© Rex A E Hunt
National Director of Communications,
Uniting Church in Australia
Presented to the Third Christianity and Communication Conference, "Faith, story and community" held in June 1993, at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA.
Published in Proceedings... Faith, story, and community. (1993). (Ed). H. M. Sterk, W. Thorn. Marquette University. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
"PLEASE TELL US YOUR STORIES": REIMAGINING THE 'POETIC' IN RELIGIOUS COMMUNICATION
During his 1990 Edward Cadbury Lecture given in the University of Birmingham (England), Brazilian Rubem Alves told a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a sea-side village.
There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral.
As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger. He was tall... and would have had to bend his head to enter their houses; his voice... was it like a whisper or like thunder; his hands... they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman's body.
The women laughed
"and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning, ashes becoming fire, forbidden desires emerging to the surface of their skins, their bodies alive again..." (Alves 1990:23).
The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have. "And they thought about the dreams they had never had..." (Alves 1990:23).
Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.
At this point of the story, offered here in outline only, Alves asks:
"Did you understand the story? I hope not. If you did it is because you have succeeded in digesting it. But stories are like poems; they are not to be understood. Something which is understood is never repeated. Understanding exhausts the word. It leaves the word empty with nothing left to be said. Once the word is understood it is reduced to silence. "But a story is like a sonata, a love embrace, a poem, a sunset: we want them to be repeated, because their savor is inexhaustible" (Alves 1990:23 -24).
Most of us left behind the storied approach to life along with bedtime stories, preschool innocence and other so-called childlike activities. "We have lost touch with the intuitive, imaginative, and concrete dimensions which inform story." In their place we have "crossed the threshold into adulthood to more logical, didactic ways of making sense of the world..." (Kidd 1989:21).
Five years earlier, in 1985, the Journal of Communication published a thematic feature called 'Homo narrans: Storytelling in mass culture and everyday life'. That feature consisted of six major articles from academics working in the area described as narrative communication.
Six major articles which to my mind were designed to enhance the academic legitimacy of narrative inquiry and indicate its current trends. But six major articles which approached narrative from the mode of rhetoric and as an alternative to the assumed dominant mode - poetic.
Briefly, let me present the distinction I have already implied between rhetoric and poetic, as offered by the writers of one of those articles - John Lucaites and Celeste Condit. And then allow me to offer a suggestion as to why I believe religious communication in the 1990s needs to reclaim... even give an advantage to, the poetic narrative rather than other modes.
However, I hope this will not be perceived as just another territorial debate!
In their article, Lucaites and Condit suggest there are multiple forms and functions to narrative communication: poetic, dialectic and rhetorical.
The function of poetic is:
* the expression of beauty;
* the creation of a pleasurable or entertaining experience;
* invites multiplicity of potential interpretations (multivocal);
* its essential characteristic is form;
* there is no requirement that it be adapted to the needs of a specific audience.
The function of dialectic is:
* the discovery and presentation of a truth (univocal);
* to aspire to the status of fact;
* its essential characteristic is content;
* to seek to transmit knowledge and illuminate the factual nature of the universe.
Likewise, the function of rhetoric is:
* what persuasion achieves or the wielding of power;
* governed by its ability to prepare an audience for the proof of an argument;
* to invite only one interpretation (univocal);
* to encourage and enlist the audience's participation in any solution.
Lucaites and Condit outline a broad, inclusive narrative paradigm. It is my suggestion that a more limited appreciation of what should be called 'narrative' is really needed.
For I am not convinced it would be helpful to reconstruct a union between poetic and the other modes of communication - dialectic and rhetoric under some narrative megaparadigm - as suggested by some of the authors in the 'Homo narrans' feature, but principally by Walter Fisher (1985). This is despite my acceptance of the suggestion that human beings are primarily storytelling creatures, and that storytelling is a bedrock human activity (Shea 1982:23).
Neither am I convinced that narrative is necessarily grounded in ontology. Rather I would want to join the ranks of those who suggest it is more metaphorical - 'redescribing' the world.
I also wish to aline myself with those who suggest there needs to be a genuine separation between narrative - primary intuitive language as "redescribing reality", and rhetoric - secondary didactic language, which "aims at persuasion" (Ricoeur 1975:88) through argument.
Any link between rhetoric and narrative should go no further than acknowledging, as does French communications practitioner Pierre Babin, that both need to function in "stereo" - simultaneous but quite different (Babin 1991:182-184).
But he goes on to suggest that narrative/symbolic communication should have priority in an audiovisual or electronic media age because it represents the best way of 'arousing' peoples interiority.
