Why it's worth telling stories (and telling them well)

At the Greenbelt Festival a number of years ago the late John O’Donohue posed a magnificent question. ‘After the morning you discover that you’re the son of God,’ John said, ‘what do you do for the afternoon?’

Part of why it is such a good question is that it takes the person of Jesus of Nazareth seriously. What would it have been like? Did Jesus think his sense of his emerging identity was, in a certain sense, anywhere from mildly to wildly delusional?

I’ve been reading the gospel of Matthew lately. Truth be told, it’s my least favourite gospel. Jesus preaches more in this gospel than he does in any other of the three canonical gospels. His sermons are meaningful but long, and I’m never convinced that I’ve understood the sequence of one point to another. But to my gladness, I’m loving it. In the fourth chapter, we read that Jesus ventured out into the desert to be tested by the devil.

When I was a small boy I asked for a children’s bible one Christmas and was duly furnished with one. The first thing I did was to look through the pictures accompanying the gospels to see if there was a depiction of this scene. Sure enough, there was. A sky-blue devil with horns and cloven feet and a podgy belly. I was thrilled. As I’ve grew older and began to face devils of my own, I wondered what to do with this depiction from both Matthew and Luke’s gospel.

BBC Radio 4 did a great drama about this story a few years ago that took the narrative a little further. Having valiantly resisted the first three temptations, Jesus was subject to some further ones. Initially he was offered a wine gum. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘It’s a blackcurrant flavoured one!’ the devil tuned. Again, Jesus’ resolve was firm. He finally cracked to the pressure when offered the back of a spoon to crack the foil on the top of a coffee jar.

It was enjoyable humour, but, again, it took the question of temptation seriously, albeit by being unserious. What does it mean to be tempted? How do we tell the story about Jesus’ humanity in a way that creates life, rather than creates bewilderment or delusion?

In Matthew’s desert, Jesus has committed to a project of fasting. His first temptation is to break from what he had committed to. Suddenly stones and bread are not the point, the point is whether we can stick to something we have resolved to do. And then, we hear an echo of something so awful. He finds himself face to face with his own destruction. Throw yourself from a high place. Will you be caught? Won’t you? My best friend took his own life one awful August night when we were both in our twenties. What devils of his own voicing was he hearing?

Why am I telling you this? Why can’t I stick to a point? Why do you, in the midst of a story of the temptations in Matthew now know about my best friend, my childhood bible, a radio drama, Greenbelt and John O’Donohue?

Because we live by and with our stories, that’s why.

Put like this, it’s worthwhile telling well. It’s worthwhile telling with interruptions and interspersions of our own life. Stories are more than an indication of the way things are. Stories can carve borders, and these borders may be anything from open to hostile. In this way, story is an indication of the way we are - and it may be that stories must change as we discover that we are more than what we thought.


By Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, author and leader of the Corrymeela community. Pádraig will be a speaker at Movement 2016: Stories of Faith, SCM's mini summer festival this year.