Truth is not truth except in the context of the story in which that truth finds expression.
Consider 4 very brief stories and ask 3 questions of each – What is the first thing you think about the main character? How would you respond if you were the owner of the flower(s) in each story? How does each story make you feel?
- Alan got the bad news he feared his doctor would tell him. Alan’s heart was in bad shape and if he did not start to adjust his lifestyle with significant changes to his diet and exercise habits, he would not have long to live. Alan took a walk that afternoon and somehow found a profound sense of peace come upon him. He knew that he not only could, but would make the necessary changes and turn his life around. As he walked, he came across a beautiful flower that reminded him of his parent’s garden from childhood. Alan walked over and picked the most beautiful flower to remember this day when he turned his life around.
- Bill had a feud with his neighbor. They made each other angry all the time. From yard maintenance, to late night noise, to clogging the street with parties – they were polar opposites and made the Hatfields and Mccoys look like amateurs at feuding. Bill’s neighbor had a garden that was his most prized possession in the world. Bill wanted to hurt his neighbor more than anything else in the world. So, one day, he found the chance, walked over to the garden, grabbed the stalk of the most prized plant with both hands, and he broke it in half with a rush of joy going through his body and a smug smile upon his face.
- Charlie was a romantic at heart, but had grown apart from his wife recently. They were empty nesters and hadn’t been adjusting well to life without kids at home. Charlie knew something had to changed and wanted to make a big romantic gesture to show he was trying. Chocolates or jewelery wouldn’t do – his wife was way too sentimental and loved unique things way too much for something mass produced to mean much. One day he found the perfect rose, it was gorgeous in color, but ever so slightly imperfect on one of the outer petals. The only other time he had noticed a rose just like this was the day he met his wife. He brought that single rose on their blind date and he even joked about how it was imperfect, just like him – if she could accept an imperfect rose, maybe she could accept an imperfect guy. As Charlie picked up the rose, he knew he found the perfect symbol of his commitment to rekindle their relationship.
- Dan always seemed like a robot to his neighbor across the street. Dan just came and went to work, same time every day, like clockwork. The neighbor across the street never knew anything about him beyond the methodical schedule he kept. One day, the neighbor watched as Dan walked up to his next door neighbor’s house, grab a flower out of the neighbor’s garden and walk back to his house.
What do you think of Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan? What would you do if you were the owner of the flower(s)? How does each story make you feel? There are no right or wrong answers here. But I’m willing to bet you’d answer each of the questions a little different for each of the 4 stories. The trick, as you may have already guessed, is that all four takes could be true of the same person at the same time. A workaholic romantic-at-heart guy gets revenge on his neighbor; by doing something nice for his wife, during the exercise his doctor ordered, while a neighbor looks on with no idea about any of the backstory. Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan could very well be the exact same person doing what looks for all the world like the same exact thing.
How you view what is happening depends entirely upon which details you know about the life of the main character; what you prioritize and value in your own life; your own prior experiences with neighbors, a spouse, gardening, etc; how much detail you know about the particulars of the story; and a whole host of other practical and unconscious factors about your expectations and the reality of the people in the story.
My point is not to zero in and judge any particular take on the stories above – my point is that we are all, always living out multiple competing stories and, at the same time, witnessing a tiny fraction of the near infinite stories that are going on around us. Factors like “where we draw the lines around what stories we are willing to consider” and “how our past has shaped us to value one story over another” are not neutral options that all lead to the same truth; they are the primary drivers in determining what we will deem true enough to be the “real” story. These factors do more to influence our answer to any questions about what ‘really’ happened than any supposedly objective account of events.
There is no possibility of a coherent account of what happened that does not already do half the work toward shaping how we respond to what happened. One of our greatest challenges as finite and limited human beings is that we can never step outside of our lived experiences and knowledge base to assess how much of the ‘full’ story we are resting our judgment upon. That we sometimes live in echo chambers and see the world through different eyes should be self evident when we see the way partisan blinders are able to shape and spin the same set of facts in dramatically different ways. I am arguing that such shaping is the necessary form of all historical and practical knowledge.
This argument may seem to render all attempts at speaking the truth about our lives and our world as an impossibly relativistic endeavor. That’s because our assumptions about the way rationality and logic work are fundamentally backwards. We assume that we see facts and use those facts to tell a story. The opposite is the case – we tell ourselves a story given what we think we know at the time and we find a way to fit the facts into that story. We are fundamentally storytelling creatures that are rarely able to see outside of ourselves enough to jump from one story to another.
We learn to tell the stories that write us in the context of relationship. Many of these stories are set in place long before we have the conscious ability to respond or challenge the ways we are being shaped to see the world. Most moral thought and logical argument fails to take seriously the extent to which thought is shaped by the story of relationship and only possible in the soil of emotion. Truthful rationality is quite often misunderstood as an attempt to control the way we relate to the world. It is better employed as a means of putting words to the healing and wholeness that comes when our lives become one with the truth of who we are.
Lest this claim seem like a mere academic exercise, it is a 4 part story in scripture that conveys the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s new Moses. Mark’s messianic revolutionary. Luke’s gentile savior. John’s Passover lamb. Each Gospel clearly means to tell the story of the same historical figure, but each has a very unique perspective, focus, and shape for how the story is told. Any single perspective is inadequate to convey the full truth of the identity of Jesus. That multiple competing and complementary narratives are necessary is not a shortcoming in the bible – it is a profoundly important recognition of the way words and story only convey truth in the context of relationship.