In the Beginning Were stories

by Wes Chapman

prepared for the Bertrand Russell
"Why I am Not a Christian" series,
April 10, 1996

Romanian translation courtesy of Alexandra Seremina at azoft
Polish translation courtesy of Maksim Ivancov
Czech translation courtesy of Kate Bondareva
French translation courtesy of Kate Bondareva
Russian translation courtesy of Oleg Segal
Ukrainian translation courtesy of Oleg Segal
Swedish translation courtesy of Tilia Kurek
Belorussion translation courtesy of Alexander Nikiforov
Lithuanian translation courtesy of Giedrius Sadauskas
Indonesian translation courtesy of Jordan Silaen
Bulgarian translation courtesy of Anna Litwinka
Portuguese translation courtesy of Diana Gomes at travel-ticker.com

Let me start by thanking Chaplain White for making it possible for me to speak to you today, in the second of the Bertrand Russell "Why I Am Not a Christian" series. It will be difficult to follow in the footsteps of the Bertrand Russell speaker last year, Larry Colter. Those of you who attended last year may remember that Dr. Colter, a rationalist and a realist in the analytic tradition, discussed the conditions under which faith could be rationally justified. My own approach to the subject is somewhat different, and I can say with some confidence that Dr. Colter would have disagreed with most of what I'm going to say in this talk. He left at the beginning of this year to accept a promotion at another college, and I dearly miss the opportunity to discuss these issues with him. I look forward all the more, then, to discussing them with you in the audience at the end of this talk, and I'll try to leave plenty of time for that. The opportunity for respectful discussion and debate between people with conflicting views is what I take the Bertrand Russell series to be all about--and to have this opportunity is the reason I am grateful to be here.

To begin, let me complicate matters somewhat: I can't say in any absolute sense that I'm not a Christian. It's not the first thing I would choose to call myself, that's true. Moreover, in something like the same sense that I would call myself a Christian, I would also call myself a zen Buddhist, an atheist, an existentialist, a believer in the Oversoul, a Taoist, a pagan, and a Jew. I will even admit to being a confused man, although I think I'm rather less confused about religion than I am about many other subjects. For my purposes here it is enough to consider the evidence for my being in some measure a Christian:

  1. I was raised, more or less, as a Christian, although neither of my parents were particularly devout. In my early years we went to Church perhaps twice a year. I vaguely remember that my mother once decided we would go weekly, but in our very first week of Sunday school my sister and I raised such a fuss and were such squirmy brats that the plan was put on permanent hold. It didn't help that my father had little interest in going to church, believing very much in religious privacy and not very much in organized religion. He was so very private in his religion that I was surprised to learn when I was around college age that he did in fact profess to a more or less Christian worldview. By the time I was ten, around the time when we stopped saying grace before dinner, privacy and freedom were the order of the day, and my sister and I could choose whether to go to church at all. I chose not to go. By the time I was fifteen I was calling myself an atheist and existentialist, as if none of those early experiences counted any more. Now that I'm a good deal older I say that I was wrong.

  2. I still celebrate Christmas, at least to the extent of putting up a Christmas tree, buying presents, singing carols and so forth. Praying wouldn't make much sense to me, since I don't particularly believe in God, but I do find myself at that time of year vaguely pondering the meanings of Christ's life and teachings, generally with approval.

  3. I live in a culture which is saturated through and through with Christian traditions and beliefs. This is not the same thing as saying that "we live in the Judeo-Christian culture," a statement I consider wrong because it excludes the many other cultures and religious traditions active and present in America and glosses over the anti-Semitism of some Christian traditions in America. But Christian traditions are certainly around too and in force. Moreover, as a teacher of English and American literature I work with Christian traditions and beliefs constantly; they form a part of the framework of what I do and hold dear.

OK, now, some of you probably have me pegged by now. A kind way to put it would be to say, he's a secular Christian. But he's not a believer, and therefore he's not a real Christian. Mea Culpa on all counts--but then here I am again, saying "mea culpa," knowing like a Christian that that's what I should say. Does that count or not? I think it does. I think it all counts. So let me give a little demonstration to show you why I think it counts, why I am in some measure a Christian--and in the process of the demonstration I think I can show why I am not a Christian as well. Mostly I want to say a few words about stories--hence the title of my talk, "In the Beginning Were stories."

Here it is.

