By J.S. Porter
I have a tiny book the size of your thumb with a black and white cover in my collection. It’s called Very Short Stories. Josh Thorpe edits it and Off Cut Press publishes it. One of the stories is called “Love Triangle” by Roger Stevens. It goes like this:
Sam loved Jane. Jane loved Tim.
Tim loved Sam
But it was okay. Sam was their dog.
A story of love. You can imagine Chagall painting it with Tim as a fiddler, Jane as a bride and Sam as a rooster. You’ve got a teller (someone tells you what happens from a certain point of view) and a tale (something happens in a certain place). Time is also present. The story lasts as long as it takes you to tell it. You can write a formula for the construction of stories: teller + tale + time = story. If you want to complicate things: story = teller, point of view, usually a character or two, tale, setting and time.
There’s another “story” in the book. It’s by Dan Levenson and doesn’t have a name. It goes like this:
girls on the horizon
This one isn’t quite a story. It’s a potential story, a story image, but the line falls short of complete storyhood. Something needs to happen to the girls, some connection between the girls and the horizon needs to be made; it’s not enough to say girls and then say horizon.
Poet and mystic, Robert Lax, in Love Had A Compass: Journals And Poetry, takes the girls, maybe they’re the same ones, and weaves them into a story with teller, tale and time:
four little girls walk down the road hand-in-hand. a motorcycle comes up behind them and frightens them into calling each other names’
In the last couple of years of teaching, I’ve used short books on stories in my literature classes. The first was Robert Fulford’s Massey Lectures in 1999, The Triumph Of Narrative: Storytelling In The Age Of Mass Culture. Fulford looks at movie stories, television stories, book stories, and life stories.
You might say that Fulford’s way of looking at story doesn’t fit my definition that story needs teller and tale and time. You might argue that movies and television don’t so much tell a story as they show a story. You’d have a point, to a degree. Stories in their ancient days came off tongues and entered ears; they didn’t shine from a screen. They were told with perhaps a minimum of show, a hand gesture here, a facial expression there, but mostly they consisted of a tongue’s telling.
Visual stories show a great deal, but they also include some element of telling. Characters talk, unless you’re watching silent movies, and they tell you things. Movies show and tell with multiple tellers. The director, the actors, the screenplay writer, the cinematography, the music, all have a hand in the telling by making the story visible as well as audible.
I’ll stick to my formula, although I’m a little less confident in it now.
The second book on stories that I’ve used in class is Thomas King’s Massey Lectures (2003), The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. King talks about what has happened to native peoples over the years (history), what happened in the lives of individual Indians (biography), what happens in creation narratives in the Bible and in Indian creation stories (religion and mythology), and what has happened and is happening in his own story (autobiography). He tells tales in time.
Many of the stories King tells are painful. His father abandons him when he’s three or four. His friend, who tells himself destructive stories, commits suicide. But no matter how painful the story, King sprightly asserts at the end of each chapter a variation of what he says at the end of the Charm-creation story: “Take Charm’s story’It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.”
No matter how bad or how difficult things get, King says a story can help you. That’s faith.
The one thing King does that I don’t like so much is that he judges stories. He judges that native creation stories, for instance, are better than the biblical one, because they’re funnier, more compassionate and more human. Funnier maybe, but I’m not so sure about their being more compassionate and more human.
Stories make claims on our attention. They shake us up. They have power. Ben Okri in his A Way Of Being Free has interesting things to say about the storytelling of Jesus:
“The parables of Jesus are more powerful and persuasive than his miracles.
The miracles of Jesus came down to us as stories, magical stories. It is the stories, rather than the facts, which still enchant us towards belief.
Only a profound storyteller would say something like: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’”
Lately I’ve started to think of story in relationship to the four canonical Gospels: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. With the possible exception of John, which is as much proclamation as narrative, they are all narratives. Jesus was born (in a barn), he was baptized (by a wildman), he gathered disciples (a fickle bunch), he taught by telling stories (parables), he performed miraculous deeds (deeds the Gospel writers regarded as miracles), he was crucified (on a hill), he was resurrected (from a cave). There’s a clear beginning, middle and end to the story of Jesus.
There were other gospels written around the time of the canonical four: The Gospel Of Thomas, The Gospel Of Mary Magdalene, and The Gospel Of Philip, for example. They too build on the life of Jesus, but they don’t tell a story. They communicate aphorisms or mini-poems or proclamations or assertions about Jesus. They move by the power and poignancy of poetic words, not by the imaginative, and magical, enthrallment of story.
Here’s a patch from Philip, for example: “Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither are the good good, nor evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death. For this reason each one will dissolve into its earliest origin’” The Gospel Of Philip records the occasional word or deed of Jesus, but the words and deeds are not set in a narrative framework. Philip is primarily a compilation of statements about the meaning and value of the sacraments.
Here’s a patch from Thomas: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’” In Thomas, there are 114 sayings of Jesus. In Thomas, Jesus is more poet than storyteller: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up the stone, and you will find me.”
In The Gospel Of Mary Magdalene, Mary says this about Jesus: “Do not weep, and do not grieve nor be afraid, for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us, and has turned us into human beings.” She sounds very much like the Mary Magdalene of the canonical Gospels who first proclaims the risen Christ.
These snippets that I’ve quoted are from Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel Of Thomas and U.S. News & World Report: Secrets Of The Da Vinci Code. They’re interesting, intriguing and not particularly contradictory of the canonical Gospels. They offer us glimpses of a personality; in places, they’re a kind of character study, but they don’t show a character moving in time. They don’t tell a tale in time.
There may be many reasons why Thomas and Mary Magdalene and Philip didn’t make it into the New Testament, but one reason perhaps is that story offers a level of satisfaction not easily achieved by other means. We like to know what happens to someone, who they meet, what they say, what they do. We like to identify with a character in time. Jesus was born; we were born. Jesus had friends; we have friends. Jesus had troubles; we have troubles. Jesus told stories; we tell stories. Jesus died; we die. Jesus rose from the dead; we’d like to rise.
The canonical Gospels make the identification possible. The canonical Gospels tell a story; they re-enact, re-present, a human life. The Gnostic Gospels don’t; they read as if they were commentaries, annotations, footnotes and marginalia on a human life. They read as afterthoughts on the story. Their poetic words charm, but they don’t enchant. They don’t bring a lived life, a living life, to the living.