Humans love stories, fictional and non-fictional. A good story entertains us and creates a world we momentarily inhabit; it allows us to see the world and ourselves through different eyes.
We make sense of our own lives and make sense of historical events by telling stories. We connect events, ideas and facts together to tell a story. This is how our brain perceives the world.
Christians place the Gospel, the story of Jesus, at the center of our spirituality; however, in the Bible there are four written gospels. These four links each connect the life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus in a life- and world-changing experience – each doing it in their own way, not always agreeing on the details.
And today, we Christians continue to tell the story of Jesus because it gives us meaning and fulfillment, it creates community and it guides our lives. The story of Jesus is our story, the one that gives meaning to our life.
But not all stories are invigorating. Some of them are downright wrong, like conspiracy theories that get more convoluted and complicated with each story. And with most true stories, we can react badly when someone points out a problem with the way we’re telling them. We focus on how we tell the story rather than the truth of the story, and the story loses its ability to inspire, guide and unite.
Many generations have learned a simplistic story from history. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the blue ocean and discovered the Americas. However, we all know that there were many indigenous nations here long before Christopher Columbus. He wasn’t even the first European to set foot in the Americas.
The story that was told – and the many truths left out – gave the impression that Columbus was a heroic discoverer, and therefore he and his countrymen had the right to take the “new” world, even though Native Americans obviously inhabited the place. .
The way we tell American history has also been too simplistic. We told a story of freedom, but left out the ways freedom-loving Americans denied freedom and justice to others. People were denied the right to vote because of their lack of wealth, race, gender – why else did we have to change the Constitution? For centuries, Americans have legally enslaved their fellow human beings, and some of those people were the founders of our nation.
Instead of dealing with the nuances of America’s history, many reacted by letting their feelings outweigh the facts. They believe that a nuanced story cannot inspire or unite. Imperfections should be glossed over for the sake of the story.
A nuanced story can be the most powerful of all. Remember when I said there were four gospels, each telling the story of Jesus? They’re not consistent in detail or sequence – and that doesn’t threaten my faith. Each writer tells me the story of Jesus in his own way, to show me something about him. Each story helps me love Jesus more, and I love telling the story of Jesus in my life and preaching.
What might a nuanced history of America look like? A story in which we can see freedom denied as well as the expansion of freedom? A story where the Founders’ failure to secure freedom for all is not a threat, but a powerful reminder that We the People are the spirit of America, not the Founders – and We the People, Are we stronger when we guarantee freedom for all?
It’s a story of hope that gives life to a nation in turmoil, a story that can unite and inspire us all.
Reverend Joseph Farnes is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Boise.
The Idaho Statesman’s religious column features a rotation of writers from different faiths and perspectives.