OK, there it was. Do you understand now? I didn't think so. So we need to figure out what happened. But what happened isn't around any more; it's gone. All that's left of it is a memory, actually several memories, since we all saw something slightly different--the perspective of someone on that side of the audience is different from that of someone on this side, and both are different from my perspective or the perspective of someone whose view was blocked by the podium. What's more, your memory of what happened probably isn't doing you much good right now; you saw what you saw, but you still don't know what's going on. It won't make any sense to you until you can make some kind of a story out of your experience. And that's the first point I want to make about stories: they're all you have. What you know about the world is not the world itself, but a story about the world. You don't know what happened to your best friend during Friday night's date; all you know is the story that he or she told you about it. You don't know what happened yesterday in Washington or Beijing; you know the story in the newspaper about what happened. You don't know how matter behaves at the sub-atomic level; you know only the story of subatomic particles a physicist tells you. Some of the scientists among you may object that scientific knowledge is not just a story in the same sense that a news article is a story, or a rant or rave about Friday's date. Since this is not a talk on why I'm not a scientist I won't defend the claim very strongly, save to acknowledge that there are different kinds of stories, about different kinds of things, some fictional, some not; some subject to testing, some not. Different kinds of stories, but stories nevertheless.

Meanwhile something happened, I did something with this thing here, and you still don't know what it was because I haven't told you a story about it. I promise I will tell you some stories about it, but first let me make a second point about stories: they can never capture what they are about its entirety. I did something, and I'll tell you about it, but we'll never know, for example, whether there was a fly on the cross when I did what I did. And we can't go back and check, because as I've already said the past is gone, we only have the story of the past. Now you might well ask, who cares? What difference does it make whether or not there was a fly on the cross? It's irrelevant. But in reply I have to ask, who's to say what's a part of the story? You still don't know the point of what I did; for all you know it's directly relevant to the story. Well, I'll tip you off--it isn't. As far as I am concerned it doesn't matter whether there was a fly on the cross or not, save insofar as I've made it a part of the story by talking about it right now. But this matter of what's a part of the story or not is an extremely difficult issue. For example: for those of you who believe that God is present in all living things, a fly might be considered a container of the holy spirit, and thus a fly on the cross would I think very much be a part of any story we want to tell about the cross. Another example: does "the story" include only what happened up here where I am, or does it include what happened out there in the audience? Well, in some way you didn't do the deed, if you see what I mean, so you aren't a direct part of the stories I plan to tell about what happened. But then I do hope that what I do and say here today will cause you to think about things; that in some sense you will take what happened home with you, outside of the chapel, and make it a small part of your life. Perhaps it may cause you sometime in the future to do something a little differently, something so small as speaking when you would have been silent, or being silent when you would have spoken. Are these acts part of the story? They aren't part of the stories I will tell you, but who's to say? They aren't part of my story, but they may well be part of yours. No one story can capture everything. No story can even capture everything of importance. That is one of the sad things about stories.

But I'd better get on with some story about what happened, since we've a long ways to go before we can begin to see what all this has to do with my being or not being a Christian. So let me start with a story about what happened which I personally think is untrue, even though it gets the facts right. This little creature was sold many years ago under the name of a "Dammit Doll." He's shaped in such a way that you can hold him by his legs and smack him against something when you're feeling frustrated or angry, presumably cursing at the same time, hence the name. So here's a story about what happened: a professor, graciously and respectfully invited to speak in chapel on the subject of his religious beliefs, held a Dammit Doll up to the cross. I can just see it as a headline in the Argus--this is something like an untenured faculty member's worst nightmare--"Professor Blasphemes in Chapel." Now I say again, I don't think that this story is true, although I can't explain why I don't think it's true until I tell you another story later. But on some level it doesn't matter whether I think it's true or not. This thing IS called a Dammit Doll, I DID hold it up to the cross, and if that's what you remember at the end of this talk, that's the story for you. And that's the next point to be made about stories: there are many stories which can be told about what happens, and once those stories are out they're impossible to control. They take on a life of their own, and there's not a thing I can do to control "the story" except tell you another story which you may not believe, just as I don't believe this one. (By the way, if there is an Argus reporter in the audience, the full text of this speech is available on request.)

So I'd better tell you another story quickly. Well, here's another one. This one, by the way, I consider absolutely true. A man walked southeast five paces, then elevated an object made of red patterned cloth, filled with some compressible substance, to which several white yarns and two plastic objects were attached. At the time he elevated the object, the man was standing before a large wooden object, gilded, with joined horizontal and vertical crosspieces. After he elevated the object he walked five paces northwest. The end. This is, let's say, the existentialist story of the event, the story stripped down to the barest of physical details. It is not a neutral story, despite its minimalism; to call the cross a wooden object with joined horizontal and vertical crosspieces is to step outside the frame of reference in which the symbolism of the cross has meaning, and thus to suggest that there is no meaning in the world before human beings give it meaning, which in my opinion implies that there is no God in the sense as we usually understand Him. Existence precedes essence, as the saying goes. On some level there is no cross, with or without fly, there is only dead wood.

