“Once upon a time…”, the familiar phrase introduced to us in childhood lets us prepare ourselves bodily and dispositionally for an anticipated tale. It’s a deeply embedded cue to listen attentively and engage your imagination. Narrative and imagination go hand-in-hand. We visualise places we’ve never been and form emotional ties to characters that don’t exist anywhere but the page. We root for a protagonist and empathise with their suffering. When they encounter a problem we feel that we are right there with them. When they overcome what seemed like impossible odds we feel joy and exhilaration. When we finish reading, listening or watching a well told tale, the story leaves its mark on us. The seeming ubiquity of storytelling as a method of enculturation hints at narrative being one of those demarcating features of humankind even if the cultural content varies.
Whether we intend it or not, stories are a means by which children acquire an understanding of the cultural norms in their society and build up a picture of how the world works. Except good doesn’t always triumph over bad, big romantic gestures don’t magically fix relationships and wishing on a star can’t make a person from a puppet. It turns out that narratives are not a great source of accurate, dispassionate fact. We ought to learn when stories bump up against contrary experiences that they often fail to reflect reality, yet the influence of some stories is difficult to shake. When I was a student for example my class discussed the “one true love” notion of romance that figures quite prominently in fiction. Despite virtually everyone recognising the fallacy of this idea both from experiential and logical perspectives, many were unable to resist its emotional appeal.
Narratives are not just mechanisms for distributing culture. Stories help us to make sense of our place in the world. This happens in the telling, reflecting on and retelling of many short stories about ourselves. The tone of the tale shifts depending of who you’re telling and how you feel. In the case of introspection the audience is yourself. The role of narrative in the construction and affirmation of identity is nowhere more clear than where there is a shift in identity. Take for example a religious transformation in a person. When an individual has undergone a religious change an historicising of the self often occurs. A person reflects upon their past and evidence is identified that affirms the transition that has taken place. These artefacts of their history are narrativised and become some of the many anchoring points in their changing identity. This is not to imply that there’s something synthesised or fake about about their identity. These are real events in a person’s life as interpreted by the person. What this sheds light on is that identity is not the sum of one’s experiences but is deeply connected to key points in one’s life. In other words, identity doesn’t necessarily relate the facts of a person’s experiences but the stories they tell communicate something about who they are at a point in time.
A good example of the role of narrative in religious identity can be found in a video interview of Richard Dawkins by Howard Conder for Revelation TV*. In the interview (29:25-41:43) Conder describes some key moments in his religious life that for him lend weight to his beliefs. As with any collective, religions have in-group narratives. Where a person aligns with and/or wishes to be accepted by a collective, they’ll deploy narratives that are consistent with the group. Conder’s anecdote includes themes around initial scepticsm, submitting to the will of God, experiencing physical manifestations of the spiritual, others witnessing immaterial phenomena and a miracle of someone rising from the dead. These are all themes that are consistent with his religion’s in-group narratives and hold credibility in that context. I’m not suggesting that Conder was lying about his experiences but rather that he had experiences in a religious context, that were interpreted through his understanding of his in-group’s religious narratives and he consequently attached special significance to these. In the same sense that alien abduction stories, ghost sightings or accounts of spirit channelling tell us something about the teller rather than something about the world, Conder’s story is about his beliefs.
What I’ve tried to convey very briefly is that narrative plays a significant role in distributing culture and constituting identity but is not a particularly accurate way of describing or explaining the world. Narratives have patterns and structures that are not necessarily a good match with the way things happen or work and are susceptible to nuance and emphasis. Even when we can see that a message conveyed through a narrative poorly reflects our experience we can be coerced by our feelings or our sense of belonging. Is it any wonder why some people feel under attack when religious claims are challenged if their identity is wrapped up with beliefs that underpin those claims? The more a person’s identity is anchored to experiences that are narrativised to give religious significance, the more the integrity of their personhood depends on the defence of their religion.
*I was hoping to link to the original video but was unfortunately unable to find it on the Revelation TV YouTube channel.