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The words to say it

· Telling of God and his Messiah ·

The following are excerpts from the conference to be held in Rome on 13 October in Palazzo Luchesi, opening a series of lectures called "Thursdays at the Gregorian", translated from Italian.

One does not need to teach children, at least those exposed to the power of biblical stories, that story-telling is at the heart of our faith. The writer, Paul Claudel, remembered how much the story and image of the head of Absalom (2 Sam 14-18) remained impressed on his childhood memory from his very first catechism lesson. It is an effect which does not escape even other wise writers, in particular, Pascal, who always carried with him a little saying, “God of Abraham, of Issac and of Jacob, not of philosophers or of scholars, certainty certainty, peace and consolation are found only in the ways taught by the Gospel.” God and his Messiah, the philosopher understood, come to us through stories, those of the patriarchs like those of the Gospels. And today, perhaps, we are asked to re-discover the truth in question, which does not escape children or wise men; we are asked, perhaps, to “enter” anew into Psalm 78 and to embrace all of the consequences of this invitation:

I will open my mouth in a parable,

unfold the puzzling events of the past.

What we have heard and know;

things our ancestors have recounted to us.

We do not keep them from our children;

we recount them to the next generation,

The praiseworthy deeds of the LORD and his strength,

the wonders that he performed. (vv. 2-4)

“Things our ancestors have recounted to us…we recount them to the next generation”: in these two cases the verb used is sipper , emblematic of the Hebrew Biblical narration, which puts into perspective the why of the biblical narration, from father to son. The opening of the psalm is followed by a long narration which essentially takes up the founding story, from Exodus to the book of Samuel. What is recounted by the biblical narrator is therefore entrusted to the ancestors for narration to the future generations and vice versa.

In the New Testament we find the same effect (as Pascal’s confession has already shown) which uses the remote past tense, which in our languages is a sign of a foundational narrative: “And in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Mk 1:9). Here, too, the narrative nucleus is entrusted to the transmission of paternal figures and “generators.” It is also the case in Paul, in the text reputed to be the oldest of the New Testament: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread…”(1 Cor 11: 23-25). It is also the case in Peter, who is presented as an old man (1 Peter 1:5) and who also “articulates” the founding story of Jesus, “For he received honor and glory from God the Father – when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (2 Peter 1:17)

Before examining the narrative dimension of biblical faith, it would be good at this point to briefly explore the anthropological and cultural aspects of this narration which places inspired Scripture in dialogue with the narrative corpus of humanity. “Narration” crosses all cultures since the dawn of human history. One thinks of the oldest stories of humanity, the epic of Gilgamesh , of Enuman Elish and of Atrahasis in ancient Mesopotamia or of Mahabharata , the sacred epic of Hinduism. Our species, homo sapiens, is, as the essayist Nancy Huston says, “a myth-making species,” the only one which, “knits together stories for survival.” As humans, we have an instinct which makes us “weave together” our experience and translate it into many stories. Aristotle said it first in his Poetics : we are mimetic beings. It is one of our inherent reflexes to dramatically represent our experience, even in its most terrible aspects (Aristotle had Greek tragedy in mind) in order to “purify” and freely live our human condition.

We have all explored our narrative instinct in childhood, listening to stories, reading stories and creating original stories. Bedtime was the moment of grace in this respect. In Terrence Malik’s film, The Tree of Life , one of the three children asks his mother in their bedroom, “Tell us a story from before we can remember.” This request exemplifies the requests of every generation to hear from the mouths of their parents a story which began before them. The story in question is, of course, first of all that of the family - how the parents met, the birth of the children – but it is also one which, progressively, reaches back generations (and here we find the work entrusted to the ancestors of Psalm 78).

But soon, stories which we hear become stories which we read. In the book, A History of Reading , Alberto Manguel, disciple of that maestro of story-telling, Jorge Luis Borges, writes of an experience that all young readers have had, “Often, at night, I turned on my bedside lamp and tried to reach the end of the book I was reading, while at the same time holding off that ending as long as possible.” Every adolescent has searched for the “Never-ending Story” (cfr. La unendliche Geschichte of Michael Ende.)

A relationship to stories, however, is not just for children or adolescents; it is vital at every age. Until the very end of our lives, we will understand ourselves through the stories we receive from human culture. Cognitive psychology, which intersects with neuroscience but also with literary theory, today is interested in the type of intelligence which is developed through the composition or elucidation of literature. The research of Mark Turner, The Literary Mind , intends to show that narrative intelligence is not peripheral but central to the life of the mind. With examples from A Thousand and One Nights or the Search for Lost Time , Turner shows how story-telling gives the mind essential cognitive mechanisms for understanding our place in time and in space, for understanding how a “self” is distinct from other “selves” and for imagining these other “selves” and their point of view.

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