Babin never argues that in such an age it is no longer necessary to analyse, define or rationalise. But he does suggest we should do away with the notion that the language of emotion and symbols constitute a second-rate form of communication.
"Quite the opposite", he writes,
"it is the language of the highest form of communication, used by sages and mystics. It is the language of the spirit superior to communication based on (second level) intellect" (Babin 1990:8)
"By giving preference to the language of receptivity and feelings, of great symbolic images, gesture and the voice we can dignify what is most important, namely, inner harmony rather than rationalism" (Babin 1990:8).
Jerome Bruner would, I believe, agree. Indeed he would appear to go further and suggest that while the rational and the narrative provide distinctive ways of ordering experience or constructing reality, the two are irreducible to one another.
"...(W)hat they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their
truth, stories of their lifelikeness" (Bruner 1986:11).
And then he goes on to suggest:
"It has been claimed that the one is a refinement of or an abstraction from the other. But this must be either false or true only in the most unenlightening way" (Bruner 1986:11).
And so I am suggesting religious communication should begin to reimagine the 'poetic'. Indeed, a new mode 'narrative/symbolic' should be introduced to the 'Homo narrans' conversation and it should replace that mode previously called 'poetic' - be it now in a slightly reimagined shape - thus emphasising its narrative nature.
Narrative/symbolic communication is genuine inquiry with an academic pedigree.
Narrative/symbolic communication and life go together. It has its origins in our experiences in dialogue with the natural world around us.
And narrative/symbolic communication...
• encourages reflection but is different from analytical, rationalistic thinking;
• is heuristic by nature, searching for likely accounts rather than definitions and conclusions;
• establishes an awareness of/communion with the world of the other rather than just seeking after/interpreting meaning;
• has potential to broaden human conversation by repudiating mere individualism, and
• is more faithful to the general shape of the religious tradition which is Christianity.
Perhaps some tentative and exploratory suggestions can give some clues and help to 'thicken' the shape and style of narrative/symbolic, acknowledging that these comments are more like a patchwork quilt than an Irish linen handkerchief.
(i) Encourages reflection which is different from analytical, rationalistic thinking.
It was process theologians Bernard Meland and Bernard Loomer - sometimes I feel unlikely candidates - who several years ago suggested there was a need for a different approach to orienting intellectual inquiry.
Bernard Meland, 40 years ago in one of his books on culture and appreciative awareness, suggested we needed to copy the orientation and concern of the creative artist as much, if not more so, the concern of the critic.
"Learning can be deepened and made more genuinely human as well as beneficial as a human act if it appropriates the procedures of both creative artist and critic. And I would urge that the weighting be on the former rather than on the latter..." (Meland 1953:81).
While Bernard Loomer, towards the end of his life, along with confessing to "increasingly moving in the direction of stories rather than the explication of stories", wrote it was better to listen and to analyse than to argue and counter-argue point for point.
"...(T)o hear the other out to let the other be, to help the other become even greater than he is. To do this without fear, without being insecure, without feeling threatened... to provide the conditions and atmosphere by which that other person in his point of view can become more fully what he is to become" (Loomer 1976:72)
was a sign of the strength and stature "of a person's soul".
While criticism and comment may come as part of the conversation, both will come later. But then the criticism is likely to be quite different:
"... by that time you will be addressing quite a different individual, and you, yourself, doing the addressing will be quite a different individual, because you cannot I think, deeply live with another without having that other become part of the very fiber of your being" (Loomer 1976:72).
It is not that an emphasis on rationalistic thinking is 'bad' or unimportant. It is, as John Westerhoff (Westerhoff 1979) has reminded us, that this emphasis has "contributed to the demise of intuition" and thus "the sickness of the spiritual life".
"A metaphorical, poetic, symbolic, mythical relationship to God is always prior to any signative, conceptual, analytical explanation... For too long we have attempted to understand reality solely through reason and have forgotten the importance of symbolic narrative, metaphor, and the sacred story" (Westerhoff 1979:20, 23).
(ii) Likely accounts rather than definitions and conclusions.
Narrative/symbolic communication is heuristic by nature. Because it is multivocal or "wholespeak" rather than univocal or "narrowspeak" (Kelly 1990:18 -22), it is less prone to offer conclusions of so-called certainty.
Instead it suggests "likelihoods", attempts to "remain open-ended" and uses "consensus" rather than logic and validity (Polkinghorne 1988:175 -76). It is an attempt to keep the conversations going rather than closing them down.
