Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

The Fertility of Story

The Fertility of Story: A New Tattoo

To be a new church means we have to rediscover our Christian Story. This is one of the Great Stories of humanity. But it needs reinterpreting and each generation must make new connections to it. I think that much of the new conservatism in the churches is an attempt to hold on to old connections that don't really "connect" to the Divine. This page looks at Story from two perspectives. It begins with some "theory", some ideas about the nature of story. Then it switches to story in action, looking at some of the power of story. Like much on this site it is part essay and part re-mapping... thinking on the fly, not a fully formulated essay, but a mud map seeking to develop new directions. Jan.


Story is the basis of everything. Even strictly defined terms and elegant mathematical formulae are simply more formalised stories.

Story is the language we use to know and communicate. It depends on our common experience. "Agabooyahsat!" is no story, but if I shout "Yabbadabbadoo!" our common experience of the story of Fred Flintstone enables the beginning of communication.

Stories build a kind of reality map which enables us to navigate through life. Our story is the way we know ourselves, find meaning, and sustain ourselves beyond animal existence. People and cultures who lose their story, or whose stories lose their power, begin to fall apart.

Stories are the tacit admission that we do not know! When a client asks me the difference between a Celeron and a Pentium chip in a computer, I know enough to realise how little I know;- he knows even less. So I say a Pentium 4 is like a V8 Holden. The Celeron looks like the same "car" on the outside, but uses a carburetor and distributor instead of electronic fuel injection. You won't ever get the same performance. Meaning is passed on by analogy in a situation where a lot is not known. For a person who knows nothing about cars, this story may still be meaningless. Story depends on our common experience.

The trouble with stories is that we forget our stories are stories. We reify them, which is to say we let ourselves believe that they are the reality, not just a story. Holden cars have nothing to do with computer chips and to think that my story about Celerons and Pentiums is the reality is obviously ridiculous. However the temptation seems to be that in the areas where we know the least, and where we can describe and catalogue least effectively, we are most inclined to reify our stories.

In the Christian story, the God Yahweh acknowledges the basic un-knowable-ness of all things. "I Am Who I Am" is his name, he says. The churches, however, are inclined to codify their knowledge down to the last detail and are notoriously resistant to changing the smallest part of their particular version of the meaning of the story. They are loathe to accept that the meanings they extract from, and sometimes force upon the biblical stories are only interpretations. Despite Yahweh's own enigmatic self description the churches are very sure. Only the "accepted version" is allowed, and any discussion is about minutiae... angels on the head of a pin... instead seeking for new meaning.

Story is incredibly powerful. The woman I work with can look at tables of endless data, write the formalised stories of SQL (Structured Query Language), and the nursery for whom we are programming can see

which clients
bought what plants
that gave the greatest profit
in the month of June
allowing for the fact that
some nurseries only supply these
if you take others that are not as easy to sell,
and automatically calculating
each party's GST liabilities on these consignment sales.

Her stories are elegant and strangely beautiful as they draw order out of overwhelmingly long lists of disconnected data. I'm sure this beauty and challenge is where she gets some of her manic energy. But her reasons for living, and the things she really values, have nothing to do with the power of her programming. Her son, her parents, her church, her friends... messy, unpredictable, in-elegant, sometimes confused stories... these are the powerhouse of her soul.

The deepest power of story lies where it deals with the in-elegant, and where it describes and allows us to glory in those recalcitrant parts of reality which will not submit to the simplistic repeatable stepping blocks of programming and mathematics. The deep power of story is where it extracts meaning out of the irregular, unpredictable, frequently boring, and often pain filled data tables of everyday life. Sitting at the tables of these stories we are nurtured and sustained. Stories can be spun which survive the painful recognition that no matter how beautiful our programming technique, or how consummate our consumer design, all these things... are just things....

