Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the live performance of a renowned professional storyteller. It was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia, and he was the keynote speaker. How appropriate that was for a writing festival; instead of choosing a lecturer, they had someone stand up on stage and tell us stories. He chose a variety of tales from around the globe, spanning cultures, traditions, and time, and he slipped easily between fictional accounts and historical lore. But whether he was recounting myths and legends or collected facts, what I took away from the overall experience was the centrality of storytelling to the human condition and the necessity of passing on stories to remind us of who we are. More than that, it struck me how much who we are forms the stories we tell—and how much the stories we tell forms who we are.
Are all the stories we tell, then, cultural stories? Do we ascribe equal value to what we create and what creates us?
Through stories, we ask and examine the most basic questions about our humanity—about our loves, history, religion, philosophies, and more.The stories we tell, and how we tell them, say much about who we are as a people and what we value. Cultural stories are reflections, pauses, and remembrances. But to a degree, all our stories are cultural stories because none of them spring out of nothing. We cannot create ex nihilo—that is a power that belongs only to God. So whether we poach ideas from other cultures via synthesis or contextualization or bring them forth solely from our own, we are always telling cultural stories of one sort or another.
Cultural storytelling is a means of connecting ourselves to each other not just in the present, but also across time to the past and across personal and societal differences. We have a propensity for self-centeredness and myopia, but none of us belongs only to ourselves and all of us are part of traditions spanning into the shadowy past. Stories spark our imaginations and help us enter into greater things, including others’ experiences and traditions. This is why, when I was a history teacher, I quickly learned the only way to really get my students to engage with anything was to teach it to them as stories. Dates and lists of facts can be Googled, but connecting a child across time and space to the Battle of Marathon, to the Wars of Religion, to the Signing of the Magna Carta takes imagination and cultural remembrance—it takes storytelling.
The importance of cultural storytelling as connection, reflection, and remembrance takes form even within the fictional stories we tell. In Return of the Jedi, storytelling is central for teaching the Ewoks the grand narrative of the Rebel Cause. At the Ewok village late at night—after having been rescued and reunited by the furry creatures following a harrowing speeder chase with Imperial Stormtroopers—Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 sit and listen to C-3PO as storyteller recall their own history back to them. Like the storyteller I watched perform at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, C-3PO uses sound effects and dramatic interpretations to deliver an intimate narrative that is both true and, thanks to the passage of some time, of some mythic proportions. Not only are the Ewok audience members captivated by the story, but Han and Leia and Luke and the rest are as well—and they are the ones about whom the story is being told, around whom these events unfolded. C-3PO, in his storytelling, is reminding them who they are. And we, the audience, gets to listen in and hear again of their great exploits and everything that hangs in the balance as they prepare for one final showdown against Vader and the Empire.
The storytelling scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi is mirrored in the much lesser known post-apocalyptic film Reign of Fire. Released in 2002 but set in 2020 (our day), the story tells of English refugees who live hidden lives in a castle to avoid the terrorizing dragons that now rule the world. In an effort to hang on to and preserve culture, the adult leaders of the community perform dramatic interpretations of stories that have shaped society—such as in our favorite movies.
Before putting the children to bed one night, Quinn (Christian Bale) and Creedy (Gerard Butler) perform the famous duel between Vader and Luke at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Of all the moments in all the stories in our cultural canon, that is the one the filmmakers of Reign of Fire chose to include. Quinn and Creedy never name the movie—calling the characters simply, “The White Knight” and “The Black Knight”—but just like C-3PO in the Ewok village, they don’t have to name names, because we know what it is: It is a story that tells us about who we are as surely as it tells the children in the movie about who they are.
But as much as these fictional stories mirror our own reverence for cultural storytelling, they can only tell us about who we are insomuch as they can present Types and themes, situations and messages that speak out of the story to us. They can evoke empathy, but what they cannot do is tangibly connect us to a family or a land or a people or a legacy or a promise. There are limits to pure fiction that don’t exist in other storytelling forms.
This week, I’m in California, where I have never lived. I am here to celebrate my grandfather’s 100th birthday. Today, I walked through a historic house owned and lived in by members of my family for over 90 years. A docent told me stories of my own family history; from a stranger, I learned things that connect me to my own blood. “What does it matter?” my brother asked me afterward. “It matters because it helps to tell us who we are,” I said. We went to a beach where my ancestors once arrived by ship, and my father told my son and me stories I’ve heard a hundred times before. Family stories abound going back generations, and I feel ties through them to a legacy that belongs to me—rooting me someplace I have never been planted. I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say that it is the stories that cultivate these feelings as surely as the blood I share with my family members.
Through stories, we ask and examine the most basic questions about our humanity—about our loves, history, religion, philosophies, and more. We connect, remember, meditate, and recall. We remember we are not so different, and yet we are each infinitely unique—and that is a beautiful thing. Stories can remind us that in our differences, we find unity in things that matter.
Advent is the perfect season to reflect on the importance of cultural stories. For hundreds of years, it was stories that pointed to Christ—real history, of course, but history fraught with tumult and war and the scattering of people who had to remember and recall and speak promises from one generation to the next. In Advent, we pass on this tradition. It’s a tradition of stories about Christ that remind us we don’t belong to this kingdom, but to a kingdom yet to come. Advent stories make us pause and whisper, “He is coming,” and “He has already come.” They tie us to a family into which we have been adopted as sons and daughters; these stories remind us that for our common flourishing, we are a people rooted in a kingdom not of this world.