My Story or Our Story

As a Black writer and a Christian writer I am often faced with the same problem: Do i tell my story or our story?

Let's face it: many writers write because they feel they have something important to say. In the case of Christians, we feel we need to preach the gospel. In the case of minorities in the United States, we feel we want to tell the world something about our own experiences, experiences that others may not fully understand. This often leads to writing that falls into a category, a shared history.

But writers also write about their own personal histories. This morning, I opened the Bible and it fell open to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Aargh. That meant I had to read it. That's how I choose my devotionals. Everytime I read that book I want to give "the preacher" a shake. Aside from his generally downbeat nihilistic attitude, he doesn't really give women a break. How dare he say that in his own experience he has never met one good woman in a thousand? And yet, that is his story, his own experience. I won't invalidate what he says.

This is supposedly the same guy who collected the proverbs of his people. The Proverbs are a noticeably happier and more hopeful book. But they are the wisdom he inherited from his father and his people, not his own personal experiences. One gets the feeling after reading the book of Ecclesiastes that Solomon believed in these proverbs and yet. And yet. Why all the despair? And why did he have to write it all down? And why did the Hebrew scribes decide that such a book, about the futility of life "under the sun" should be included in the Jewish canon of Scripture? Imagine choosing the Book of Ecclesiastes and not choosing the Book of Sirach.

The funny thing, though, is that although I groan when I read it and I can readily answer all of Solomon's despair with a quick look at Psalm 49, I am thankful to God for allowing us to see Solomon's views.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells his story. Not the story he is supposed to be telling, not the philosophy he learned at his father's knee, not the wisdom he learned in the proverbs. While Proverbs 31, at least allows for the existence of a good woman-- far above rubies-- Solomon doesn't allow for that. (Internal evidence in Ecclesiastes seems to show that the author of Ecclessastes is Solomon and honestly, having one thousand concubines and wives, perhaps he should know. But one wonders what he thinks of his mother Bathsheba.) And the Preacher disagrees with the wisdom of Proverbs in other areas as well.

There are other Bible writers too, who tell sad stories. Jeremiah's Lamentations come to mind. In a Book which tells us that happy endings await the good person, we have characters who prove the Preacher's point, "Be not righteous overmuch. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overmuch wicked. Why should you die before your time?" This was the truth as Solomon saw it.

I suppose that is one of the problems I have with modern Christian fiction. Some of it feels blatantly untrue...and terribly impersonal. Not that I'm against hope or faith, but so much proverbial writing does cause an abundance of happy endings. Even C S Lewis who said every story should have a happy ending killed some of the main characters in The Chronicles of Narnia.

When I read modern Christian writings, I tend to read Christian memoirs. Because it is often in those books that the truth of sad lives can be found. Whether it's the life of an imprisoned Russian believer or the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a true story is being told. There is tragedy in those stories. And grace. And a kind of spiritual triumph that is not always found in stories that have the proverbial happy ending. And in that seeming tragedy, we can see the love and care of God and the triumph of the gospel.

I love hearing those stories. Perhaps because they are tragic. Perhaps because seem truer somehow than so many modern Christian stories which are nothing more than altar calls or facile fantasies. They bring about what Aristotle called a "catharsis" -- a fear and trembling that comes about when we commiserate with a character who is very human and who has not seen the promises of the gospel manifest in his life. They are not the communal story we want to write about: person finds God, person is saved, person lives happily ever after. But they are true. They are the story of one person, told honestly from the deepest part of the heart.

And I can truly say with Solomon, "Whatever your situation in life, this is the conclusion of the whole matter, fear God."


cathikin said...

Ecclesiastes is far from my favorite book of the Bible as well. Yet in the end he comes to the truth that fullness comes from God, not anything else. I have often thought that one thing that shows the truth of the Bible is how it records flaws and tragedies as well as hope and victories. If it were up to most of us, we would be inclined to gloss over any unpleasantness and attempt to paint the heroes of the faith in more glowing perfection.

Andrea Graham said...

"person finds God, person is saved, person lives happily ever after."

Believe it or not, I'm no more fond of that than you. That's not how it works in real life, and it doesn't often make for particularly interesting fiction. Sin has it's consequences, and short of Hell, those consequences rarely just go poof upon turning to God.

As much as I *love* happy endings, God making all things new and such, I also seek to deal with the reality of the fallen world and the consequences of sin in my fiction as well as well as the reality of His Kingdom.

Andrea Graham said...

Cathikin: I agree on Ecclesiastes. It's one most of our celebrities and a lot of others living the "high life" desperately need to read. Classic "god-sized hole in the heart" text for real.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your writing. I'm trying to learn Ecclesiastes as a story, mostly because it's on the list for the upcoming NOBS gathering (Network of Biblical Storytellers). It's also one of my favorite books, mostly because it is so different from most of the Bible. It's been fun thinking of the images given just in the first chapter. That's as far as I've gone at this stage in telling it. He, the teacher/preacher really makes a poignant introduction.

Thanks again.