The personal story is the most powerful story. It patches the story- quilt of a life together directly from the data of the soul. Other people's stories may be fitted into some of the patches. One of the Great Stories of humanity may offer a framework, or influence the scheming of colours, but the artist's soul provides the story which is patches that make a good quilt. At quilt shows you can see technically excellent quilts which somehow lack life; they used the patterns from some quilter's magazine and do not tell the maker's own story. And then you see a quilt by Julie Haddrick. It has a colour distinctively hers. It steps outside the regular pattern of so many A Quilt by Julie Haddrickquilts. Why? Because it has something of Julie in it. It is telling some of her story, not just the repeats of others. If I see one of her quilt patterns sewn up by someone else, I instantly think "Julie Haddrick"... not the name of the person who copied the quilt. Graphic (C) Julie Haddrick

In our celebrity conscious society, we avoid glorifying people we know, especially ourselves. We want to put unknown people, Tom and Nicole and Pen, up on a pedestal, to imbue them with something beyond the ordinary story we have to live. What a shock to find that they, too, are ordinary, with clay feet like all of us! I like the example of Julie in this article because I do know her. Her father was the church organist. She married a bloke I went to Uni with. She has kids. We went to the same church. She is ordinary, like me. And yet her art is not ordinary. It has power. The stories she tells have the power to make her human, extra-ordinary, and more than a repeater of other people's second hand tales.

The power for life seems to come from being able to tell our own story in a creative tension with the stories in whose midst we live. The mixing of your story and my story, upon the backdrop of the Great Stories allows us to find more meaning. The temptation is to allow the backdrop to rule, and not see that it is the canvas on which we paint a new story... our story. So we let the backdrop wash through and drown out our colours, and doubt the validity of our own story. We get some idea that the canvas is "Holy" and that to draw our story on it would be a kind of improper graffiti. But this cheapens our story and impoverishes us.

Finding a balance, finding the creative "sweet spot," is where power for life is. Foolishly romanticising the world, and avoiding the reality the back drop points to us loses power. Rigidly following the old truths of the backdrop, long ago reified into doctrine which is no longer partaking of the real, equally locks us out of a power filled life.

Recently I was part of a discussion about the increasing popularity of tattoos amongst women in Australia. The originator of the discussion was quoting biblical proof texts. He seemed to have started the discussion for the purpose of saying tattoos are a bad thing. One person, Clare, changed the whole tone of the discussion as she spoke of those who regret having a tattoo. She has generously allowed me to quote her at length:

Does this mean that the misery of those who get married and live to regret it, and the misery that people suffer from the traumas of divorce, means that all marriage is wrong??? I can't agree. And Wenham's reference to scarring may well be to the kind of bodily scarring that was a traditional part of teen rites of passage in many cultures, and the prohibition related to the implied identification with that culture's religion rather than with Judaism. I'm theorising here, of course, but I still don't agree that either tats or body piercings are "disfigurement", nor that the injunctions of Leviticus are part of the fundamentals of christianity (harking back to *that* discussion...). I suspect that it's much more that the biblical injunction is used as a prop for personal dislike of the decoration.
Owning up to a (reluctant) divorce and a (carefully considered) tattoo, both of which I'm happy to discuss further if need be.

We can see Clare doing a number of things. She has "played the game" by engaging with the proof text-ing (the reference to Gordon Wenham), and allowing the telling of the story of the traditional Christian backdrop. Perhaps she is "outplaying" the poster by questioning the logic of his authoritative source (Gordon Wenham's commentary on Leviticus), and directly pointing out his use of the bible as a "prop for personal dislike." This is the traditional style of argument. Clare begins to move beyond this by challenging the basis of the original writer's story by implying the authority of own story without apology. There is no appeal to another authority, just the statement "I don't agree...."

Now this could all have degenerated into a traditional newsgroup flame war of the "what would you know?" variety. Except that she ends her post with those words, "Owning up to a (reluctant) divorce and a (carefully considered) tattoo, both of which I'm happy to discuss further if need be." These changed the whole tone of the discussion. The original author suddenly wrote back

Rather, than an academic debate about Old Testament theology, [which he was doing already!] I would be more interested in the factors that led you to decide to get a tattoo; your thoughts at the time, including the reason for a decision to have a permanent mark on your body, and what it means to you.

