Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Stories

Today, across the Christian world, people are celebrating the story of a baby boy, born in a barn, who went on to walk on water, turn water into wine, heal the sick and rise from the dead. They are celebrating as they have done for centuries - exchanging gifts, giving alms, going to church, eating and drinking. Or, in the case of the six year old boy sitting in the pew in front of me during mass, playing with their new plastic figurines of dragons and three headed snakes.

The, rather pagan, death match that seemed to be taking place between the snake and the dragon while the priest droned on about the miracle of Bethlehem, got me thinking from a child's eye view about stories. Earlier in the week I'd had a conversation with two psychologists about whether or not children can, from a cognitive point of view, deal with multiple stories. But they do so all the time. The story of a baby born in a manger who came to save the world nestles effortlessly next to the fable of a man who travels around the world in one night delivering toys to kids, which itself seems no more preposterous or believable than the tales of a sea sponge who lives in a place called Bikini Bottom (this is a reference to SpongeBob SquarePants for those who dont have under age siblings/cousins/a predilection for kid's cartoons). Children, without any difficultly or fuss, can do two things that adults struggle with; they believe in stories and they believe in many stories at the same time.

As we grow up, both of these abilities come under sustained attack. Santa is unmasked as an illusion, the stories of the Bible/Torah/Koran/Ramayana etc become quite preposterous by the light of rational day and books and films are clearly delineated into categories based on the degrees to which they relate to reality; fiction, non-fiction, based on true events. The lines harden between what is credible and what is not and jumping the fence, beyond rationality, requires faith. And in most cases sustaining that faith requires denying all other stories in their claims to validity. It is as though the leap required is so onerous that it simultaneously demands closing down on all the other alternatives.

These thoughts were mulling around my head when later, after a lot of secular materialism and frankly pagan eating, I watched 'The Nativity Decoded' - a programme on Channel 4 which promised to extricate fact from fiction in the story of Jesus's birth. Robert Beckford (who should never have cut his hair) pitted slightly sardonic historians against rigid representatives of the church. The former pointed to a more historically probable version of events (that included Mary being raped by a Roman soldier and Jesus being born at home in an underground area in Nazareth surrounded by women rather than wise men), while the latter defended the fluffier, more benign and mythic version that is re-enacted in schools at this time of year.

Many programmes and books of late have taken this line and the ammunition of the atheist is generally that there is no evidence and thus it is just a story. But, as any six year old with a plastic dragon will tell you, stories are all we have. The material and its meaning are different things and to link the two we need narratives. But equally, to prevent those stories from ossifying they must be recognized as such; stories - not literal truths but expressions thereof - allowed to evolve, open to reinterpretation and most importantly of all, not exclusive in their claims to meaning. This isn't something we need to teach children - it is something we could learn from them. Many stories, one world. And - note to Vatican - when the old story gets a bit boring, introduce a three headed snake into the equation.


Paul said...

So let me tell you about my yearly visit to the church. I went with my folks to the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir Mass. It was packed out and the festive mood was distinctly non ecumenical.(whatcha you think of that word Michelle? I had to try something after adding extricate, predilection and ossifying to my good-word list. All my Father Ted watching is useful for something after all) ;)
The priest was completely upstaged by the live band and choir complete with drums. At the end of the mass there was a rapturous applause and it felt like I'd been more at a rock concert than anything which resembled the Masses of my youth. During breaks in songs the priest addressed the congregation. One message was covertly directed towards the gay community and the priest seemed to be apologising for the garb the Pope had been spouting recently (fair play). The next tale about greed and the recession that it has caused rung a little more hollow. Maybe I'm just too cynical about these things but the church reaching out to it's lost flock just smacked of exploitation of people on hard times. I think if Father Ted was still running all the Priests on Craggy would be sporting T-Shirts like "Roll on the Recession" and "Jesus likes you Poor".
It all ended on a high note though because I'd forgotten my favourite response in Mass and something which makes my smile every time I say it. As is traditional the Priest concluded with "The Mass has ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord"


Merry Christmas All.

Jenny SS said...

Oh no I think I'm going to destroy the festive mood by inputting some boring psychology research findings.

I'll do it quickly and then run:

- There's a new and growing field of research into what makes narratives cognitively attractive to the mind, culminating in the idea that they need to be a little bit whacky (e.g. walking on water, travelling to all the world's kinds in one night), in order to be interesting, but not so whacky (Jesus being an octopus and Santa still being a dragon) as not to be coherent according to, and thus encoded as part of, our current knowledge schemas. There are exceptions, and I'm not totally onside, but cognitive anthropologists (Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Justin Barrett) have gone a long way to give insight into why it is that the world's god concepts conform to a surprisingly limited template, or why it is that some of Grimm's fairytales survived and others didn't.

- Stories such as these can be held in their multitudes, theoretically constrained only by memory.

- Where the mind is likely to want only one story (and I speak as one of the psychologists who cornered Michelle in a pub that day), is in the domain of existential or moral tales. Here, because what is at stake is a manner of coping with existence, meaning, mortality and eternal suffering, the cognitive part of the mind gets mixed up with the emotional and unconcious parts, and a definite 'truth' is required. Certainly, this is the case as an infant, when our brains or egos haven't developed to the stage where the consideration of the subjectivity and contingency of such 'truths' is no longer a cognitive impossibility, or an identity threat, respectively. As we get older, more cognitively sophisticated and more in control of our chosen identities, we are meant to be more ready for this challenging (hence the importance of adolescence, and then university education).

This leads into a whole discourse of explaining extreme violence as a reaction to the challenging of unitary existential truths by nasty post-modernity and its multiple narratives, and the colonialist implication that societies and cultures that have not matured to the stage of being ok with multiple narratives about existence are those from which terrorism springs. Sadly, this is what is expected, and being delivered, by my discipline to my employers.

Though we have biological evidence for child development, it would be heinous to look for it for 'culture development'.