Life stories bring life

11 Aug

I’m reading the autobiogrpahy of Barry Jones (born 1932), called A Thinking Reed.
It’s interesting in a lot of different ways, and I think I will write several posts about it.
But first I want to note again the value of stories, and especially life stories—both in their own right, and for theology.
Life stories give life.

I begin with some of the key things I have written earlier, in my appeal to ‘bring back story’.

"I believe that the most effective way most
of us can read the bible and participate in some authentic faith is by
rediscovering the basic medium through which not only the faith but
almost everything in our lives is mediated to us, and that is through
story."
"We need a theology not of words and doctrines, but a theology of story.
It is through a theology of story that our faith – and we – can live."

"Very many cultures and religions around the world use stories like this
to shape their daily lives. Our stories help us to be, to know who we
are and where we belong."

"Jesus was a great story-teller: and the stories Jesus told are part of
a much greater story, which includes Jesus himself: a story which we
can tell – at least we can tell part of it, but like all great stories,
we find that in the telling, we discover that we are part of it: we tell
the stories and we find some orientation, some direction, some
belonging.
As we tell the story we discover that God, the story, is including us
in the story: our life together is rekindled: we come alive again."

At the most basic level, the Christian ‘story’ is also a life-story. It is primarily about the life and destiny of a particular person, and the ways that person’s life and destiny affects and transforms other people’s life-stories.

Biographies can have this power: first, in some sense to gather us into their story, but in so doing also to open up our own stories, to new possibilities and directions. Biographies can inspire and motivate. They can teach us fundamental values, both positively and negatively. We can learn what to aim for, or what to avoid. Life stories can fire the imagination.

From Barry Jones’ story, I will just now illustrate with one small reference. The first chapter, which actually I found the least interesting so far, is about his childhood. The future quiz champion, brilliant teacher, scholar, and politician, a truly great Australian intellectual, experienced a quite unusual childhood. He lived in many  places, as his parents lived in an uneasy separation.
Children so often assume that their home situation is ‘normal’, so Barry simply learned to be content with what was around him.  He developed his own interests and related to those people who loved him and taught him, unaware that he was a remarkably intelligent child.

So, now late in his life, Jones reflects on this childhood: "I was often disappointed but never traumatised as a child, but certain patterns emerge: remoteness from my parents and their generation, affinity with Victorian relics, a certain isolation, reliance on my own resources (but without boredom), indifference to sport, a feeling for the numinous, and preference for female company.

    I came to feel that I had invented myself, with my dark bedroom as my base, library, laboratory, art gallery and music room with a mother who seemed not to be interested … and a father who wasn’t there. I lived, vicariously, through books, film, radio and newspapers, in the world of words, facts, images and deep, if repressed, feelings. I was old before my time."

Jones goes no to say that after he had seen Shakespeare’s Hamlet he felt as if parts of the play were lodged in his head, and especially the soliloquies played themselves over and over. He knew lots of it by heart, and the existential power of the question, ‘To be or not to be’ was a constant challenge. Then he  adds, I think rightly, ‘This phenomenon may have been commonplace for boys of a narcissistic tendency as they experienced feelings of isolation, rage, frustration, impotence and impatience.’

Jones’ story is unique. Yet one can immediately identify with crucial elements of it. It invites similarity and contrast, and thus one can immediately learn from it. I too learned large slabs of Hamlet. My family situation was quite different, and I could never claim half the intelligence and interests of this great man. Yet I found myself instantly identifying with some of his experiences and therefore able to learn from others.

Life stories give life: they invite us to know ourselves and to consider how things are and how they might be. And they give hope, the courage to embrace those possibilities.

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