The Power of Story

The headline on the Guardian website caught my eye:  Bread is Practically Sacred: How the Taste of Home Sustained My Refugee Parents.” The article that followed was an edited extract from the book My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. On the topic of bread being sacred there are many ways to go so I followed the link. As it turns out, this piece is a moving and often humorous account of how his parents approached food in their homeland of Bosnia and how food sustained them when they fled Bosnia to live in Canada.

But while the subject of sacred bread drew me into the article, there was a particular paragraph that jumped out at me in a totally different context. Mr. Hemon brings his narrative to a conclusion with an effort to explain a process that is almost impossible to comprehend for those who have never experienced it. Ordinary words failing him, he illustrates this difficult point with a story, which he introduces in this way:

“This idea is best expressed in a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.”

He then goes on to tell a brief story, the events of which are plausible; they probably never happened exactly as written, and yet they probably happen all the time. The story line has been enriched through multiple re-tellings which added layers of meaning. By the end of Mr. Hemon’s  story, we have a clear visual image, and certainly understand more fully the futility of immigrants’ quest to recreate the food of their homeland in their new land. Score one for the power of story.

The Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. Over the years, when I have envisioned the Gospels being written, I have imagined that there were four wise sages who carried the stories of Jesus in their heads as oral history. At some point, they went off in a room by themselves, they took out a pen and scroll, dumped their recollections onto the papyrus and sent it off to the publisher.

Modern Biblical scholarship says that the gospels, while attributed to one person, were probably written by and for particular communities of Christians. Those communities may have included a couple of people who had personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth, along with many others who had encountered the risen Christ. And there was probably a healthy collection of folks who knew someone who knew someone who had heard the stories from someone else who knew the person who was there when it happened. To this wonderful mix, you add the movement of the Spirit in these communities and literary skills of the writer collecting the stories. What comes to us are stories of events that are enriched by personal experience and deepening faith. The stories are not only true, but they are packed with layer upon layer of even larger truth. They are more than true.

I like to imagine these communities gathering by oil lamps discussing over and over their own accounts of, for instance, the feeding of the 5,000. Everyone in the room remembers the story differently, with different details and nuances of meaning. Mark’s community remembers the event one way, and later the communities of Matthew, Luke, and John add their own details and nuances. They were writing by and for their own communities, but their story is so much richer  “because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people,” and as such it more than enriches us today.


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