For the past month, I’ve been blogging about “story guides.” Such guides me are storytellers who evoke and convey facets of the human experience that had me mystified and inarticulate. In the series so far, I’ve written about a poet and a novelist. My subject in this post is Daniel Taylor. Although he is also a novelist, Taylor is a story guide to me because of his didactic work on the nature of personal narratives.
I HAVE A STORY
Taylor helped me understand that I have a story, a personal narrative, an account of my lived experience.
Stories are the single best way humans have for accounting for our experience. You are your stories. You are the product of all the stories you’ve heard and lived and of many that you’ve never heard. They have shaped how you see yourself, the world, and your place in it. Your first great storytellers were home, school, popular culture, and perhaps, church. Knowing and embracing healthy stories are crucial to living rightly and well.(Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story)
Even if I don’t talk about it or think about it, my story includes how fair I think I’ve been treated, how talented, or how successful I am. I am my story, which is to say my identity is more than my career or my temperament or demographic. I had always thought of myself in terms of my beliefs or intellectual convictions, but Taylor has helped me see that at the core, I am story-formed. I may “hold” or profess this or that belief, but my story—even if I’m not conscious of it—drives me. My body knows my story even when my conscious mind detaches from it.
I’ve become aware that I effortlessly and often unconsciously compose and constantly revise a story of my life. And the story I tell others is not always the story I tell myself. Taylor ties our story making and storytelling to our desire for meaning:
This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of a story. We tell stories because we hope to find or create significant connections between things. Stories help us see how choices and events are tied together, why things are, and how things could be.(Tell Me a Story)
MY STORY IS BROKEN
Our search for meaning can become a crisis. Taylor raises the possibility of having a “broken story:”
Our stories can be broken. Individuals and whole societies struggle to live by stories that cannot sustain them. Stories that no longer provide the meaning and sense of purpose that life stories must provide are failed stories. If you cannot convincingly articulate a plot for your life, you’re living a broken story.(Tell Me a Story)
In a season of failure and soul searching, I gradually became aware of a distorted story I was telling myself. I had a broken narrative, in which my sense of identity was shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.” I was stuck in a story about my own accomplishments. I was filled with pride or shame, depending on the day.
In that season, I was stuck. I looked back over the previous thirty years and wondered if my life had been pointless, that maybe I’d lived in vain. As I looked to the future, I wondered if I’d ever be useful. Taylor relayed a ray of hope:
Broken stories, however, can be healed. If your present story is broken or diseased, it can be made well. Or, if necessary, it can be replaced by a story that has a plot worth living. Diseased stories can be replaced by healthy ones. We are free to change the stories by which we live. Because we are genuine characters and not mere puppets, we can choose our defining stories.(Tell Me a Story)
I HAVE A FAITH STORY
Taylor’s work on stories also named what I was experiencing in my faith. Again, I thought in terms of ideas and tenants of faith, but not so much in terms of my actual lived journey. Faith stories can be fragile and easily broken by painful experiences or hurtful experiences in religious groups. I allowed authority figures to do a lot of my thinking for me, forfeiting the authorship of my story. Looking back on it, it seems I absorbed a one-size-fits-all story that slowly erased my individual identity and story.
I left my church community after over thirty years of involvement. That felt traumatic. I wondered if I’d wasted those years, if I’d compromised or sinned against God, and if I’d find new friends. The experience raised the question, what is my faith story? Am I a person who failed to live for God? Was I a fake? Was I deceived by leaders with strong personalities? Did I fail to take responsibility for my faith choices?
One of the ways Taylor helped me the most was his emphasis on the variety and uniqueness of faith stories, even among people of the same religion or even the same church.
When we say we share the same beliefs as someone else, we are stating only an approximate truth. Your specific spiritual legacy is as unique as your DNA. No one else has your mix of life experiences or your understandings of what those experiences reveal. You likely share important beliefs and values, and passions with others, but your blend of them and how they have worked themselves out in your life are absolutely singular. No two wine lovers or gardeners are the same. Nor any two Jews or Christians.(Daniel Taylor, Creating a Spiritual Legacy)
Simply put, my “I believe in God” is not the same as someone else’s “I believe in God,” even when we are believing in the same God.
FAITH STORIES ARE ALSO DOUBT STORIES
Daniel Taylor did more than show me my faith story is unique, complex, and worth telling. He also helped me acknowledge the doubts, disappointment, and darkness in my faith story. Taylor makes the case that belief and skepticism are compatible.
The word “skeptical” isn’t often linked with the word “believer.” Skeptics are skeptical. And believers, well, aren’t.(The Skeptical Believer)
Unless they are. The two concepts can, and often do, go together because we live in a fallen world where knowledge of the truth is always partial and often distorted.
And I must admit that Skeptical Believers are among my favorite Christians. They are the Pascals, and Flannery O’Connors, and Apostle Thomases of the faith. They ask uncomfortable questions when everyone else is smiling vacantly. They take clichés—intellectual and spiritual—as personal affronts.
NO LONGER UNDER A WEIGHT
As I’ve reflected on my story, I’ve come to see that it’s a story of God’s loyalty, not mine. He has faithfully pursued me more than I have pursued him. I lived under a heavy burden of trying to be an active and committed Christian—almost a superhero. Though I thought I was trying to love, that burden made me fearful, self-absorbed, controlling, and eventually exhausted.
Daniel Taylor helped me see I no longer need to try to live other people’s stories or bury my own. I have a unique faith story that needs to be told.
For Further Reading
Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story
Daniel Taylor, Creating a Spiritual Legacy
Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist