The Priority of Story

By Lee Anna Sherman

In the modern university, the academic and spiritual quests for understanding appear to be in conflict: the rational versus the mystical. The natural versus the supernatural. The intellectual versus the intuitive. Mind versus heart.

But these are false dichotomies, according to OSU English Professor Chris Anderson. The quest of the scholar, he argues, is the quest of the believer: the unraveling of life’s mysteries. And that quest begins in the same place: in story.

“Ideas emerge from experience,” he says. “Ideas are a result of reflection on the stories of our lives.”

Stories are as human as flesh and bone, Anderson posits in his 2004 book, Teaching as Believing: Faith in the University. In fact, the narrative of his own spiritual journey, which led him to take the vows of a Catholic deacon in middle age, forms the starting point for his treatise. He describes the setting of his re-conversion to Christianity, the bluff beyond Mt. Angel Abbey and Seminary in Oregon where he taught literature one sabbatical year, a time in his life when he was battling depression and burdened with disillusionment. He tells of walking along a “rutted road and then a path through the blackberry hummocks and dry grasses to an oak grove” where he often read and watched birds. “Sometimes,” he writes, “a downy woodpecker was going about its work in the branches. Chickadees bickered and fluted lower down.” One autumn day in this life-filled place, as he read Anglican theologian Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery, Anderson suddenly understood how experience, faith and thought converge in the human search for truth. He still remembers “how the oak trees broke up the light” and “the smell of the dry grass” at that crystallizing moment — the moment he discerned that experience, as embodied in myth, allegory, poetry, parable, fairy tale, novel and scripture, is the locus of truth. The interpretations that arise from stories are our attempt to tap the truth within them. But only in the experiences themselves, experiences that bump up directly against life’s enigmas, does truth truly reside, he realized.

This insight, that “mystery gives rise to story gives rise to thought, in the words of theorist Paul Ricouer, is the pivot on which Anderson’s arguments turn.

The great literature of Western civilization includes the Judeo-Christian creation story, Genesis, and the first book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark. Noting that the Bible is “80 percent narrative,” Anderson stresses the open-endedness of these ancient tales. Like other classic works that Anderson’s students grapple with in his intro courses — Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet — the Bible tells raw, “naked” stories of struggle, loss, triumph, redemption. What those stories mean is left to the reader. Their many possible interpretations can be explored and debated within the community of a college class. Such critical reading is, after all, what universities are for, says Anderson. But stories embody truths that can’t finally be divorced from the words, the tales, themselves.

“In the end, the answer is that life is a mystery,” Anderson writes. “All that is durable is the search itself.”