"I am not after conclusions", writes Rubem Alves. "Conclusions are meant to shut... Every conclusion brings the thought process to a halt" (Alves 1990:9).
" ...I no longer deal with words as 'things to be used'. I deal with them as 'things to be enjoyed'. I am no longer a teacher. I try to be a poet. My words are not addressed to the brain. They are addressed to the body" (Alves 1990:10).
The consequences of this then are likely to be at least two-fold.
(a) The so-called bottom line to narrative/symbolic is not 'understanding' but 'awareness'. 'Understanding' has more to do with 'ideas' and getting to the truth of the matter; 'awareness' is more to do with 'experience' and is more tentative and receptive to further experience and inquiry.
(b) Our lives are made up of not just one orienting 'story' but a bundle of half-finished 'stories'. Radical British theologian Don Cupitt's comment is very suggestive:
"... the reality the stories produce is an arena over which different stories struggle for supremacy, a space in which different people are attempting in their various ways to make their own lives make sense... To learn all about this is to learn a practical wisdom of life - and that is what stories teach" (Cupitt 1991:21).
"... our life is only a bundle of stories, mostly half-finished. We are and will for the most part remain a lot of loose ends. We need to accept this and not try to conceal it or escape from it" (Cupitt 1991:153).
(iii) Establishes awareness of/communion with the world of the other rather than just seeking after/interpreting meaning.
This can be expressed with more than one shade of tone.
I do not know how many times it has been on television (in America), but Bill Moyers' series of programs with Joseph Campbell has had several airings in Australia - both on television and radio.
In the program 'Myth and the modern world', Campbell offers what I feel are memorable words. When prompted by Moyers who wants to imply that myths are stories of our search for meaning or significance, Campbell replies by saying people are less interested in the meaning of life than in the experience of living, in the experience of aliveness.
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive" (Campbell 1988:5).
To this extent narrative/symbolic is in sympathy with Campbell's 'rapture'.
Meanwhile, in one of his latest books, Fire in the belly, Sam Keen tells of the formation of a Wednesday night men's group which grew out of a chance meeting in a coffee shop by two of them.
The group, he recalls, began in desperation and loneliness. But before long,
"between the caffeine and the conversation we were wrapped in a warm cocoon that felt suspiciously like the missing intimacy we had been searching for with women" (Keen 1991:175).
Following that first meeting the two of them concluded they should "do this more often". But not only that they each knew other men who they thought would like to join. Thus began their men's group.
Over the years others joined their group, while many outside the group commented on the profound effect the group was obviously having on its members. Several asked about what they did that was so powerful. Keen suggests:
"The superficial answer is that we don't do anything except talk about the things that matter the most to us, and listen to each other. We laugh a lot. We challenge each other. But a more profound answer is that almost by accident we discovered the missing ingredient that is as necessary to the health of the male psyche as vitamin C is to the health of the body - the virtue of community" (Keen 1991:176).
Keen not only discovered but established an environment where the "wounds of the warrior psyche" could be healed. But then in a comment which is important in my own research experience, he says:
"... I have learned that men's loneliness is a measurement of the degree to which we have ignored the fundamental truth of interdependence. In devoting ourselves to getting, spending, and being entertained, we simply forget that we inevitably feel alienated when we do not live within a circle of friends, within the arms of the family, within the conversation of a community. There is no way we can recover a secure sense of manhood without rediscovering the bonds that unite us to others and reaffirming our fidelity to the 'We' that is an essential part of 'I"' (Keen 1991:176).
(iv) Has potential to broaden human conversation by repudiating mere individualism.
Narrative/symbolic is not just about interpreting a meaning as if clarifying or understanding what the other was trying to say is the most important thing to happen in a conversation. It is also - perhaps more so - about creating an awareness of/communion with the experiences of the other, "appreciating the horizons within which the other lives, feeling empathy for the feelings that form part of the other's experience, (and) sensing the network of social relationships that support or bind the other" (King 1982:16).
I have found it very heartening to discover there is now a number of people who take seriously a narrative world view when analysing congregational life and structure. One such person, James Hopewell, found that by discovering and telling the stories of a congregation, that experience can "knit" individual members into larger wholes by beckoning them to "share a corporate life that challenges their excessively private identities" (Hopewell 1987:187).
Narrative/symbolic is also an antidote to those who wish to suggest that 'ideas' rather than 'creative imagination' is the bonding factor in group life. And for Amos Wilder creative imagination is not just some insipid thing, added to an experience like salt and pepper to a salad, but a necessary component of all profound knowing, remembering and celebrating (Wilder 1976:2).
