.  “You are the man!” he says.  And then he begins to unpack the message.  When he hears it, David responds, “I have sinned.”  He sees himself.  He recognizes what he has done.  He owns it.

            The other story is considerably more complex.  Simon, a Pharisee, invites Jesus to a dinner, which obviously is a festive meal because guests will be arranged on couches where they will recline during dinner, in contrast to the everyday style of eating.  A woman, quite possibly one of the many neighborhood people who would be hanging around the edges of a banquet hoping maybe for some leftovers or maybe just out of curiosity, wanders into the house—apparently a common occurrence—and heads directly for Jesus.  She carries an alabaster jar, quite expensive, full of ointment.  She stands at the foot of the couch on which Jesus is reclining, weeping.  Her hair down—a telltale sign that she is a prostitute—she engages in the very intimate act of drying his feet with her hair.  Simon is appalled that this scene goes on and Jesus acts as if it is all perfectly natural.  Why doesn’t he put a stop to this?  Simon thinks.  He certainly can’t be a spiritual man, or else he wouldn’t allow such a thing to go on.  Then Jesus tells his riddle about two debtors, one with a big debt, one with a little one.  Both debts are forgiven by the same creditor.  Who will love the creditor more?  Simon gives the obvious answer:  he one whose debt was greater.  Bingo.  Jesus has him.  He is just about to make the point that what differentiates Simon from the woman is how much each of them loves.  And how much each of them loves has to do with the degree of forgiveness that each of them has experienced.  The riddle serves as a mirror to Simon, who might choose to look and see himself in this little story.  He might see that he is the debtor with a very small debt indeed, whose perfectionism in keeping the law precludes his need for any forgiveness to amount to much.  Hence he might see that his heart really is not very capacious when it comes to loving.  He might see that he could learn a thing or two from this woman, who, by the way, is apparently still a harlot at the end of the story as before it began.  Nothing suggests otherwise.  Simon might see that someone like her, outside the Law, a social outcast, is actually practicing a kind of divine love in her extravagant devotion.  But don’t bet on it.  Sometimes stories suggest things that are just too much at odds with other stories, like Simon’s Pharisaic one, that we are wed to for us to hear their message. 

            Not all but many stories silently ask their hearers to pull aside the curtain and see themselves. Sometimes stories affirm us.  Sometimes they convict us. Sometimes they jar us loose from our presuppositions.  Sometimes they simply speak their message and leave us to ponder it perhaps at some later date.  And sometimes stories, since they are human creations, make no sense. 

            I saw a movie Friday night, an old one called “The Fallen Idol.”  It was about a web of stories, most of which were all a jumble of truth and lies.  A child is at the center of the plot.  He only partially gets what the adults around him are doing, and he is caught up in conflicting secret-keeping that he finds bewildering.  He both lies and tells the truth, motivated essentially by his love for one of the adults with whom he has a deep bond.  At the end, no one listens to his story, although he is desperately trying to tell the truth.  The movie leaves us viewers wondering what the kid might have made of it all as he grew out of his innocence and became accustomed to a world of stories where much of the time nothing is incontrovertibly true.  But that is just my take-away from the movie.  I could have yawned, left the theatre, and forgotten about it.  Stories rarely force us to pay attention unless our souls are ready to.

            The Bible is our main storybook.  Some of its stories are good, some are lousy.  Some bear the mark of eternal truth, like the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Some of them we would just as soon forget about, so violent and horrible they are.  But the Bible is only one set of narratives among many.  Even for many Christians, other stories, like the narratives that we loosely call “racism,” trump biblical teachings.  And there are things even from the lips of Jesus such as “love your enemies” that all but the most devout will rationalize, debate, make excuses for—because they irritate us by conflicting with our more precious stories. 

            “You are the one!” continues to be the recurring message of the stories that are trustworthy.  “Do you see this woman?” is a recurring theme of stories that invite us to reexamine our attitudes towards those whom we easily dismiss as unwashed and unworthy.  If you are not listening to stories that ask you one or both of those questions fairly frequently, then perhaps it might be a good idea to ask whether the stories you believe are actually helping you to survive.  Are the stories we live by simply making us believe what is easiest and most comfortable, the stories that demand the least change? 

            You are the one.  You decide.

[1]  Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories:  Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016 

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