The Eggplant – What’s Your Story?
Last month, our Diocesan summer camp, Camp Canterbury, gathered with a storytelling theme; through our worship, discipleship groups, and workshops, we practiced telling our own stories, listening to the stories of others, and connecting our stories with the great story of God’s relationship with creation. Of particular interest to me was the slam poetry workshop; the campers were invited to take a story (Biblical or otherwise) and write a poem imagining that story from the perspective of a non-speaking animal or object (the birth of Jesus from the donkey’s perspective, for example). I was struck when a couple of campers shared poems from the perspective of weapons in pop culture (a villain’s baseball bat and a hero’s lightsaber) and they instinctively observed that the inanimate object, not having to buy into its wielder’s story of good and evil, could question the morality of the killings it was executing.
Since then, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the degree to which our ethics are framed by the story we imagine ourselves living, and how a problem that seems to be a difficult ethical dilemma if you’re telling yourself one story becomes totally obvious if you think you’re in a different story. A good example of this is depicted in American Fable, a genre-defying 2016 film that recently showed up on Netflix. Set during the Reagan era in a depressed rural community, we enter the story from the perspective of Gitty, a farmer’s daughter with a fantastic imagination. While exploring the officially-off-limits silo at the edge of their property, she finds that it is occupied by a mysterious man. Based on a story he tells her, Gitty imagines the man as a wish-granting spirit, like a leprechaun or genie, and brings him food and books while he teaches her to play chess.
The viewer slowly discovers that, in her father’s story, the farm is failing, he is deep in debt, and he is working with a mysterious woman (who his daughter sees as a demonic figure riding around) in a desperate attempt to hold onto his property. At the woman’s behest, the farmer has imprisoned the man whose company is buying up farms in the region; when the man is ransomed, the woman will give the farmer the money he needs to keep going. As a viewer, it makes for an interesting ethical statement: in the abstract, hopefully all of us would consider holding another person against his will an immoral act, but the farmer clearly believes that he is doing right in causing the man minimal harm in order to protect his own property and family, and when we watch his story, we find ourselves sympathizing if not agreeing with the decision he made.
The movie then takes a turn when it comes out that Gitty has been talking to the captive, shattering the illusions that only the farmer and the mysterious woman know there’s someone in the silo and that the captive is ignorant of his captor’s identity. As the farmer agonizes over what to do, Martin (Gitty’s older brother) decides to take matters into his own hands: having been told by the mysterious woman that the world is divided into warriors and the weak whom the warriors defend, Martin decides that he must be a warrior, doing anything necessary to protect his family. In his story, all ethical dilemmas are framed and solved by determining which course of action best helps or least harms the family, without weighing other considerations.
American Fable truly impressed me as a film that allows the viewer to see how a complicated ethical challenge looks different when seen as part of three different stories: Gitty’s childish fantasy, the farmer’s desperate fight against economic problems, and Martin’s story of himself as a warrior. Within the children’s stories, the solution to the problem of the man in the silo is completely obvious even as each child is certain the other is wrong. For the farmer, the children’s black-and-white perspectives force him to consider his actions as told through stories other than his own.
Without delving too deep into the political weeds, I hope the implications for our national and religious lives are obvious: the story you imagine yourself in will dictate what you consider ethical responses to the problems we face. For example, if the story of America is the story of European Christians who left in order to freely practice their brand of Christianity, then it is ethical to suppress Islam in America. If the story of America is the story of enterprising Europeans who left in order to establish their own economic hegemony, then the preservation of that order becomes the highest good. If the story of America is the story of folks who truly believed in contrast to Europe that “all men are created equal,” then the moral thing to do is whatever opposes extant inequalities and expands the definition of men to cover all people living here.
The same thinking applies to Christianity. How do you understand the story of Jesus? Is it the story of an exemplary moral teacher? The story of the prophet of the end times? The story of a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin? The story of a movement that offers the only way for people to join God? The story of God telling us through Word and example that God is love and we are to love God and one another? The story of Jesus as you understand it will determine what you think the moral responses are to religious plurality, diversity of sexuality and gender, wars and rumors of wars, poverty, climate change, and other great issues of our times. And the different ways we understand the story of Jesus help explain the intractable differences between Christians over such issues.
I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love, and that of other ways to understand the story some are less wrong than others. But I’m not trying to make a polemical point as much as I am trying to encourage you to be aware of the stories you imagine yourself in as an individual, as an American, as a Christian, as a rancher, as a gunowner, as middle-class, as whatever. If you are conscious of the stories you tell yourself, and aware how your stories frame your ethical perspectives, then you can be more attentive to the stories of others, and thus see how the different stories suggest different moral actions. Maybe in doing so we will start to identify problems in our stories that lead us to take actions others find immoral, but at a minimum, God willing, all of us will be better able to exchange stories while acknowledging the full humanity of each storyteller.
The Rev. John Adams