Stories We Tell

February 24, 2014 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I watched the highly acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell.

It is directed by Sarah Polley and tells the story of her family, asking the question of what Sarah’s mom was really like and who Sarah’s biological dad is.

What is interesting about the documentary is that it ties nicely into trends of memory studies in gospels scholarship.

The storyline of the documentary is simple, but as the title suggests, it is about memory, and the way we tell stories about our life. Polley says at one point about the documentary:

One of the main focuses is the discrepancies in the story. All of us, have similar stories with large and small details that vary. I am interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about how the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

It is through the multiple interviews that the mystery of memory and story-telling is unfolded before the viewers eyes. Not all of the children or family friends remember everything the same ways, sometimes the account of the same event is told in radically different ways. It is magical to see the different ways these memories are told and re-told from different perspectives.

Polley says that “everyone’s point of view, no matter how contradictory, must be considered.”

But this does not sit well with everyone in the documentary. Polley asks Harry at one point, “What do you think of the concept of me making this documentary and giving equal weight to everyone version of the story?”

Harry responds:

I don’t like it, I think that it takes us into very…like you can’t ever touch bottom with anything then. We are all over the place. I think they can all be heard, but it is giving them equal weight, particularly those who are not players.

First of all, there are the parties of the incident, those who are there and are directly effected by it. Then there is a circle around that, of people who are effected tangentially because of their relationship to the principle parties. Then there is another concentric further out there which is basically has heard or been told from one of the principles players about it. Alll of these may have different narratives. These narratives are shaped in part by their relationship to the person who told it to them and by the events. One does not get the truth simply by hearing what their reactions are….The same set of circumstances effect different people in different ways, not that they are different truths, they are different reactions to particular events.

The crucial function of art is to tell the truth.

Can one get at the truth? I guess one can get very close to it. But you have to limit it to the ones who are involved in the events. The reality is essentially that the story of Diane is only mine to tell. I think that is a fact. My recollections may be faulty at times, but I am not going to lie.

Sarah’s sister reflects that you can never really know what happened. I don’t think she means that she does not know who her “mum” is, but rather that to know exactly what happened is not feasible, for everything is interpreted.

There are a lot of questions about who was she, and there is a lot of disagreement about what kind of a person she was. There is this misconception that she was something, but I think this is another misconception, that there is a state of affairs, or things that actually happened, and we have to kind of reconstruct exactly what happened in the past.

And I don’t think there was a “what actually happened,” I think there was lots of perspectives from the very beginning. You don’t ever get to an answer, you don’t ever get to “okay now we have figured it out, we know exactly what happened, we know exactly what kind of person she was.” I think those kind of things are illusory.

Gospels Scholarship

I point out this documentary partially because it is just a good documentary, but also because it ties quite nicely to some of the more recent developments in gospels scholarship.

The nature of historical Jesus research is taking a turn and scholars are beginning to reflect more deeply on what happened between the “event” of Jesus, and the “writing” of the gospels. There was a gap between the two and we don’t know exactly how this tradition was conveyed or passed down. Scholars are investigating the intersection of orality studies, social memory theories, and the way we tell stories.

Memory studies show that memory is not a photographic record of what actually took place, but a construction based on the original encoding of experience, the relating of that experience to oneself and others according to narrative frameworks and conventions supplied by one’s cultural context, and the need to make sense of the past in light of the present, and the present in light of the past.

This does not mean memory is unreliable but that what is remembered cannot be straightforwardly be equated with what actually happened.

The nature of memory is supported by everyday experiences of telling stories where a story will hold onto basic elements of what happened, but begin to develop over time into exaggerations, dichotomies, and dramatization that was not originally present in order to make the retelling of the story interesting and memorable.

This does not mean historical Jesus research is forever lost, but that the only viewpoint we get of him is through a lens. The project of trying to separate authentic from inauthentic material is fundamentally misconceived. A neat separation is not possible.

In Stories We Tell there is this same quest to find out who “mum” really was, but Polley realizes in the process that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

This does not mean the reconstructions are not helpful, or that they are not true. What it does mean is history is always mediated through the memories of people with different perspectives.



Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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