There is a constant fight for who gets to tell stories of the past. It is a matter of perspective. I was taught the “received story” of the United States as a child. The telling of that story has changed some since then, but it is still basically the same story. When I got older, I learned that what I was taught was a basic outline that was age appropriate. That does not make what I learned untrue, it makes it simplified and not very deep.
There was something, however, at work (and still at work) other than age. It was geographically and religiously tilted protestant and British. Again, it was not the facts that were wrong, but rather it was incomplete. And when breadth is added it can make the original story seem untrue.
Our tendency is to tell history from our own national, cultural and ethnic perspective. The experience of English, Spanish, French, Irish, German, Japanese, Chinese, West African (depending upon the century), Mexican, Native American and Cuban peoples within the United States are vastly different. All those stories need to be heard and understood — the good and the bad.
In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy challenges the telling of the Russian War of 1812 by the scholars and historians. He understood the major roles played by men who were given little credit and often criticized by the official storytellers. What he is doing is retelling from the perspective of his mother Russia and the peasants, rather than western European professors. Both have value, but both need to be understood. He does this from a viewpoint that he explains and pulls both stories toward his understanding of right and wrong as well as the “wheel of history” that turns in spite of us. The characters in the story just happened to be the ones that appeared at that time and place.
While I may have issues with his perspective, what he does places both perspectives under an authority outside of themselves. The telling of stories is never for no purpose. There is always something beyond the story that the teller is attempting to move us toward. It might be something as trivial as acceptance or as important as saving the world.
What is hoped for is to get to a place where all the histories can be heard with a common standard to move toward. Stories can be told to embarrass or condemn with the purpose of lifting up one perspective to the diminishment of another. Perhaps those same stories could be told to express disappointment that a standard has not been lived up to or followed. The goal being to improve all of us.
From the standpoint of a U.S. citizen, there is the Constitution and Bill of Rights that we can look to as a standard. We have rarely lived up to the lofty words that were written then, but they do pull us toward a goal. We cannot forget our past — for good or ill. We cannot shut out the voices of those whose perspective is different and claim to hold to these documents. To only tell a polished and sanitized story is to lose depth and breadth. It will make us shallow, tribal and hateful. The stories must be told with respect and empathy for all (and I can think of a few instances where this is nearly impossible). For that example, we might turn to Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
From the standpoint of Jews and Christians, we have Scripture as both a source and guide for our stories. Nothing is held back in the Bible. The victories and failures are all there. Disaster fell when one generation did not tell the stories and the people “forgot” where they came from and who rescued them.
Do not fear the stories of others. Learn from them.
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders which he has wrought.
He established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.