Many people consider Ernest Hemingway to be the gold standard for fiction. One of the distinctives of his writing is simple and clear prose. Friends, who knew how much he despised flabby and florid writing, once challenged him to write a story using only six words.
He accepted the challenge and wrote “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
If you have a pulse, those six words should stop you in your tracks. You have just been arrested by the power of story.
Producers and Curators
A story is a like a seed. It carries a power which is mysterious, potent and continuing. When it falls into the ground of a human mind, it takes on a life of its own. That’s why the classic stories – from “The Prodigal Son” to “Treasure Island” – have been told in every culture and time since their first telling.
It’s not even essential to fully understand the stories. Their power is not dependent on us anyway. Family stories should just be told well and often and, thereby, planted in the soil of family culture.
Eugene Peterson says “we live in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting ‘truths’ from the stories we read: we summarize ‘principles’ that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a ‘moral’ that we can use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk.”
I think part of what Peterson is telling us is: When it comes to stories, we have the choice to become either a producer or a curator. Producers clean the story up, polish it and shape it into something – a song, a play, a novel or a sermon – which will satisfy a market or a need. In other words, they turn it into a product. So, they extract or emphasize what will serve that purpose.
On the other hand, curators have a much greater depth of respect for the story and knowledge of its true value. They know the story is not a product. They also know it has no responsibility to us; we have a responsibility to it! Curators want to preserve it exactly as they found it. And, they care about its safety and survival.
So, for them, the challenge is to just find the right setting to display it. They are focused on passing it on intact to future generations.
I encourage everyone to respect their stories. Handle them carefully and lovingly. Don’t paint or polish them. Don’t turn them into outlines or sermon notes. Just as Jesus did, let them do their own work and deliver their own lessons.
What About Your Stories?
Some people love stories…as long as they belong to someone else. They are simply too scandalized by their own life and heritage. They may be totally ashamed of the family culture of alcoholism, gambling, debt, drugs, illicit sex or other transgressions.
But, we cannot choose our family stories anymore than we can choose our ancestors.
Our family stories carry the imprint of God’s destiny and love. When we back up and look at the whole panorama of our ancestors’ lives – including the sin and shame – we can often discover the threads of our life’s tapestry. We can see the shimmering cords of love and protection which run through our history.
For example, my maternal grandfather was a moonshiner. As a result of his clandestine career, he spent time with law enforcement officers and as a “guest” in their facilities. Naturally that was traumatizing to his family.
The whole family moved (suddenly and in the middle of the night) from Missouri to Kansas. The complete story of this quick relocation is murky, but apparently had something to do with Grandpa avoiding prosecution.
After they were settled in Kansas, their daughter, Mary, met a new friend. And that girl had an older brother named Jack. Eventually, Mary and Jack met. They were married in 1944. I was their first child.
So, a man fleeing the law is a crucial part of my biography. This story sure isn’t scandalous to me; I love it and celebrate it – I wouldn’t be here if grandpa hadn’t been “called” to the moonshine business (and quickly called to jump across the nearest state line).
Is it possible that God has a different view of family and heritage than we do? Could that be why the Bible contains some very nasty stories – like adultery and murder – in the lineage of Jesus?
Sometimes people allow shame or ignorance or even political correctness to “improve” or “air brush” family stories. But doing so can rob the story of its unique gift to the future. I know for a fact that “the real story” carries enormous power on future generations.
My grandpa’s story may have appeared as “sin” or “a crime” to those who were immediately impacted by it. But, over time and in the hands of a loving God, the story has become a prized family heirloom.
Keep Faith with the Story
I do not like most modern formulas for telling stories. They tend to be too cold, mechanical, rigid, controlling or product-driven. They focus on issues like the audience, the message you want to leave, what the storyteller wants the audience to do and the importance of having “a beginning, a middle and an end,” etc.
All of those may be fine, but they are “producer” issues.
A curator approaches a story differently:
- Know the story.
If there are audio or video tapes of the ancestral stories being told, watch or listen to them over and over. If you can find newspaper articles or other written records, make copies and read them over and over. And keep them in protected places.
Ask the living participants to tell you the stories. Ask them again. Next year, ask them to tell it again. Listen to the way they tell it, watch what happens in their eyes and to their mouths when the story comes out. How has the story changed since you heard it last? Why did it change?
- Love the story.
Even if the story contains details of darkness or corruption, try to see it from a higher vantage point. What was God accomplishing through that story? How was your own life assisted, improved or even made possible by that story?
Love the whole story – honor God and your ancestors by learning to love it. Don’t react to the negative aspects of the story. Again, remember the genealogies recorded in the gospels. Apparently God didn’t flinch at any details of his own canonized family stories.
- Tell the story.
Don’t tell the story you wish had happened or that contemporary society would prefer. And don’t tell a sermonized version. Keep faith with the real story. Moses told the story of the great father of faith – Abraham – offering his own wife, Sarah, sexually to Pharaoh. A religious mind might have expunged that from the “holy book.” But Moses kept faith with the story.
Your story is a conduit of the marvelous spiritual “estate” which flows down to you across the centuries. Protect it from the ravages of time and culture; tell it exactly as it was given to you.
Release its power to others in, and beyond, your own time.
Ed Chinn is an organizational consultant and freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas (firstname.lastname@example.org). His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, OpinionJournal.com, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), p. 48