He still cannot resist talking about the "permanent mark," but her move toward personal story has disarmed him. He is no longer sure of his ground using the traditional story... [he backs away from the academic debate.... ] The little shot about the permanent mark may indicate he is expecting to be able to pooh-hoo her when she replies. In the reply she wrote several paragraphs about her thinking leading up to getting her tattoo. All of this was her own story, there was no quoting of authorities. In what she said next there are no biblical quotes or justifications either. There is no appeal to authority [someone else's story.] It is her story, and profoundly theological, because it is her reflection on her faith and where she is living it. I quote a little...

Why a tat? Why an elephant? Perhaps the answers to those two questions are too interlinked to treat them separately. My faith was expanding beyond "mainstream" expression, and I was discovering how much substance I derived from earth religions and their faith expressions. The popular craze for dolphins made me realise how much affinity I had with elephants, and the only way I can describe that feeling is to call them my "totem animal". The decision to express that in the form of a tattoo is probably very similar to my desire to get confirmed when I was 13, or married at 23 - a tangible, albeit only semi-public in this instance, expression of a deep inner conviction.

What does it mean to me now? The same as it did then, I guess. I have an absolute conviction I did what I wanted to do, I expressed my inmost self in the way I wanted to, and it reminds me continually of the expanded view of faith expression that led to it. It also affirms that, and encourages me to express that expanded faith view in other ways at all sorts of times. The meaning the tat has for me sits in that inner self-place that also houses my faith, my love for my child and the man I love, and my self-worth. In other words, it's part of the ground of my being.

At the same time, I can't see myself ever getting another tat (or further ear piercings, for that matter). There's a purpose in each that wouldn't necessarily be served by additional ones. That doesn't mean I rule it out completely, but that further piercings or tats wouldn't serve need or purpose for me where I stand now.

I suppose, if someone challenged me on the possibility of ever getting sick of the tat (which is a bit like asking someone who's married to propound a future in which they're divorced, or a christian to visualise a future in which they're a non-believer) I would have to say that I'll still see it as a valid expression of who I am now, and hence it would always be part of my history.

One of "tattoos are bad" brigade could not resist asking where the tat was, but apart from that, the discussion topic has simply stopped! There is nothing left to argue about. There was an enormous creative power in Clare telling her story instead of submitting her experience and story to the traditional story. It was shown in the way the essentially false and academic discussion melted away in the face of a "real" story. It was also shown in greater richness in her life. Her life is the richer for the tattoo.. not because of the tattoo itself so much as all the thinking and reflecting and re-telling and rehearsing of her story to herself in the lead up to the tattoo.

I was unexpectedly moved by her story. It was a warm balm against the sterility and aggression of the traditional theological arguing I had been hearing. So much theologising is just sterile and devoid of experience. The tattoo conversation had degenerated into proof text-ing, while the power of theology comes when there is actually some personal input to the situation. Barth used to say he preached with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.... in fact, I think we should preach with our personal experience in one hand..."

What Clare said the earth religions and totem animals shows her thinking about who she was and what she was feeling, something way beyond the habitual rabbit runs of much church expression. She reversed the sterility of so much church discourse, which actually suppresses our personal experience, and gave her experience and feelings the full credence they deserved.

Clare witnessed to this power of taking our own stories seriously telling me "it was at the point that I put my personal experience first and my understanding of god in subjection to the truth of my experience that my faith expression expanded in the way I described. Yet coming from a fairly fundamentalist upbringing, I felt like I was taking an incredible risk in doing that." She is pointing to the fact that owning our own story is risk. We may find it is empty, or full of shadows we never imagined. It will involve going away from the safe story we have inherited.

In a new church, this kind of story imagining and story telling is essential. We have said the old story is lacking. We cannot hope to go on unless we fully tell our own stories and find and keep just the necessary essence of the old back-drop. We are, Clare tells me, "so steeped in Jewish culture overlaid by European culture, that Australian identity just gets ignored. To me, then, that lack of cultural identity is what makes a dry faith, because it fails to encompass the experience and daily reality of those who live it." She is right!

Posted January 2003

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


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