Commentary
By Meg Little Reilly 1-10-2019

 It is impossible to know today whether we are nearing the end of a dark phase in America or just getting started, but the stories of the past — real, fictional, and spiritual — are available to us as roadmaps for navigating this moment. Stories are the connective tissue between abstract values and real-life choices. They stay with us in distinctly personal and lasting ways.

I am a novelist, and the only way for me to understand this life is to understand it as a still-unfolding plot, new to us but surely similar to stories of our past. The world’s great religions are all anchored in stories. We are bound by this universal desire, even as our plotlines vary. But the stories I know most and best are those of the Bible, so it was the Bible that called me home when the questions of this moment became too great for my unspecific spirituality.

Storytelling is a different form of learning than the straightforward transmission of facts because storytelling wraps the lessons in art. When the teachers become characters and the choices they make fall into the rhythm of a plotline, we are transported to a different time and place. The best stories don’t feel like lessons at all, but deeply personal journeys that embed themselves in our memories.

One of the things I craved in recent years is the very thing that had driven me away from biblical stories: the harsh focus on darkness and light, good and evil. I mistook it for a black-and-white worldview, when in fact it was a warning. There is no glossing over our shortcomings in the Bible. It is an unapologetic call to heed the lessons of the past, to acknowledge man’s capacity for hate, and pledge to push back against it. The Bible provides specific and frightening examples of the ways in which we can hurt one another when we succumb to greed, power, and fear.  

But it is not only the horrors that are drawn in vivid detail in the Bible; it is also the grace. The New Testament is big on grace — unmerited favor, the idea that everyone is deserving of love regardless of their status and even their actions. It’s utterly illogical, and one of the things I love specifically about Christianity. Grace cannot be taught because it defies explanation; it can only be shown. When Peter calls us to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace,” he’s making the radical plea to willingly suffer for the benefit of others. There is no place for this logic in our modern lives and yet the Bible dares us to disagree; over and over we learn the power of grace through the artistry of the stories.

I was not ready for such stories when I first dove back into them. I spent years estranged from Christianity because the specifics were alienating. They sounded obtuse, dogmatic, and thoroughly antiquated. I understood the stories of the Bible as belonging to literal-minded folk, to validate positions that I disagreed with. I preferred to live in a world of spiritual metaphors.

The problem with this approach isn’t only that you can’t build a philosophy on the avoidance of specifics — though that’s true too. The problem is that metaphors have no teeth, and this moment in history calls for teeth. Metaphors slide into aphorisms and, while it’s nice to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, does it really matter if you don’t?

I believe it does. Today, it really does. The specifics of those biblical stories – or those from the Torah, Quran, etc. – allow for consequences. The specifics make them resonant, memorable, and prescriptive. It doesn’t matter whether you think the stories happened precisely as they are told or how much of the magic you endorse. The only way to internalize the lessons is to go on the journey of the story. The warning in Ezekiel about a society on the brink of unraveling points explicitly to the evils of powerful people exploiting the vulnerable and poor. It reminds us that humankind has a history of oppressing the sojourner without justice.

It didn’t happen overnight, but I came to understand these stories as complements to my education and skepticism, not competition. Like fiction, these were ways to walk miles in other people’s shoes. Unlike most fiction, I could share the experience of these stories with people around the world and across thousands of years. Knowing the same stories, with all their uncomfortable details and consequences, can be communal in this way. And once I experienced it, I could not longer be nourished by metaphors alone.

Spiritual vagary defends the status quo. It benefits the privileged, the white American. Generalities about human nature all drift back to the center, reminding us that these things are cyclical. And in reminding us of this, they silence those who are sounding the alarm bells of history, labeling concerned people as “social justice warriors.” It may be easy to silence activists with a dismissive “all lives matter,” but it is impossible to hear the real stories of cruelty against black Americans in the name of criminal justice and truly believe that the dangers we face are all roughly the same, that we are all equally to blame for the current state of discord. Stories can demonstrate suffering at scale.    

The implicit message of spiritual generalists is that progress is inevitable and we should simply wait for the upswing. Vagaries are a comfort in moments of crisis. But they are only a comfort to those with the privilege of ignoring the crisis. Beyond the facts in our history books, we have an obligation to bear witness to the stories of the Holocaust, slavery in America, the detention of Japanese Americans, and the plight of Native Americans. These events were not merely blips on the line graph of history. They did not right themselves. These were cruel, avoidable human choices. They did not have to be.

And in listening and reading these stories, we engage our catastrophic imaginations. Whether it’s real stories, fictional ones, or biblical stories with their complicated mix of parable, memory, translation, and politics; stories allow us to walk down the path of cruelty and imagine the consequences. They rob us of our willful tendency to ignore the lessons of the past.

For children in caged detention centers, for families facing deportation, and for black and brown Americans living with the ubiquity of racism, there is no choice to ignore the crisis that is our country and the stories of the people affected by it. And I believe there is no choice for those who want to live a life on the right side of justice, grace, and history.

Meg Little Reilly is a writer and a former staffer in the Obama White House. Her third novel will be released next year. These days, she lives in Vermont with her husband and two daughters. 

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