Transcending the 'Single Story'

The Return of the Prodigal Son. By Leonello Spada. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most powerful readings I assign my students is a TED Talk from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Her topic is "the danger of a single story." According to Adichie, a "single story" emerges when someone carries a one-dimensional view of a reality that is actually quite complex, a reality explained by a variety of stories. This reality could be a person, a religion, a country -- really anything that can be known or encountered.

Her main point, of course, is nothing new. That humans judge prematurely or improperly, that we fail to see all sides of an issue or gain the relevant facts, these are truths as old as our history. But Adichie makes the point in practical, vivid and disarming ways. Adichie discusses the time when, at 19, she came to the United States. She said her American roommate was surprised Adichie could speak English and asked Adichie about her "tribal music." The roommate soon learned that English was the official language of Nigeria. She also found out that Adichie listened not to tribal music but to Mariah Carey. Adichie's roommate also assumed that Adichie didn't know how to use a stove.

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Reflecting on this experience, Adichie wrote that her American roommate "had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe."

Adichie's talk gives additional examples of the ways that a single story can confine and undermine the truth. And as I've talkd over these examples with students, I've found that her remarks are really a prelude to epistemology. They invite a healthy self-examination, regardless of the subject, about what we know or think we know. 

I assign her talk in the context of inviting students to reflect on their beliefs about God. Once they read Adichie's examples, once they see how easy it is to form single stories, they begin to consider their own preconceived notions. Do you, I ask my students, carry a single story about God? Do you assume He doesn't speak English or cannot use a stove? Do you have a single story about what it would mean for Him to exist?

Adichie's talk provides a helpful framework for evaluating our own life and spiritual state. We can possess single stories of ourselves, single stories about our past and even about our future. We can think of our personalities, talents or decisions in limiting, one-dimensional ways, sometimes unintentionally. Jesus, however, is constantly inviting us to see different stories, to imagine fresh versions of our lives and our capacities. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, it would be easy for the younger son to imagine himself solely in terms of his betrayal of his father and the squandering of his inheritance. That, in fact, is how the older son wants to identify his brother: as defined by the single narrative of disrespect and dissipation.

But the father's love and forgiveness (and, by extension, Jesus), express a different truth: Who you are, and what you will be, is multi-dimensional. You are not defined by the single story of a prior moment, but rather, by stories yet to come. Of course, the younger son must express his sorrow and ask for forgiveness; he must acknowledge his sins. But these acts enable him to move beyond guilt and shame and sorrow and commence a new chapter, a new story, rather, of his life. In a word, they enable conversion. They empower him to live a new narrative, one of faith and hope and love. 

 

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