Magazine article The Christian Century

Tales out of Turn: On [Mis]telling Other People's Stories

Magazine article The Christian Century

Tales out of Turn: On [Mis]telling Other People's Stories

Article excerpt

THE CHALLENGE of telling other people's stories is an occupational hazard for journalists, historians, memoirists, conflict mediators and even preachers. Getting the facts accurate is only part of the challenge. Storytellers have to grapple with the most effective way to tell the story and what perspective to take or interpretive remarks to include.

Storytelling is not just a matter of craft; it's also a moral problem--because to a large extent we are our stories. If our stories are violated, so are we.

It is often said that in telling someone else's story, you should imagine that other person being in the room. Would she find your version of her story accurate and fair?

The challenge to be fair gets more complicated when the other's story is entwined with your own--especially if the shared history is complicated and contentious. In that case, you really can tell only your own version of the story--and yet the other person is inevitably wrapped up in it. Can you tell the story at all without violating the other person?

And what if the other person is in denial about aspects of his story? Do you play the role of enabler by going along with his denial for the sake of not violating his sense of the story?

What do you do with family secrets--your own family's or someone else's--or with the darker aspects of someone's life? Do you have the right to make them part of the story? Would it be right to tell the story of an abusive priest and leave out any mention of the abuse? How do we speak the hard but sometimes necessary truths with love and without bearing false witness?

I struggled with such questions in writing a book about Iran (An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran, published by Cascadia). I wanted to tell Iranian stories that are not likely to be heard in the U.S. Yet there are probably as many different ways of being Iranian as there are ways of being American. To which stories do I give privileged position? And how do I tell them?

One chapter in the book was centered on an American who married an Iranian woman and made his home in Iran. Several people who read the manuscript, including the publisher, suggested that I share that chapter with the subject. I'm glad I complied with that advice. The man gave me feedback that spared me some embarrassment. If I ever see him again--which I hope to--I won't have to justify my version of his story to him.

The stories that pastors tell can get them into trouble. A friend of mine was preaching in a neighboring state, several hundred miles from home, so he thought he could safely tell tales from his home community. In his sermon he told a story about a businessman back home who engaged in a questionable business transaction. After the service, while greeting people at the back of the sanctuary, the preacher was confronted by the very businessman whose ethics had been scrutinized in the sermon. The preacher's story didn't pass the "in the same room" test.

I know some pastors who won't tell a story involving a person within the congregation without cleating it with that person. What about a preacher telling stories about people and situations in congregations that they've previously served?

I heard Thomas Lynch and Rhoda Janzen speak recently about their experience in writing memoirs, which inevitably involves telling other people's stories. …

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