Hearing the Story (1)

I still recall my delighted astonishment at receiving my own copy of the recently published New English Bible. It enabled me to hear the stories as never before.

Hearing the Story

One of my earliest memories is of “Listen with Mother,” a short radio programme broadcast in the early afternoons during my childhood, in which soothing voices read stories suitable for small children. “Are you sitting comfortably?” the voice would ask, “Then I’ll begin…”

Thus began a journey which was simple, personal and profoundly creative. I had to sit still and pay attention, but while my body was quiet, my mind was free to roam. Listening to the story, I entered the inner world of my imagination; a different mental space, where, through my “mind’s eye” I could “see” things that were not “there”.   These things were not “real” in the sense that I could touch them, but in another sense they were very real indeed, because, whilst the story was being told, it shaped my thoughts and governed my experience. I saw what the words described, and felt what they conveyed.

 

I heard stories, too, in the Sunday School run by the Presbyterian Church in Wembley. This was the church where my parents married, where I, my brother and sister were baptised, and which we attended regularly throughout my childhood. Here, I was taught all the popular Biblical stories and the story of Jesus, but though I listened dutifully, nothing in them connected with my experience. The culture was alien, the characters generally adult and male, and even though they were depicted as fallible human beings, their problems were so different from mine, and a victorious outcome never seemed to be in doubt.

 

Then, one day, when I was about seven years’ old, my father came home from a church jumble sale carrying a dozen Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. I picked up “Five on a Treasure Island”, and I was hooked. Whatever her faults as a writer, Blyton understands the romance of islands, castles, ruins, captives, smugglers, travellers, secret passages and hidden treasure.   Her characters are ordinary children, without any conspicuous talents or super powers.   And they inhabit a world in which adults are generally absent, incompetent or even criminal. In other words, she understands the sense of isolation and insecurity which can haunt the happiest child.

 

These stories gave me images that intrigued me, situations I could recognise, characters I could make into imaginary friends, challenges I could see myself meeting, engaging, overcoming. But more important, she gave me the sense that, as a child, I was not powerless, but a person of unlimited potential.   With my own hands, brain and courage, I too could follow the secret tunnel, solve the mystery, free the captive and discover the hidden treasure.   With my loyal gang of friends, I could stand up to the villains, foil their plot, bring them to justice and right the wrong.

 

Like all Blyton’s series, the Famous Five stories are genre fiction, written to a formula. But the formula works for a reason. It encapsulates the process of creative renewal. It shows us the way of healing.

 

Star Wars. At Durham University. Went from Durham – Newcastle to see it. blown away. Special effects. Waited keenly for the next one, and the next one.

Traditional story.

Young hero leaves home to make his way in the world.

Has the help of an older, wiser mentor – and of friends whom he has to learn to trust, and who have to learn that he can be trusted.

He has to learn how to use the power within him, available to him;

how to use it for good and not for evil.  

Has to learn what he wants to achieve in life,

what in life is worth searching for, defending, dying for.

Has to learn the truth:

This is a world ruled by lies, hatred, division, destruction and death

Learn how to witness to the truth, ultimate truth:

Truth exposes the lie.

Love can survive despite hate,

Unity makes us stronger than division,

Creativity overcomes destruction,

We have life in the face of death; access to life beyond our imagining.

 

Truth that faith, hope and love enable us to live with courage despite our fear. Learn that this is true, true for him; how to stay faithful to that truth through thick and thin; how to witness to that truth, not just by telling others that is what he believes, but by acting as if it is true, entrusting his future to that truth.

 

Confronts the evil power – in himself, in his father, and in the Emperor. Almost loses, but in the end is roused to make a final effort, roused by his love for Leia, his sister – defeats the evil in his father, who then at the last minute, becomes his ally, helping him slay the Emperor.

One of my earliest creative experiences was “Listen with Mother,” a short radio programme broadcast in the early afternoons during my childhood, during which a soothing voice would read a story suitable for small children. “Are you sitting comfortably?” the voice would ask, “Then I’ll begin…”

 

In my mind’s eye, my three year old self is sitting on a chair beneath the radio. Like a fish, I am holding myself in the centre of the current, head upstream and mouth open, letting oxygenated water flow through my gills and feeding on the particles the river brings with it. I am a flower opening to gaze on the sun, a pupil wholly attentive to my teacher. “He... wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn back”[1]. I am rapt, enchanted, spellbound.

