Telling Stories

Sean Sanford[1]

In the The Storytelling Animal, author Jonathan Gottschall attempts the “first unified theory of storytelling.” His premise is that telling stories is what makes us human. Ancient Irish culture held tribal storytellers, the seanchaidhethe, in the highest regard, second only to chieftains. Jerome Bruner, a leading thinker in a branch of psychology that considers narrativity the lexus of identity, has written seminal articles including “Life as Narrative” and “A Narrative Model of Self-Construction.” Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and Paul Ricouer, some of the most influential philosophers of the modern era, have been called narrative theorists, locating personal and collective identity within narrative structures. If stories are not what makes us human, then certainly they are constitutive of our sense of self.

During my time in graduate school my research has principally become focused on the question of identity and how it is informed by narratives. This is not merely an academic exercise. It occurred to me some years ago that we make most of our choices based on stories. Each of us has a set of narratives from which we draw. Consciously or otherwise, we use them to make sense of our past, establish meaning in our present, and, ideally, articulate a vision for our future.  As social beings our stories are the “source material” of human relations. Consider how we teach children to communicate. We start with simple identifications and quickly begin to read them stories. These stories are not simply amusements. They convey moral lessons and imprint on the child a narrative structure which informs cognition for the remainder of their lives.

While all stories are not fiction, they are all created. Our narratives do not emerge from the void, absent context or history. Rather each of us has assimilated countless myths, memories, and anecdotes from families, extended communities, even popular culture. Narratives, while perhaps not fully determinative, are the bedrock of our subjectivity, our sense of self. I could not be me without the stories I have been told and continue to tell.

For some, this may be a perfectly obvious notion. For others, it may be less so (or even wrong-headed). Wherever you stand, it should not be hard for us to agree that stories are in the very least important to who we are and how we live. Jesus clearly thought so. Scripture scholars have written volumes on the purpose, structure, and meaning of the Gospel parables. Seeking to transmit divine truth to our mortal minds, the Son of God told stories. And it worked. While we may fail to live the ethical mandates therein, the parables have infused our cultural imagination. Idioms like “prodigal son”, “good samaritan”, or “lost sheep” are easily used by nonbelievers and believers alike.

I do not wish to imply that all stories are good or should be perpetuated. Postmodernity, that much contested, often reviled, and occasionally celebrated moment in history in which we find ourselves, has been marked by efforts to deconstruct narratives that serve to oppress or dominate. Narratives that perpetuate racism, sexism, greed, violence or homophobia (among others) are rightly exposed and the sins they spawn allowed to whither in the light of day.  Therapeutic processes have evolved to help individuals overcome the destructive stories that imbue the lives of too many of our sisters and brothers. Nonetheless, it has also been suggested that we live in a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to make meaning of our lives. The grand narratives of religion and nation have been undermined by the the revelation that they have been culpable for evil. How many people do you know who have struggled to remain faithful in the age of the sex-abuse scandal? Or have lost faith in the “American dream?”

Yet I truly believe we need to be able tell stories. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, film-makers, and poets – even the Harvard Business Review – recognizes the necessity of being able to narrate our lives.  Without stories we face a kind of existential despair. Each of us has heard someone say, “I don’t know who I am anymore” or “I have no idea what to do with my life.”  The dilemma, then, is to locate within our traditions, collective histories, and life experiences, stories that bear telling, that need to be told. We cannot simply throw out our past, nor should we. Among the greatest sins of the technology-age is failing to account for the wisdom of those who went before. The work now, as it was when Pope John XXIII called for aggiornamento over fifty years ago, is to tell the stories that affirm the goodness of God, the dignity of all creation and embolden us to be better than we are today. It is not a simple calling but it is vital nonetheless.

The community that comprises the Center for FaithJustice has struggled to tell a kind of story. We have never assumed it was the only story, but we have insisted it is a profoundly important one. While I cannot speak for all the women and men who make up the CFJ family, I believe the basic gist of our story is that God desires of us to seek justice. We tell this story based on our reading of the Scriptures, meditation on the life of Christ, and reflection on the faithful who have come before us. Our narrative is rooted in the wisdom and graces discovered within our tradition and the community into which it initiated us. Though justice can be a tricky idea, it is revealed in the story; a vision of creation, the Kingdom of God, wherein all people regardless of color, creed, gender, sexuality or ability are treated with dignity and given the opportunity to achieve the fullness of life. Our story is not naive. It integrates suffering and death, but holds love and hope as ultimately triumphant. I am convinced that without this vision our faith, our tradition, becomes  a poor imitation of the story told by Jesus of Nazareth.

And lest we fool ourselves to readily, it is a difficult road. CFJ has been through many changes in a short few years. We have contended with a tough economic climate, a culture war that divides our faith community and our nation, and the growing pains that come with being a small organization trying to do what’s right with limited resources and institutional support. We have wrestled with mission statements, program effectiveness, and budgets. We have changed facilities, staffs, and seen friends come and go. Successes have been celebrated and we have tried to learn from our failures.

This blog has sought to tell the faithjustice story in many different voices over the  past year and a half. In an attempt to become more sustainable, CFJ will be scaling back certain initiatives in the coming months, including the blog. It is my sincere hope that in time we will be able to revive it but I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to all the men and women who have generously supported us by sharing their time and talent writing their version of the faithjustice story. I am most grateful to John Bradley who took an idea and assembled a remarkably talented team of contributors.

Though trials are inevitable, we will continue to work to be faithful to our story.  Those who have spent some time at CFJ know that our tale began as a conversation among friends. Deep down, at least for me, it remains such. Today we are blessed to call so many more people friends and invite them into a community which, though by no means perfect, continues to be marked by love, compassion, and humor. Each experience nuances our narrative, yet the core message remains: we who profess this faith are called to do justice. God demands it of us. It is how we understand our past, discover meaning in our present, and find a vision for our future.


[1] Sean Sanford is the founder of the Center for FaithJustice.

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This entry was posted in Creating Community, Doing Justice & Serving Others, Living Faith and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Telling Stories

  1. Jan says:

    Sad to see the blog take a hiatus, but what a wonderful way to bid farewell (as you said, hopefully not for long). Thanks for sharing with us, Sean!

  2. Tom Bartolomei says:

    Thanks Sean…for the reflection…and for everything!

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