When Stories Lie
September 22, 2022 | Jim Angehr
The stories we tell ourselves matter, and it also matters whether those stories are actually true.
Meet someone I’ll call Robert, a buddy of mine from college. Robert had never went into great detail about it, but I knew that part of his backstory was that he was raised in a single parent household by his mom, since his dad died shortly after he was born in combat exercise while serving in the U.S. Marines. One time I asked Robert about coming to grips with having lost his father at such a young age, and to my ears it didn’t sound like he was deeply traumatized by the event. “Yeah, it sucks and it’s sad, but I never even knew my dad, and my mom has always been awesome.” Fair enough.
Midway through our third year, however, when I ran into Robert at a student cafè, he was obviously distraught. When I asked after how he was doing, he replied, “My dad just called me.”
Robert was understandably shocked: the day before, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be his father, who apparently hadn’t died in combat but claimed instead that after Robert was born, he freaked out so badly that he abandoned Robert’s mom and took up with another woman. Frantically and angrily, Robert then spoke with his mother, who tearfully and apologetically verified the tale.
There were friends closer to Robert than I, but the two of us did spend some hours together unpacking all that had occurred. He was shattered, furious at both his father and also his mother. “Most of all,” he continued, “I don’t know what to do with the fact that I’ve lived a lie my whole life. I didn’t remember anything about my dad, but I thought of him as a war hero whose memory I wanted to honor and measure up to. Turns out my hero was just another dirtbag.” As a 20 year old, I didn’t have much in the way of constructive advice or encouragement for Robert, and so I just sat with him.
Robert and I haven’t kept up contact through the years, but I thought of him for the first time in a while as I was continuing to read through Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book. I’ve mentioned this volume on a couple other platforms within my multimedia conglomerate (i.e., sermons, podcasts), but the book’s title doesn’t lie; it’s a corker! (Apologies to Tony that it’s not a long read.)
Hell of a Book follows along an authorial tour of a young, Black writer who within the novel itself has penned a new bestseller called—you guessed it—Hell of a Book. But wait, there’s more! Every chapter about this writer alternates with an account of a young, Black boy named Soot who is growing up in the rural South of the Civil Rights era. (The pages about Soot may or may not be the Hell of a Book that unfolds within Hell of a Book, but either way, what a great conceit for a work of fiction. I wish I had thought of writing something like that. I’ll call it Not a Bad Book.)
I quite admire Hell of a Book for the multiple levels on which it’s able rather effortlessly to operate. In addition to the wheels-within-wheels nature of the narrative, Jason Mott manages to spin both a tale of whimsy while at the same time offering a sober meditation about the ongoing realities and legacies of racial violence.
The turning point in the story of Soot—that’s the young man within the story from the deep South—is that he and his mother witness in their own front yard the murder of their father at the hands of two white police officers. Soot, his mother, and their community are all rocked by this killing while also experiencing the numb rage of feeling powerless to address it.
Shortly after the slaying, Soot and his mother attend a prayer meeting at their local church in which the preacher, Reverend Brown, nobly seeks to lead his congregation through giving voice to angry despair as well as supplying some semblance of courage and hope to his flock. Soot isn’t a particularly religious person himself, but he’s nevertheless moved by what he sees transpire at this church gathering as the pastor recounts Bible story after Bible story of God’s people persevering in the face of great hardship and injustice:
Soot didn’t know it then, but he was becoming a believer. Not in God, as Reverend Brown and the rest of the church-bound southern community might have wanted, but he was becoming a believer in stories. He saw, there in the wake of his father’s death, that a story could take away pain. He saw smiles, however brief, where there had been tears. He saw fellowship where there had been loneliness. He saw hope where there had been despair.
I take a glass half full/glass half empty approach to a passage like this.
Half full: well, it’s a beautiful text that speaks powerfully not only to the role that faith communities of faith can play in processing collective grief even for those that aren’t necessarily believers, and it likewise highlights the power of stories themselves. What an intriguing turn of phrase that while Soot wasn’t moved to trust in God, “he was becoming a believer in stories.”
I don’t want to take anything away from the power of Hell of a Book nor the sort of suffering in it that Soot and others sustain, but if one presses the concept of being a believer in stories too far, one ends up in the “emperor’s new clothes” barrenness of wanting to have our reality both ways. I have the postmodern world here on Line 1. Namely, we can find ourselves allergic to ascribing ultimate truth to the stories we narrate, but we wish them to remain as powerful as ever in how they mold and motivate us.
My friend Robert is a case in point to the contrary. Imagine if you’d tell fresh-with-new-grief Robert, “Robert, even if it’s not true, that your dad was a war hero is a great story. You can keep living in that reality. Believe in the power of stories.”
You probably know that I’m a Christian pastor. Has anything I’ve written here prove that specifically the Christian story is true? That it’s rooted in the true history of God’s work to redeem his people and renew our world, all culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Of course not, but that isn’t my point here.
Friends: find, share, and live within good stories. But know also that the best stories are the true ones.