One of the reasons I enjoy history so much is its narrativity. As loyal readers of my blog are no doubt well aware of, I am fond of telling the stories of my life and the droll and amusing experiences that take place in my life. For as long as I can remember, I have treated life not as a set of discrete ocurrences but rather as a story, a narrative, where different pieces fit together. This tendency to “make cases” and to connect different pieces of stories together has been the source of considerable personal insight into the behavior of those around me, though (sadly) most of the puzzle pieces I have had to put together have not been pleasant ones.
Nonetheless, as I have commented previously, history and law (along with religion) are connected by the fact that they are case-making endeavors. Today I would like to focus less on the case-making (as I have already talked about that) and more on the narrativity that involves. The cases of lawyers, historians, theologians, and journalists (to say nothing of our own storytelling as human beings) are hopefully constructed out of facts. To the extent that they are made out of facts and not cut from the cloth of imagination, they can be partial or incomplete, and they can be (as all accounts are) selective, focusing on certain aspects of most interest to the storyteller. We accept this in our stories about the past, or about crimes, because we ourselves tell stories to make sense of our own lives, and so we recognize that telling stories is something that human beings do to make sense of the events we are confronted with, and therefore, being storytellers, we accept that storytelling is a legitimate means to seek truth and insight about our lives and what happens to us in them.
Even though all accounts are selective, because not all facts are known (and some facts are probably not even knowable, humanly speaking), not all counts need to be illegitimate because of bias or partiality. Where we have bias or partiality (and we all probably have some bias as a result of our perspective), it is best for us to state so openly at the front. To do so means that our bias is recognized, and can be counteracted if necessary. Little is worse than for someone to claim to be an impartial witness or an unbiased reporter and to end up having them be an interested party that has been deliberately tampering with and slanting evidence. Such situations are routine in our world—it is better to be honest about one’s perspective, one’s bias, and to assume that one’s audience is intelligent enough to figure out or find out the rest of the story that one cannot or chooses not to tell. I believe my readers are intelligent enough to recognize the difference between fact, my own (possibly mistaken) intuition, and what evidence I may not have or may not see. And I also trust that those who read what I say can come up with different stories of their own based on what they know and believe. And somewhere in the midst of those stories is a very complicated truth that probably no one (apart from God) sees in its entirety. And I am okay with that. Such is life as a limited flawed and mortal human being in a fallen and corrupt world.
One example of this personal bent towards narrativity should suffice. Today in my doctrines class I was discussing Christ as the Passover lamb. The notes were originally prepared by an elder named Brian Drawbaugh, from Central Pennsylvania, and a man whose deep thinking I personally respect. (I made some additions to the notes—and got to talk about three days and three nights at the end of the lecture thanks to a student question as well.) In thinking about his notes and my appreciation for them, I was reminded of how I became aware of what was going on in Central Pennsylvania during 2004.
At the time, I was a student at the Ambassador Bible Center. As was his custom, my father enjoyed taking road trips (something I enjoy as well), and it was the Spring Holy Days break (coincidentally enough, given the subject matter of today’s lecture), and as I had expressed a desire to see Delaware (a state I had never been to), the two of us decided to drive across Pensylvania and hit Wilmington. As is my custom, I drew up the itenerary on a map (I love looking at maps and planning trip routes), and we decided to stop in the middle of the state. I therefore called the pastor at the time, a fellow named Paul Leucke, whom I did not know, and he strongly discouraged me from going to Lewiston and suggested we go to York, which was closer on the way anyhow.
Needless to say, when I arrived in York saying that I was visiting from Cincinnati, where I was a student at ABC, no one in the congregation seemed particularly welcoming. Mr. Leucke wasn’t that welcoming, as he probably knew (from his sources) what sort of fellow I was and my own enthusiastic support of congregational councils, member responsibility, and my stern and extremely vocal opposition to corrupt hierarchies. My sort of passionate enthusiasm about such political matters has never been hidden, and probably could not be, even if I tried. I have never successfully hidden it at any rate. However, the members of the congregation probably assumed that because I was coming from the Home Office congregation and was a student at ABC that I was one of those hierarchy-friendly corrupt bigshots. Far from it, but as I did not know what was going on until afterwards I just thought the congregation was rude and unfriendly, and kept the matter in mind as to there being a rational and reasonable explanation for why they would be so rude to a friendly stranger (as it happened, there was).
What makes this story somewhat notable, other than being merely a trip down an obscure part of memory lane, was that this story was one of many stories I put together about the attitudes and behavior of certain ministers, and how they had acted towards me and (from what I could see) towards their congregations. When confronted in 2010 with a roster of pastors that all looked like ducks, quacked like ducks, and walked like ducks, I already had enough facts to put them together to tell a story about ducks and quickly act on that story in what amounted to a live re-enactment of the old NES game “Duck Hunt.” It was duck season, after all.
And that is the point. My view of facts and occurrences as part of a pattern and part of a larger story, rather than as something isolated, means that I tend to react quickly when enough pieces of a puzzle come together to present an actionable piece of intelligence. That picture may not always be accurate, but it is always being added to, and as someone who has spent a lot of time putting puzzles together, I have gotten reasonable skilled at doing so, and moreover something that I do instinctively. There is a tension between two ditches in such an approach. One can jump to conclusions too fast, before enough evidence has been gathered to make a correct inference, and one can therefore act on faulty conclusions. Additionally, if one is sloppy with fact-gathering, one can act on mere guesses and hopes and expectations rather than facts and evidence. On the other hand, one can desire to act only on perfect and absolute clarity, when in reality such clarity is largely available, if at all, only in hindsight, leading to no action at all. We must therefore balance our approach between these two extremes, so that we can act bravely and boldly while being fully aware that our own intuition may be mistaken, and therefore we are always on the lookout for more facts and better evidence even as we act in faith. After all, as human beings, we’re not just telling stories, but acting on them as well.