Reading the Story, Resisting the Metaphor … for a Moment

By Dr. David R. Wilson

I love movies–their creativity, unique expressions of thoughts on the world as we know it or might want it, their ability to offer alternative worlds and realities. And, I love the metaphors that often come to me by the dozen as I immerse myself in the story being told. This past week I watched the movie Lion, a narrative about an Indian boy from a remote village, who, due to several unfortunate circumstances, becomes separated from his family by more than a thousand miles, making him an accidental orphan. He is adopted by another family on another continent, and as an adult, begins a quest out of his hurt and sense of loss to find the family he was born into. The movie was replete with settings and situations that lend themselves metaphorically to proverbial wisdom, reflection on life’s uncertainties, and particularly the overwhelming need for care for variously orphaned children in our world, and the sense any of us might experience at points in our lives of being lost, lamenting, grieving, and searching.

But about a third of the way into this movie, I caught myself.

I caught myself running away with the metaphors and letting my world and ideas converge with those of the movie. That is the point (at least one of the points) of watching a movie, after all, isn’t it? And it’s often why there can be so much disagreement on the value and quality of a movie–we each bring our own experiences as a giant multi-faceted lens to view the story being told. Of course, divergence as much as convergence can positively affect our ideas and evaluations of the movie. But, this time, I caught myself in the middle of this convergence and was convicted to stop. Since it was on DVD, I had the ability to pause the movie to reflect for a moment on what I was feeling and what I thought about it. The conviction was this: stop converging. Stop relishing the metaphors. Like one who misses the forest for the trees, I was risking missing the story for the metaphors. I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me before–surely it has occurred to others–but the reflection was new for me. Rather than watching and allowing convergence to take over, I wanted to just take in the story. Let the movie tell the narrative, explain motives, raise unanswerable questions, portray characters, and let the story be the story rather than a prelude to or springboard for my own thoughtful creative meanderings. This is, after all, something I already try to do when listening to stories of those I know when the are relating them to me.

So I did. I stopped the convergence and just watched/listened. The movie was just as moving and impactful when I hit “play” on the DVD player as it had been up to that point. But I viewed it differently. As much as possible, I resisted superimposing meaning on the story. I resisted drawing useful metaphors and philosophical fragments and forming new tangential stories of my own. For that time, the story belonged to the storyteller and I wanted only to be immersed in it. This incidental conviction and discipline led me to think for a while the next day about the whole thing.

What great benefit there was in doing this, in letting the story belong to the storyteller and not to me, the interpretive observer. Of course, there’s always some interpretation, and I’m not prescribing a “right” way to watch movies, but an occasional discipline that offers something powerful as an alternative to constant or habitual convergence. Just like when someone asks you to listen to listen and understand, rather than listening in order to coalesce what you’re hearing with your own experiences in order to respond.

And in reflecting on this, I couldn’t help but think that there is a story that is told so often in the church that the very telling of the story and the context of the place in which it is commonly told–that is, church communities/congregations–begs for convergence by the nature of kerygmatic and didactic aims rather than for a disciplined listening to the narrative. This is often (possibly?) to the congregation’s loss in that it can be a loss in its effect in our world community.

Convergence is importance, and as a lover of metaphors, synecdoche, and metonymy, I’m definitely not suggesting we put these aside for good. I am suggesting that we put them aside sometimes, perhaps as a practice of discipline in order to let stories have their way with us and in order to check ourselves on our own superimpositions that may offer richness that perhaps steals from the wealth of the bare story. The story I’m thinking of here is of course the story of Christ told to us in different forms in the New Testament, in the Gospels, in the Letters of Paul, and as a collated story as well. The premise (a good and useful one), “Jesus died for me,” and other such summative or synecdochical aphorisms often peremptorily negate our ability to actually hear the story.

I’m not suggesting we try to hear the story for the first time as if we’ve never heard it before nor even to engage in inductive study at this point (both sometimes helpful and necessary practices of with their own important merits), but to just hear the story as it is, resisting our own convergence along the way, resisting the formation of metaphors and theological understandings. This got me wondering, and I’ll end with just a few questions that I’m pondering and hope you will ponder with me. 

So, what is the story of Jesus when we approach it this way? What elements stand out in the storyteller’s version to the extent we can hear it? What summary would we offer of it if we resisted the theological superimpositions so familiar to us and let the elements of the story be part of a narrative rather than doctrinal points to add up to a theological position? How might this affect the way we relate the story?  

I have some ideas, but I’m just in the process of re-reading with this discipline. I suspect that our tendency towards convergence and thus (sometimes as a result of the habit) superimposition of ideas and ideals, empathy gets lost, and in particular, our ability to see what is in the margins in relation to where we live out our existence literally and symbolically. It’s just a suspicion and it flows from my own focus on the marginalization that often flows from a lack of empathy, so I’ll admit I’ve already superimposed a bit of my own bias. But there it is, and I’m going to explore the question about limiting convergence and listening well and seeing well through others’ eyes.

I’m starting with the Gospel of Matthew, and am going to follow the story straight through. I wonder what I’ll hear/see. I wonder what you will hear/see. The one thing I’ve already found is this: I am challenged by the humility required for the process, and this humility is good for me. Jesus story has certainly become central to my story, but for now, for this season, I want to read and let it just be his story and see where it goes.