by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford
I’m a great fan of the musical Hamilton, particularly (as a historian), its final song: ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, sung by Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza. Earlier in the story, she’d removed herself from his story by burning his letters to her. After his death, she ‘puts herself back in the narrative’, taking centre stage to tell his story. She then asks the audience ‘Have I done enough/Will they tell my story?’
This is the time of year when ‘The Christmas Story’ is told again.
Its popular version mixes the accounts of Matthew and Luke, with some later accretions from tradition. Hamilton reminds us that the power of stories depends on who tells them: ‘You have no control/Who lives, who dies, who tells your story’. That gives us a far richer understanding of the traditional Christmas story. Back in 1992, Richard A. Burridge wrote What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, reprinted with an extra chapter in 2004. Burridge, trained in Classics, used his knowledge of how ancient Greek and Roman ‘lives’ really worked to argue that the gospels were nothing like ‘biographies’ in the modern sense. Each gospel focuses on a different aspect of Jesus’s identity, so who ‘tells the story’ affects what we’re told. Understanding the focus of each gospel writer helps us see Jesus more clearly.
The power of stories is strong in Christian traditions which foreground the ‘testimony’, a story of ‘how God rescued you from sin and death through Christ, and changed your life as a result’, as one of the websites on how to structure one describes it here. Such first-hand stories also form part of the ‘wider participation’ aspect of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith process, which has been collecting the experiences of different individuals, aiming to present some of these in the final document or as videos. The LLF website states: ‘Our hope is that the stories that are entrusted to us are a means of conveying something of the wisdom we crave for exploring and discovering the mind of Christ regarding these fundamental aspects of our human existence.’ (my italics)
Who tells the story, here?
But I’m still uneasy about the authority that can be invested in such stories. ‘Entrust’ is an interesting choice of word, suggesting that the story is fixed and can be given to someone else to hold. I think a better model would be ‘construct’. We co-construct our stories with those to whom we speak. Someone has to select which stories to include. A video is a first-hand account, but directed, and edited.
I had some experience of this on my twenties, when I shared my own story with Shelagh Brown, a priest in my former diocese of Guildford. She probably found me through my General Synod membership; I spoke in a debate about sexuality, although not in the 1987 ‘Higton debate’. The result of our very enjoyable co-construction chat in her garden, on a sunny day over a huge bowl of cherries, was published in her book The Art of Being a Single Woman(1989). Shelagh wrote several other books, including Single (1971) and the edited Married to the Church? (1983). She also edited BRF’s New Daylight Bible reading notes – the first to include the Bible passage as well. She died in 1997 after falling downstairs as she ran to open the door to guests. When I think of her story, those cherries and the circumstances of her death combine to create a clear picture of a life focused on hospitality, but I’ve no idea how accurate that picture is.
What was my story, as told in that book?
Reading it now, it makes me cringe; although I’m sure Shelagh would have run the whole draft chapter past me. So, at that point, it was ‘true’ for me. But now, I don’t recognise that person I was, who was so positive about virginity and so keen to tie contemporary attitudes to sex to her academic research on the ancient Greek view that virginity damaged women’s health. From where I am now, I am sure that my enthusiasm for virginity reflected the unease I felt at that time about my body, not least because of severe endometriosis. 30 years on, married for 15 years, I just don’t recognise that upbeat person who apparently said, ‘I like the freedom to think about who I am, without having to support someone else who doesn’t know who he is!’ and ‘I don’t think that the person I’m looking for is ever going to turn up!’, although to be fair I have married a man who is very comfortable being himself. I don’t recognise that person who claimed that one thing she’d worked out about herself was that she was strong, but that it wasn’t always something she admitted because that is a masculine quality. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m strong, nor would I gender strength in that way.
The story I told isn’t one I would tell now.
Even when told by the person whose story it is, a story is told to a particular audience and to a particular end, and it represents just one moment in time. Giving stories weight, and fixing them in print or on video, risks missing the point that stories shift even if it’s you ‘Who tells your story’. Hearing a testimony may be powerful, but it is not all of a person’s story. ‘You have no control/Who lives, who dies, who tells your story’.
We are all works in progress.