 

This was one of my earliest spiritual experiences, too. In essence, spirituality is our search for that which gives us life, personally and individually as well as collectively and corporately. It is what we explore as we learn how to live like the fish. Or the flower: how we can turn our faces toward the Source of Life and keep our gaze steady on the sun as the earth turns beneath us, so that throughout the day the Source can feed us with the life we need. There is a sense in which we will always be infants searching for our mother’s breast. Spirituality is the search for that which gives us the compassion, conviction and courage to handle the joys and sorrows of being human.

 

At a very early age, I found what I needed in stories. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…” Like the sign on a door which says “Please come in”, these words invited me into a different mental space, where, using my “mind’s eye”, I could “see” things differently. They allowed me to slip into an alternate reality. They gave me permission to dream.

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…” These words signalled the beginning of a process which was simple, personal, creative and profound. Whilst the story was being told, it was wholly absorbing, shaping my thoughts and governing my experience. My environment – the kitchen, my mother, whatever she was doing – dropped away as if I had stepped out of the world. I saw what the words described and felt what they conveyed. Indeed, that was all I saw and felt because the story had taken over. I had become part of it. I was not just a hearer, but a participant. I was seeing a vision and living its consequences. I was following a path to its end.

 

Stories focus on process, rather than product. They focus our attention on the road rather than the destination. The goal gives a shape to the story, but it is far ahead of us: what matters is the road beneath our feet. The outcome is important, but most of our time and energy goes into following the path. Even if we already know the ending, we want to know how the process works out. We want to follow the twists and turns, see how the characters react, watch what they do, feel their struggles, failures and achievements. It is not just the resolution which holds our interest, but the way in which the resolution is reached, how the journey is made.

 

A skilled narrator can tell a story in a manner which connects to every aspect of our personality, appealing to our senses, engaging our emotions, intriguing us with puzzles, drawing on our memories, delighting our imagination, commanding our allegiance, inspiring us with a sense of mystery and apparently limitless potential. A good story, well-told, absorbs our attention so completely because we become immersed in an holistic experience. It is as though the story swallows us whole, but what actually happens is that we swallow the story. We suspend disbelief – or, to say the same thing in a positive register – we believe.

 

Stories suggest a chain of events which contain conflict and how this is resolved – or not – through change. In the hands of a skilled storyteller, description, dialogue and the relationships between characters generate multiple layers of interest and development. As readers, hearers and observers, we have the capacity to remember and follow a great many of these strands, all at once. We learn, too, by watching how they interact. We enjoy characters with whom we can identify, who face challenges that we fear, who possess qualities we would like to possess and who use their wits and abilities to win through. We find their fallibility reassuring and their efforts inspiring. Stories can teach us how to engage with the unending stream of turbulent change in which we are immersed - whether we like it or not - from birth till death.

 

A good story, well told, is immensely satisfying: firstly, because it feeds every aspect of who we are and, secondly, because it feeds us in a manner which strengthens us, which builds us up in health, holiness and hope. The story may or may not be “true” in the sense of being an accurate, objective record of actual events, but it “rings true” because it connects with our experience and helps us to make sense of what we know. Good stories tend to be good news -even if they are not easy to hear - because they are honest. They recognise that life contains all manner of problems, beginning before we are aware of them.

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…” Even now, these words fill the child in me with the thrill of anticipation. Stories open up the world and fill it with potential. They enable us to enter an alternative space, catch a vision and follow a process through to resolution – all without leaving our seat.

 

And even when the story is over, we still have access to that mental space, with its images, sensations and emotions. We can return there, because we have internalized the story. We can remember it. Its riches are inside us now. We possess them. They are ours. For good or ill, stories feed us. The “out of the body” experience of listening to a story is temporary, but the emotional, psychological and spiritual effects can last a very long time.

 

The best stories point us to resources we can use to meet the challenges of life.They entertain, interest and enlighten, all at once. Stories gave me a mulch of impressions and ideas which not only informed me but formed me: formed my ideas as to what the world was like and how I might engage with it. Each story offered characters I might meet, possibilities with which I could play, difficulties I might have to overcome and hints as to how I might overcome them.

Stories taught me that I can think creatively about life; that there are different ways of seeing the same situation, a range of parts I can play and many variables that may affect the outcome. I learned that life is a process and the future is not fixed; that from within the story, we can change things. By playing our part, we can influence events and change how the story is likely to end.

 

Stories train us in the use of a powerful tool – our imagination. It allows us to imagine alternatives, devise an assortment of scenarios, suggest a resolution other than the one imposed. We can use our imagination to play with possibilities and envisage what might happen if we choose one that is more creative or beneficial.

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…” Stories can show us what might lie ahead of us and if so, how we can meet it in faith, hope and love. They can encourage, equip and enable us to live more compassionately and courageously. They rehearse us and resource us for the part we may be called upon to play.

[1]Isaiah 50.4b-5.

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