(v) Is more faithful to the general shape of the religious tradition which is Christianity.
The religious tradition called Christianity, despite its rationalist tendencies, is a story-sharing religion. Its founder Jesus of Nazareth, was an experienced storyteller - part of Israel's long storytelling tradition. So too were many others in the early church.
In listening to and telling the stories of Jesus, the early Christians "made connections" between these stories and their own lives which "made clear to them how God was present" (Boomershine 1988:19).
But it would also appear that as the church expanded and came into contact with other cultures it adopted much of what it came into contact with. Despite the occasional 'rush of blood' type of reaction, like that which happened at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Canberra in 1991, following Chung Hyun Kyung's presentation on the theme, this process continues through to today.
In the area of education and public communication, for instance, originally there were few fresh starts. Instead the early church simply added their own specific religious training onto the already existing system. This system was heavily influenced by classical rhetoric. Subsequently, this form of communication influenced "life-styles" and "life processes".
So too with architecture. As with Jewish worship, the early Christians worshipped within a space similar to the Greek and Roman debating houses and law courts. It is rare for one to be able to find or hear of a surviving religious architectural style influenced by, for example, storytelling. Yet the act of telling and listening to stories is more faithful to the general shape of Christianity than persuasion by argument or creed or proposition.
Rare, but not impossible. Playing with some suggestions of Pierre Babin (1991:89 -90) let me offer some features of what a church shaped by 'storytelling' and 'narrative/symbolic' might feel like:
• the church is like a cellar;
• there would be reduced visibility, and areas of light and shade;
• light is by candles and votive lights;
• there's a sense of the mysterious;
• sound effects are important, especially rich harmonics;
• singing music is often repetitious;
• the musical instrument/s never dominants;
• atmosphere takes the place of explanation;
• participation is resonating with shared experiences.
What is communicated is not primarily information or problem solving or persuasion or psychological support; what is, is "the spirit that makes us live" (Babin 1991:95).
Maybe what comes closest to this suggestion is the Church of Reconciliation in Taize, France. Maybe there are others. I long for there to be so.
"I remember, long time ago..." writes Ruben Alves,
"I became a friend to a poet. And I brought my texts for him to read. 'Too much light', he remarked, as if his eyes had been hurt by clarity. 'Let's mix a bit of mist to your ideas, a bit of darkness to the argument a bit of blurriness to the contours... Don't you know that a clear idea brings the conversation to a halt, whereas one unclear idea gives wings to the words and the conversation never ends"' (Alves 1990:9).
Religious communication shaped by narrative/symbolic is an invitation rather than an argument. It respects all participants as being both capable of and having the right to, arrive at a conclusion which is their own. To hear their own stories coming from within.
It invites us to move beyond the question: 'How can we transform...?' as if that is something which can happen from without, to discover another: how to exist in it... (Hopper 1992: 40), how to resonate with, those self-purifying experiences that generate the power of transformation from within (Song 1992:38).
Ruben Alves placed the story of the dead man washed up on the shores of a sea-side village, in a lecture titled 'Silence'. The dead man said nothing. The villages could say nothing about him. Yet, Alves says, it was out of this silence that new words were heard.
"It seemed (the villagers) were telling stories about the dead man. But... the stories they told about the dead man were stories about themselves: their dreams being resurrected from the graveyard where they had been buried" (Alves 1990:34).
But what's this I hear? Voices. Loud voices.
A group of people approaching with lamps in one hand and cages in another.
'The truth', they cried out. 'We have found the truth about the dead man'.
But this is Ruben Alves' story, so I'll let him end his tale.
"'Please, tell us your stories', the villagers said to the newcomers... But they did not tell stories. They opened thick books, treaties, commentaries, confessions - the crystalized results of their work. And it is reported that as they spoke, the stars began to fade away till they disappeared, and dark clouds covered the moon. The sea was suddenly silent and the warm breeze became a cold wind... (Alves 1990:71).
It is not primarily or only the result of a misplaced, singular concern for conclusions or explanations or "formulas of great uniformity" (Babin 1991:29) which have limited our spiritual growth and crippled us as a people. It is more the downgrading, even the denial of the intuitive, the creative, the imaginative, the symbolic, the holistic.
Religious communication needs to overcome a long addiction to the discursive, the rationalistic, and the prosaic (Wilder 1976:1) if it is to survive in the audiovisual, electronic media age.
And as religious communicators we need to appreciate once again that human nature and human societies are more deeply motivated by stories and images than by argument and ideas.
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