Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guiding Narrative

I am asking you to chose a novel to read. You are given four options:
1. A love story about a young woman in a forced marriage with an older man, who falls for another man. The triangle is intensified because the two men are the closest of companions.
2. A story of warriors engaged in heroic battles, culminating in a brutal war where most of them die.
3. A story of a leader who is attempting to create a utopian society. The political principles for each stage of progress are all identified.
4. Two young boys, each the illegitimate son of a national hero, come to grips with their questionable birth and their lives are tied to the future of their nation.

"None of the four sounds interesting," you say, "I would prefer something with fantasy and magic and talking animals." No problem. You can read the same book as the other four. The same book, in this case, is The Once and Future King

The story of King Arthur and Camelot (choice 3) and the exploits of his mighty knights (choice 2) begins with a fantastic tale of the education of Art ("Wart") in numerous adventures with animals (the fifth preference). At the heart of the story is Lancelot and Guinevere, who betray Arthur and are the excuse for Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, to lead the rebellion which destroys Camelot, but not before Lancelot's illegitimate son (Galahad) arrives to almost save the day (choice 4). One's take on the story is going to shape one's "hearing" of the story.

Most great stories are big and complex enough to contain numerous "sub" stories, lots of narrative themes. I think we all know that. So the little boy wanting action skips over the "yucky" parts (the love story). We also know that the book experience is influenced by our own experience. If your wife left you for a close friend, perhaps Lancelot would be less tragic to you and more despicable. Or if you feel your father did not love you, maybe Mordred is more justified in your mind.

Real life is not a novel. But real life experience is guided by narratives. Narratives are the summaries which we carry around in our head which are interpretive. They lead us to focus on this or that. They lead us to overlook some details and hone in on others.

Last week in a Memphis magazine I got at Kroger, there was a touching interview with our Police Chief, Toney Armstrong. He had promised his momma to return home after his stint in the military, which he did, and he went to college and became a police officer. He describes policemen as the people who, hearing about a man with a gun endangering others, rush to the danger to protect and serve. Toney Armstrong is a Black man. He is also a "Blue" man.He lives in both worlds.

The narrative of his article was police man as protector and friend. It is the narrative I learned as a child. My grandma and mom told me, "if you are ever in trouble find a policeman." I grew up waving to police as they drove by, something I continue to do this day. This does not mean that I haven't had negative experiences. It does not mean that data about police corruption, police abuse and other problems are not part of my mental model. It means that I tend to assume cops are good guys, even if some do bad things. It means that my assumption is innocent until proven guilty. Now all cops are not good guys, some cops are actually bad guys and even the best cops do bad things. In other words, there is lots of evidence which negates my thesis that the police are heroes. It is the problem with summary statements and generalities.

There is a cop in my parish. He has told me stories about his experiences. What they deal with on  a daily basis (for what is hardly a lot of money) is pretty awful. I love the guy for his faith and courage and treasure his friendship. I also know that relationship reinforces my assumptions.

There are other narratives. Each is the narrative of people with different assumptions based on different experiences. These narratives are also valid. Some children are taught "the police want to shoot you, so do not give them an excuse." We need to hear those from the perspective of another.

Politics and beliefs enters in as well. One's view of social authority and personal rights are part of the discussion. What is the cost of safety? And there is also the problem of thinking things are much easier than they really are (why didn't they just "XYZ" instead of what they did?).

It is why we hear some complain, "another racist cop executes an unarmed Black child" on the one side, while another is "huge thug robs store, assaults small employee, disrupts traffic, assaults cop before being shot and killed." It is why some make up their mind when they heard about what happened, before getting any information. They question the reliability of the witnesses whose stories do not support their preferred narrative. And race is a factor but it is not determinative. I listened to two Black men on a Black radio talk show who said things I very much agreed with. Ironically, when I write those things a white man says it is because I am afraid of black people and a racist. So where is the truth? The truth is our narratives are helpful but reality does not fit our story lines. The truth is there is blame to go around for the WHOLE mess of racial conflict.(as for the particular event, let me make clear, I do not know exactly what happened and I am not on the grand jury) The truth is that it is there are things each of us can do differently to prevent tragedies.At least most of the time. The truth is the truth is hard to come by, in part, because it messes up the clarity of our own narratives.   

So perhaps we need to ask "what are my narratives?" What are the stories which guide my hearing and inerpretting?

I think praying for peace and justice is a better use of time than arguing.
I think nurturing loving relationships with "the other" (of all different classifications) humanizes the debates.
I think knowing what our narrative is helps us to see our assumptions/prejudices.
I think listening empathetically to the narratives of others can broaden our perspectives.
I think some problems are bigger than us, and we need saving.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff, bless your heart, your posts certainly remind the reader unavoidably of the words of the Savior himself. As I read your interesting thoughts, I was struck by the applicability of Matthew 23:24, which could pretty well be an epigraph for your whole post.

    More specifically, after reading the warning in your post that we should not generalize, but then reflecting that this whole discussion began precisely because you yourself are perfectly happy to generalize about blacks, I was reminded of yet another passage: Matthew 7:5.

    Finally, I think of Matthew 18:3 when I read the childlike wonder with which you seem to seize on the most creative connections between apparently dissimilar stories. I've already noted how I visited St. Andrews a couple of years ago and was treated to a sermon on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Last winter, you posted on this blog to the effect that the movie "Saving Mr. Banks," about the making of "Mary Poppins," was a wonderful foundation for interpreting scripture. Last week, you assured us that the story of Stephen the Martyr held the key to this whole thing, and this evening, it's King Arthur and his knights. I'm not sure that this is quite what Jesus meant when he spoke of becoming like a little child, but all I can say is that if you ever discover Marvel Comics, your parish had better watch out, because you'll have sermons and Bible studies enough to last a lifetime!

    Meanwhile, I am forced to wonder about the operation of a mysterious Providence that I don't believe in. What are the odds that, right after reading your interesting analysis, I would click on a link purporting to be reflections on Ferguson by a veteran black policeman? That's so startling, it might be taken to be the will of God, if there were one--but then, maybe it's just a temptation from the evil one--who am I to say?

    Anyway, for anyone who cares to read it, here is a lengthy and very blunt post, picked up by Daily Kos, written by a poster who calls himself "Militant Apathy," and he must be real--I mean, if "Militant" isn't a typical first name for a black man, I don't know what is--right, Jeff? Anyway, anyone reading this can click the link to go to his profile, if they wish.

    Since you have a parishioner who is a policeman, you might care to direct his attention to this as well, Jeff, if he isn't reading your interesting blog already. Of course he may read it and tell you the poster is full of baloney. But I found it informative.

    Speaking of baloney, I regret that the post contains three or four instances of four-letter words. The man could have made his point without them, but then, as you've already explained, Jeff, cops get exposed to things the rest of us don't. Besides, unfortunately, in Ferguson, they don't really get to skip "the yucky parts of the story," the way you do in Collierville.