We are responsible not only for the stories we tell but also for how we retell the stories. “Truth and Fiction,” the title Goethe chose for his autobiography, is not suggesting that poets like him will take some license with the facts of his life, but rather that we can never fully untangle truth and fiction, even about the lives we live and have lived.
Great writers often can tell us the truth about ourselves far better in their fiction than any lawyer, psychologist, or police interrogator could ever piece together. It is not that art has a better access to “reality;” instead, it is based on the insight that we cannot avoid telling ourselves a story about ourselves, even at the very moment of our actions and interactions with the world.
It is easy enough to tell our life’s tragedy in such a way as to generate compassion for us. It is also easy to articulate our life’s passages so that there is much to find comical. Sometimes there may even be short stories that could make children gently smile with delight.
Religious stories are no exception. Once we admit that what we now tell about gods, angels and heroes is at least as recreated as our own stories, then the most important question is: why do we choose to tell these religious stories rather than others, and why do we choose to tell them the way we do?
Does it matter whether the Christmas story of Mary and Jesus is based on far older Egyptian stories? Isn’t it more important whether the story teller chose to surround the newborn child with grim soldiers and lots of weapons or adorned the image with simple shepherds, animals and a happy family, perhaps even a childlike angel or two?
Do we tell such stories to intimidate, to lay the foundation for abusive power, for extracting the last dime from the poor? Or are we sharing pleasant analogies, rich in symbolism about feelings and experiences other human beings have tried to capture in a contagiously kind way?
Does it matter that Yuletide comes from the ”old Norse jól a heathen feast lasting twelve days” (OED) and we therefore still sing of the “Twelve days of Christmas” or that the Christmas Tree comes from a Germanic tradition?
Can we enjoy together, especially in the northern winters, heart-warming stories about newborn children, or are we going to focus on some nasty tale a god with limited imagination exterminating newborns?
If there were an absolute “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” then perhaps we should try to tell it and omit everything else. Until we have access to that kind of nurturing or killing truth, we should first consider what effect our choices of symbols, stories, and interpretations have on our environment, our fellow human beings, and especially our children. Why admit that Santa Clause is really “only” a nice story but insist that the story about the “Nativity” is truly about human sinners needing someone to be born to be crucified to mollify his father’s anger?
There is nothing wrong with heartwarming stories, as long as we admit that we are trying to weave together fiction and truth, while also trying to outgrow nightmares in favor of kinder, more helpful dreams.
Yes, sometimes it is necessary to unmask intentional lies and distortion, in order to stop destructive people from continuing along the path of their chosen stories in progress. But the rest is not silence: the rest should be our stories and our song, to share in honest poetry.
Most cultures have generated some rather vicious tales, if only to justify their nasty impulses. But most cultures, including perhaps our own, have also tried to give life to our search for harmony, beauty, and the mysteries of birth and of newborn children as our hope for a better future.