Our Bibles contain four gospels. Each gospel author includes different details, different wording and sometimes different events in telling the story. As early as the second century Christian leaders began the quest to harmonise the four gospels.
Scholars often undertook this project to defend the Bible against claims of contradictions. Others sought to harmonise the gospel accounts as an attempt to identify “what really happened”. Like a jigsaw, if each gospel contributes a unique detail, then by assembling all four details we can get a complete story that we’ll never see by reading each gospel individually. Or so the thinking goes.
Many people go through life with a similar approach to the world we live in. We each tell our life stories based on our knowledge of the truth. At the core of this quest is a belief that a factual event occurred. If we can accurately gather all the facts then we can communicate the exact details of that event. In this way truth will be revealed.
This approach has merit. If carried out precisely we can answer a wide variety of How, What, When, and Who questions. However, this methodology cannot answer the Why questions that are so essential to storytelling. It’s a fact that my grandparents emigrated from Scotland to Australia in the 1950’s. But immigration records will never explain why the made the decision to relocate to the other side of the world. And that Why is key to the story. In the case of Gospel harmonies our quest for factual truth may even distract us from more significant heart truths.
Let’s think about those Why’s using a predictable, routine event: Sunday morning worship.
Why did an event take place? We can easily answer the How, What, When and Who questions of Sunday worship through observation and record keeping. When we turn to consider why people assemble in that place, at that time, there’s suddenly no single accurate answer. Any attempt to harmonise the motivations of the people present each Sunday morning is a generalization at best and at worst woefully inaccurate.
Why did an individual act that way? We might think it’s easier to define the motivation of a particular individual, but if you’re anything like me, that may even change from week to week. Sometimes I attend Sunday worship to worship God. Sometimes I attend because I’m a minister and paid to be there. Sometimes I’m there because I have a responsibility, and sometimes I just long to see friends. Most Sundays I find myself motivated by a complex mix of all these thoughts.
When we tell our stories, the ‘Why’s of motivation’ provide vital insights as we interpret our world. We also need to deal with the ‘Why’s of interpretation’.
Why is this event significant? We can all agree that Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon was a significant event. It’s highly unlikely that we will all agree on the cause of that significance. Was it because it symbolized American (or human) ingenuity? Was it because it opened the door to further space travel? Was it because it inspired a nation? Was it because of the technological advances it represented? Was it all of the above?
Why does this story need to be told? Stories are summaries. We summarise our lives. We summarise events. We summarise history. Because we summarise, we naturally editorialise. We make decisions about what information to include and omit.
We omit things on purpose. We omit some stories because they contain shame. We gloss over some events because we deem them trivial. We leave out details because we want to portray ourselves in a particular light. Sometimes we shorten our stories simply because of time constraints.
In a similar fashion we tell stories for a purpose. We seek to inspire others. We long to preserve our legacy within our family or maybe in a broader sphere. We tell stories to persuade others to agree with us. We tell stories to warn of dangers. We sometimes tell a story to honor a friend, or to humiliate a rival.
Whatever our motivation in telling a story, the act of storytelling is actually a ‘Why of interpretation’. We tell our stories because they explain the way we see the world.
A collection of facts can’t explain the Why.
Most of us have a story that we live. We’re politically conservative or liberal because we see the world a certain way. We emphasizes certain values and downplay others. We value education or we don’t. We avoid debt, or we don’t. We hold these values because somewhere in our life we were taught or experienced things that formed those values. So the values arise out of our life story, not simply from making judgements within an intellectual vacuum.
In our stories we believe that particular actions will usually result in predetermined results.
In our stories we see an illegal immigrant working a minimum wage job and complain that he’s stolen an American’s job.
In our stories we see single mothers and complain about a system that encourages them to have kids.
In our stories we believe that college education will lead to employment and a happy life.
There’s power in the story of another person: a person with story different to mine.
That illegal immigrant has a story that tells Why they’re here. Perhaps it’s a story of tragedy. Often it’s a story of poverty. And when we learn the storytellers name… we’re no longer talking about illegal immigrants. We’re talking about specific people. People who need Jesus. People we’re called to love. People who can open our eyes to another story.
The single mother you pointed at actually isn’t the Samaritan woman at the well. She didn’t have 6 kids with 5 dads just so she could collect welfare checks. Her Why is more complicated than that. Her husband of 15 years walked out on her one day. Now her kids are rowdy in the restaurant because he used to discipline the other end of table and he’s no longer there. Her story isn’t the one we’ve written for her.
Perhaps there was a day when a college education automatically landed a good job. But education costs increase and expectations of a graduate degree not just a Bachelors also increase. So the debt load rises and the “good job” barely pays the rent and student loans with no hope of owning a house. At the same time there are more college graduates competing for the same jobs. So the story is rewritten and college grad takes whatever job she can because some income is better than none. Someday she’ll have a career… maybe.
And we realise that facts don’t tell a story, because they can’t answer the Why’s.
And we realise that our story is just one side of a story, one facet of a jewel, and we need the stories of others to reveal a reality bigger than we can see or imagine.
And we realise that we need to listen before we speak. To learn before we teach. We realise that other races, other genders, other ages, other nations have stories that add value to our own.
And we realise that God gave us four gospels for a reason.