Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter N - NARRATIVE

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Down through the ages great spiritual teachers have understood the power of story. This we can see in the ancestral tales of the Hebrew Bible, in the stories of Job and Esther, in the parables of Jesus, and in the Jataka tales told by the Buddha. It has been through story that human beings have come to understand who they are; to determine how they are to relate to one another and to the world about them; and to contemplate the nature of the Divine-all of which are concerns arising from the spiritual aspects of our being.


Ruth Sawyer traces the beginnings of storytelling back to prehistoric times, and through her work, we can speculate that an early hunter may have given us a first narrative in the form of an impromptu chant exulting in his act of bravery and accomplishment. Gradually these chants may have developed into prose narratives, and the focus on the storytellers' actions may have broadened to include family, tribe, and others-until the third-person narrative came into being. Over time, the quest for understanding beyond immediate, concrete experience may have developed: wonderings about patterns in nature and whether there is a force beyond what one can see that shapes the world. Stories were created to explain these forces, and the ancient myths came to be.

In early cultures the storytellers were teachers: bards, troubadours, minstrels, seanachies, and ollahms. It was the storytellers' work to pass down the epics, myths, sagas, and legends that expressed the history, wisdom, and values of their societies. Following the invention of the printing press, print became the dominant medium for storytelling, and today we see stories told across the airwaves, through film, and through electronic media. Yet the power and appeal of story is in no way diminished. Indeed, despite modernism's attempt to devalue narrative as a way of knowing, the human need for story may be stronger than ever.


The Hebrew Bible begins with a story-two stories, actually, from two different oral traditions-about how the world came to be. What follows is story after story: of how God caused humankind to multiply and spread over the face of the earth, of God's interactions with the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Hebrew people, including fictional stories such as the stories of Job and Jonah. These stories, interspersed with commands and regulations for living, were passed down from generation to generation, reflecting and shaping the Hebrew people's sense of their own identity and their understanding of God.

The first four books of the Christian Testament are stories of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In them we learn that Jesus himself was a storyteller. He told stories to answer people's questions about how to relate to God and to fellow human beings. When Jesus came to the core of his message, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the best way Jesus knew to describe the Kingdom was through story: "The Kingdom of God is like a merchant who . . ." the Kingdom of God is like a householder who. . . ."

Buddha was likewise a storyteller. He told his Jataka tales as stories from his former lives; they were told to illustrate moral points. There are more than a thousand such tales recorded in the Buddhist scriptures-many that were added by the Buddha's followers.


According to Jerome Bruner, narrative is one of two primary modes of human thought, one of two "distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality" (Bruner, 1986, p. 11). The other is the logicoscientific mode, which deals in general causes and is concerned with verifiable, empirical truth. The narrative mode seeks not so much to establish formal and empirical truths as to establish verisimilitude and lifelikeness. Bruner says that narrative "is built upon concern for the human condition," in contrast to the "heartlessness" of logical thought (Bruner, 1986, p. 14).

Mikhail Bakhtin describes two kinds of discourse: authoritative discourse, which strives to determine behavior or "ideological interrelations with the world" and discourse as having an interior persuasiveness (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 342). Authoritative discourse is characterized by distance from oneself and an absence of dialogic possibilities. It is static, with its own single calcified meaning. Discourse having interior persuasiveness is flexible, with malleable borders. It does not appeal to any external authority but is contextualized and can be related to one's own life. This second type of discourse offers further creative interaction; it is open, unfinished, capable of further representation. Harold Rosen describes narrative discourse as having this interior persuasiveness.