I've said that I think this story is true, and I say it again. But that's not to say that I find it adequate. Although an existential view can be freeing, people cannot subsist on such emptiness and meaninglessness for long, which is why, in my opinion, existentialism as a movement is pretty much dead. Back in the days when existentialism was very much alive in this country, I can remember some Christians telling me that they couldn't live in a world without God because it would just be empty and mechanical with nothing left to live for. At the time my reply to this statement oscillated between two positions: "wishing for meaning doesn't mean there is meaning," I would say, while at other times I would say, "the absence of inherent meaning in the world leaves us free to make our own meanings." I was very young then and I couldn't perceive the contradiction between these two positions, still less that they did not at all match up with my actual life, which was full of all kinds of meanings even if I didn't care much for a lot of them, and in which I wasn't nearly as free as I would have liked to believe. Now I would just say the world is full of stories, and more than one of them can be true.

So here's another story about what happened a few minutes ago, and this too is a true story from my point of view. This little guy doesn't belong to me; he belongs to my son. I tell my son a lot of stories--stories in the usual sense of the word, fictions about things that never happened; bedtime stories, mostly, sometimes wake-up stories, sometimes stories in the car, or just stories for no reason when we're both bored or I have something to say. Some stories have obvious morals; some stories don't have obvious morals but do have a point; some stories aren't meant to have a point but seem to anyway; some stories start with one point and end up with another; and a good many, since I generally make up these stories as I go along, are just silly things that don't have much of a point at all. And so meet Quimby. He's had a lot of stories told about him. He talks in a little funny voice like this--"hello." He eats only hats, which is why--you can't see this very clearly from where you are--the cloth he's made of has a pattern of different kinds of hats. He thinks he's a person, so he objects violently when you call him a stuffed thing--"a what?" He likes to do flips. And so on.

Now, let me get myself out of trouble by saying why I don't think what I did was blasphemous. Very simply it's this: nothing is more sacred to me than my love for my son, and I express my love for my son in my stories as much as anywhere else. By "sacred" I don't just mean important; I really do mean something like "holy." For if we understand our world only through the stories we tell about it, then it is through our stories that we pass on one to another all our morality; our waking dreams and night terrors; our awe at the unfathomable complexity and mystery of the universe; our love of beauty and truth; our laughter at absurdity; our grief at loss and change; our fear of and longing for judgment; our compassion, and the terrible painful tenderness of desiring to protect the innocent and vulnerable; our wrath at injustice, and our forgiveness of weakness; and above all love, love palpable and pressing, love fragile and enduring, love with tender touch and desperate grip, love which reaches back through time like a river and across the continents like a wind or a cloud. A little bit of all of this is in every story I tell my son, as it is in every story told by all storytellers who love their audience; and even if I do not give these stories the name of God or religion, who is to say that poor meek ridiculous Quimby here is not a sacred thing? ("a what?" Sorry, Quimby, a sacred being.) Call me misguided or mistaken, if you must, but not blasphemous.

So in one sense--and a very important sense it is--I am indeed a Christian. For I too ride the holy waters of stories told by my parents and my culture; many of those stories, though far from all, come from the Christian tradition, and particularly from that book of stories we call the Bible; and I accord to those stories, some of them anyway, the same reverence I would accord to any story which seeks to bring love, beauty, justice, and reverence for life and truth into the world. And in other senses, equally important, I am not a Christian at all, for the Bible, as a book of stories, is no more sacred to me, and more importantly no less fallible, than the Koran, or the Upanishads, though I know it rather better, or for that matter the poems of Emily Dickinson or the novels of Virginia Woolf. And not one of them is as sacred to me as my love for my son, my wife, my sister or my parents, though in truth love of family and stories are not fully separable in my mind. In the beginning, my story goes, was not the Word, logos, the divine power of creation, revelation and redemption, but stories, partial and oh-so-fallible human efforts to make meaning of the world.

Calling the Bible a book of stories as I have done is to imply that the Bible is not divinely inspired, and I think also to imply that there is no God in the usual Christian sense. But I insist that when I call the Bible just a book of stories, I am not trivializing it. Stories in the sense I'm getting at are not trivial things, even the silly ones, like jokes, gossip, bedtime stories of a little man who eats hats and talks in a funny voice. Nothing is more important or powerful than stories. Nothing is more powerful than the urge to tell the story; it's a more powerful urge than sex by far. The urge to tell the story is, I think, the most fundamental urge of human life. A few weeks ago I went to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, and I was struck there, before I broke down and became incapable of thinking this rationally, by the importance and the limitations of storytelling; the victims of the concentration camps, as well as the soldiers who came to liberate the camps, all had a story and needed to tell it. Many of them said--insisted, even--that "words can't express this," and yet they kept telling, trying to get it across. Soldiers in war and victims of child abuse have the same experience; they have to tell the story, get the record straight, try to rid themselves of the ghosts which linger as stories untold. And if they can't tell it in words they tell it in painting or work or their very bodies and lives, with tears or silence or failure or self-destruction or heroism, each act an attempt to tell the tale. In the Holocaust Museum, after seeing thousands and thousands of faces of the dead and the suffering, after seeing the human traces of communities of Jews--some hundreds of years old--utterly destroyed, after seeing picture after picture of corpses piled like firewood, long rows of people, shot by firing squads, toppling one after another like a grim chorus line into an already full mass grave, the shrivelled skeletal bodies of the survivors, the cold-blooded films of medical experimentations, the assembly line of victims killed in the gas chambers, bags of human hair and thousands of pairs of empty shoes, what finally reduced me to crying was a green toy butterfly, made out of wood and painted, manufactured right in the concentration camp, by what heroic measures and at what cost I can't imagine, and smuggled over to a child on the other side of the camp. As I stood there in the Museum, weeping uncontrollably, no longer caring if the crowds around me saw, all I could think to hope for was not that parent or child survived, both possibilities seeming too unlikely to merit hope, but simply that the butterfly got to its destination, smuggled under a laborer's rags or slipped between barbed wire or passed by a guard moved by the bribe of a gold filling or even simple humanity, and that the story told by that toy butterfly, a story simple and eloquent enough for anyone to understand, was heard.

