Identity Stories

You’re the Son of God

Fred Craddock is a lecturer at Phillips Theological Seminary in the United States. He tells of a time he was on holiday in Tennessee. He and his wife were having dinner at a restaurant when an old man started talking to them, asking them how they were doing and if they were enjoying their holiday. When the old man asked Fred what he did for a living Fred saw the chance to get rid of him – “I’m a preacher.”

“A preacher? That’s great. Let me tell you a story about a preacher.” The old man sat down at their table and started to speak. As he did Fred’s annoyance was changed to one of profound humility. The old man explained that he was a bastard – in the literal rather than the figurative sense. He was born without knowing who his father was, a source of great shame in a small town in the early twentieth century. One day a new preacher came to the local church. The old man explained that as a youngster he had never gone to church, but one Sunday decided to go along and hear the new pastor preach. He was good. The illegitimate boy went back again, and then again. In fact he started attending just about every week. But his shame went with him. This poor little boy would always arrive late and leave early in order to avoid talking to anyone. But one Sunday he got so caught up in the sermon that he forgot to leave. Before he knew it the service was over and the aisles were filling. He rushed to get past people and out the door, but as he did he felt a heavy hand land upon his shoulder. He turned around to see the preacher, a big tall man, looking down at him asking, “What’s your name, boy? Whose son are you?” The little boy died inside, the very thing he wanted to avoid was now here. But before he could say anything the preacher said “I know who you are. I know who your family is. There’s a distinct family resemblance. Why, you’re the son, you’re the son, you’re the son of God!”

The old man sitting at Fred Craddock’s table said “You know, mister, those words changed my life”. And with that he got up and left.

When the waitress came over she said to Fred Craddock and his wife, “Do you know who that was?”

“No” they replied.

“That was Ben Hooper, the two-term governor of Tennessee.”

Source: Reported in Tony Campolo, It’s Friday but Sunday’s Comin. (Word, 1985)

We've Lost our Stories

The Kalahari bushmen were made famous in the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Their recent history  is sad, for in the last 100 years the bushmen culture has been disappearing along with their lands. One of the saddest Bushmen settlements is Schmidtsridft in South Africa. There two bushmen peoples, the Xu and the Khwe, who clash fiercely with one another, live like many indigenous peoples whose way of life has been destroyed. They have grown dependent on government pensions  nd aalcohol and marijuana have, for many, become an anaesthetic against their dislocation and loss.

Then leader of the Xu Traditional Council at Schmidtsdrift is Mario Mahongo, a Xu bushman. He longs for his people to rediscover some of their spirit. But the problem is they’ve lost their stories. “A lot of our culture” he says “is lost in our lives – the old stories that were told by mothers and fathers who would go into the bush and then return to tell the others what they had seen The problem is that now no one goes out and does anything, so we have no stories to tell our children. We have nothing to pass on.”

We can learn from this sad tale. It is the stories we pass on that shape and define us, that show us the way forward and give us meaning, direction and values. For Christians it is the story told by the bible that becomes our ultimate defining story.

Source: Scott Higgins. Information on Kalahari Bushmen from National Geographic Feb 200

The Way Our Stories Shape Us

The American writer Marianne Wiggins wrote the novel Almost Heaven. One of its central characters is a middle aged woman called Melanie John. We meet her in the psychiatric unit of the Medical College of Virginia suffering from hysterical amnesia. Five weeks earlier she was a happily married mother of four living in the Richmond suburbs.

One day five weeks earlier she and her family are in their car heading down the highway. Her husband Jason, the love of her life, is driving. The four kids are in the back. Melanie has been writing in her journal when a gust of wind catches a sheet of paper and rips it out the window.

Jason pulls the car over to the side of the road, Melanie gets out and heads into the field at the side of the road to recover her writing. That’s when she hears the awful screech of tires skidding, smells the burning of rubber, and turns around to see another vehicle slam into the rear of her family’s car. The vehicle explodes. Jason and the children are killed instantly.

Melanie’s system copes by shutting down, by blocking out all memories of this day and of her family. The last 20 years, the family years, are erased from her conscious memory. She remembers the day 20 years earlier she graduated law school and went to work in the law office on Broad street. But meeting Jason and falling in love, the day of her wedding, the birth of her children, the building of their house, the times they all spent at the beach, the fights and the love – she can’t remember any of it.

The amnesia acts as an emotional anaesthetic, but it also robs her of herself. She has no sense of who she is. Inside that shell of a body who is Melanie John? What is her life about? Where does she fit? What’s her place, her purpose? Without the stories of the last 20 years she has no way of knowing. Without the stories of her past there is no meaningful present and there can be no meaningful future.

The novel recounts Melanie’s journey to recovering her memories, the pain of her loss and the regaining of her sense of self. One of the things the story reminds us about is that we are made up of our stories. Our sense of self, of who we are, of why where here, of where we fit and where we’re headed are the map by which we make sense of life.

When you reflect on this you discover that it’s true at both the individual level and the cultural level. As well as our individual stories we are shaped by our cultural stories, stories which tell us who we are, what life’s about, what we should and shouldn’t value. For Christians, the Christian faith provides us with an alternate story to that of our culture, and calls us to its sense of place, of value, of direction and meaning.