‘He Who Loses His Life will Find It’: How Narrative Gives Life [Part Two]

In my previous post, I discussed the arguments of directors Deborah Pearson and George Hunka against narrative. Specifically, Pearson argued that narratives are problematic because they erase those experiences and people which do not fit the narrative’s version of events (e.g., how the narrative of ‘manifest destiny’ erased Native Americans from America’s story). Hunka argued that the destruction of author-created narrative is ‘liberating’ for the audience member, who can then decide his own story. The disruption of narrative allows the viewer ‘to find oneself, not to lose oneself, in the theatrical experience’.

As a Christian, I fundamentally disagree with Hunka’s suggestion that narrative leads to oppression and death because I do not believe that one can find oneself unless one loses oneself. Instead, I would suggest that a narrative can be life-giving or life-stealing depending on its conformity to Truth, by which I mean its conformity to the Story told by God. One interpretation of a set of events may be more true than another. For example, an author may present a martyr who dies for Christ as a hero, whereas his audience member may believe that martyrs are fools. I would argue that if the audience member loses himself in this author’s story, he may come to a true understanding of martyrdom, which may (who knows?) free him to undergo his own martyrdom.

One cannot receive a story without, for the time the story lasts, accepting the author’s authority. And accepting that authority can allow an audience member to enter into a point-of-view he never considered before. Stories can increase empathy exactly by sweeping their audience up into their narrative. I did not feel empathy for prisoners until I read Les Misérables and lost myself in Jean Valjean’s story. It all depends on which stories the artist chooses to tell. Narratives must exclude in order to be intelligible; stories highlight certain experiences and people in order to make an underlying meaning clear. Artists can choose to tell titillating stories about the rich and powerful; however, they can also choose to tell stories about the traditionally voiceless, such as the prisoner, the immigrant, or the abused child. The act of excluding some characters, experiences, and points-of-view in a narrative in order to draw the audience’s attention to those characters and experiences whose meaning the artist is trying to communicate does not mean excluding those people and experiences permanently from real life. One cannot tell all the stories at once.

Finally, I return to Pearson’s suggestion that we tell stories because we are unable to face the lack of meaning we might find in reality. It seems to me that the rejection of narrative is linked philosophically to a rejection of meaning or at least a meaning which I do not create myself. To reject narrative is to reject the existence of any Story outside my own story. Actually, the rejection of narrative leads to the consequence Pearson feared. Pearson feared that narrative would trap a person in her story, unable to see the stories of others. In fact, the experience of narratives told by others enables a person to step out of her own story and enter into the stories of others, thus growing closer to them.

To use narrative means to affirm that events have meaning – they are not just chains of cause-and-effect. The narrative of the theatre, and other forms of storytelling art, points to the narrative of real life, and suggests the possibility that if characters’ lives in a story are ordered by an author to some end, so, too, our lives might be ordered by an Author to some end. And in the Christian narrative, that end is a happy one – especially for the voiceless and oppressed.

How should Christian artists ethically use narrative, if at all? What are the problems you see with narrative, and what are some possible solutions?

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