Stories have tremendous power. They have the power to heal; the power to soothe and comfort; the power to teach; the power to bring people together as a community. But they have the power to wound as well--to oppress and to justify oppression. Nearly every act of violence or discrimination or abuse has an accompanying story to explain and justify it, from the Nazi's narrative of the Aryan "master race," to the Domino Theory, to the myth of the woman as the "angel of the house," to the segregationist's description of African Americans as the "sons of Ham," to the rapist's fantasy that "you could tell she really wanted it by the way she was dressed," to the school bully's refrain of "he started it." Some of these stories get made up, like my Quimby stories, on the spur of the moment, as their tellers go along; but many if not most of them build upon previous stories, and in particular narratives with the moral weight of authority and tradition to support them. The Devil can and does quote Scripture, is one way to put it--scriptures literally, or at least particularly, because in our culture, no text is more susceptible to this kind of abuse than the Bible.

From my point of view, then, it is a moral imperative to be aware of the nature of stories and storytelling. I do not expect or even want those of you in the audience who are Christian to believe, as I believe, that in the Beginning was not the Word with a capital W but stories, fallible if persistent human creations. But one may believe that the Bible is a book of stories, even if one believes that it is not ONLY a book of stories. Even if you believe that some or all of the stories in the Bible were divinely inspired, they were nevertheless written by human beings, and transcribed by human beings, and translated by human beings. John Boswell, in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, argues that it isn't clear that the language of I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10, both passages often used to condemn homosexuality, or even the language of Genesis 19, the destruction of Sodom, even refers to homosexuality; the words have been translated in several ways, and the social and textual context of the Greek words leaves much room for doubt. In other words, inspired or not, the passages are stories, and subject to the limitations of all stories--and storytellers. Even true stories, as I've tried to demonstrate, inevitably leave out important truths; all stories are subject to multiple interpretations. (Stories may also, I might add, simply be untrue.) Therefore no one story is sufficient; the truth requires many tellers and many tales, some of which contradict, all of which must be retold and reinterpreted continually by new generations. Out of this tangled web of truths and lies and contradictions is our morality made, and it behooves us to show a certain seemly hesitation before we ascribe to any one story too much credence. I don't know whether there is a story worth dying for, but I'm pretty confident that there is NO story which is worth killing for, torturing for, raping for, abusing for, discriminating against others for. To be moral is to learn when to believe and to disbelieve the story, or to read the story anew, or to read one story against another--and decide, for example, that the exhortation to love thy neighbour teaches a more important lesson than an ambiguous phrase in Corinthians or Timothy. Sometimes being moral requires that we deny the old stories, and tell new stories which accord more nearly to contemporary life. And this is why, finally, I am not a Christian--because even the immensely rich tapestry of tales in the Bible is not enough; nothing less than all the stories in the world are enough. I don't know all the stories in the world, or even a significant fraction of them, but they run through me, nevertheless, like the waters of a mighty river. And they run through you too.

Meanwhile, there is poor Quimby, who has never had a story like this told about him before, and there is the cross. The two are not equivalent, even to me. What is the relationship between them? The story you tell about that will be different from the story I tell about it. I can tell you the story I'll tell my son, if he asks--I will simply say that I held Quimby up to the Cross, not in opposition or in affirmation but simply to let him see. If that isn't enough for him, I'll have to make up a new story.

With that, let me open the floor to you, so you can tell your own stories, or question mine. I would like to see this become a genuine discussion, if possible, so don't feel that you have to restrict yourself to asking questions or confining your remarks to me. Ask questions if you like, but feel free also to make statements, talk to other members of the audience, etc. And thanks for listening.

© 1996 by Wes Chapman.

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