By Duane Toops
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Religion and a Masters degree in Humanities. Starting an essay with such a douchey declaration says many things about me, some of which are true, and some which, I hope, are not, but still might be. It says that on at least two separate occasions I failed to take the advice of those who suggested that it would be a good idea to play it safe and major in something practical, which, apparently, also says that I don’t listen and I like to learn the hard way. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Twice as a little boy I failed to heed the advice of those who told me that it was neither safe, nor a good idea, to run full throttle through my grandparents kitchen while wearing tread-bare cowboy boots. Twice I was bested by the same linoleum floor and the same sharp corner of the same kitchen countertop. Twice I busted my head open in the same exact manner, under the exact same conditions, and almost in the exact same spot. And, now that I’ve retold that story I’m realizing that back to back head trauma explains so much about me, and the person I’ve become.
Bringing up my academic credentials also says that my debt-to-income ratio is severely disproportionate. When faced with a mountainous collection of student loans, one soon discovers that karma may be a bitch, but Credit Karma is a real mother fucker. In many ways, attaining degrees in Religion and/or Humanities is like becoming an honorary monk. When one takes a certificate in one or both of these fields of study, one is implicitly and simultaneously taking vows of poverty and celibacy, as the acceptance of such credentials means that one is wholly unlikely to ever make money or to ever get laid. In this case, if one can beat the odds , find a way to pay their bills, and can manage to find a companion, then one can safely assume that that’s just about as good as its ever going to get.
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But, what my diplomas in both Religion and Humanities also mean is that for most of my adult life I have been found pouring over sacred texts and literary tomes. I’ve devoted myself to the words, books, and writings of saints, poets, prophets, teachers, philosophers, novelists, and theologians. I’ve lived in the light of letters and language; the language of holy writ and the language of heretical heathens. I’ve spent my life in the service of stories; both sacred and secular. In fact, the lines dividing the two have gotten increasingly blurry for me over the years, if not outright indistinguishable. I revel in the aesthetic symbolism, imagery, and metaphor laden language of sacred texts as though they were secular literature. And I read secular literature with the same degree of devotion and reverence given to a sacred text.
In both cases, it is story that matters most. It is story that reigns supreme.
Brian Greene explains that “we are a species that delights in story. We look out on reality, we grasp patterns, and join them into narratives that can captivate, inform, startle, amuse, and thrill”. Story sits at the heart of what it means to be human, and “without our stories”, says Neil Gaiman, “we are incomplete”.
We are bigger than our stories, yes, but our stories are also bigger than us. We are bound to them and brought together by them.
Stories are vehicles of veracity. As such, Gaiman goes on to say that, “writers…have an obligation…to write true things.” A storyteller is a truth-teller, but it is a truth of a different kind, perhaps, a truth of a deeper kind, a truth not contingent upon history, literalness, or facticity, but upon meaning. Perhaps, it is a deeper and more profound understanding of the meaning of truth. This way of understanding truth, according to Gaiman, says that “truth is not in what happens, but in what it tells us about who we are.” Thus, a teller of stories is the upholder of a sacred, albeit unspoken, oath, an oath to deliver us to a deeper sense of ourselves, and a vow to draw us closer into the radical reality of our alive-ness. Stories and storytellers reveal to us the inner reservoir of truth and meaning that are constantly flowing in us, throughout us, and all around us.
When we are engrossed within the fictive unfolding of a story, we are pulled out of the normative patterns of daily living and drawn into what seems to be a suspension of “reality”. And yet, somehow, on the other side of our literary meandering we emerge to find the radicality of our realness more fully realized.
We read stories of the fantastical, stories of miracles, signs, and wonders, because the truest parts of ourselves need to be reminded that life, itself, is always-already miraculous, that being alive is always-already a supernatural event, and that every day, no matter how inane or unextraordinary, is a thinly veiled invitation into the wondrous and unimaginable marvels of what is and what can be. As G.K. Chesterton says, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”.
I think that this is especially true in the case of sacred literature. The writers of sacred literature have always been, first and foremost, storytellers. Their mission as storytellers was not to convey the historical occurrences of factual events, but, instead, to elucidate truth and meaning, and they understood that story was the best and most poignant means of doing so.
When it comes to sacred texts, we don’t know if any of the people depicted were really real, or if any of the events described really happened; more than likely, many weren’t and most didn’t, but to question their realness, their historicity, their factuality, misses the point almost entirely. The stories have always been true. Their validity is not based upon whether or not they happened once, their legitimacy is based on whether or not they still happen now. The story of the Buddha achieving Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree after overcoming the temptations of Mara probably didn’t happen. But, whenever we are desperate and exhausted in our quest to become better, and we find a way to stay grounded and to see through the illusions of our base desires, I know the story is true. I know that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection is true, not because I believe that it is possible for the dead to arise, but because I believe that cruelty and injustice do not get the last word in our stories. I believe that there is the possibility of new life waiting on the other side of trauma and suffering. I believe that redemption is real.
I believe in stories because I believe in the power of stories. I believe in our stories because I believe in the immense power of our shared story. But, perhaps even more so, I believe in stories because I believe that our story has not yet ended, that it is neither finished nor close to concluding. I believe in stories because I believe in the unfolding potency of the story that is still to come, because I believe that we still have truth to tell…