Finding truth through multiplicity

By Catherine Hoffman
New Times Editor and Communications Officer

Posted in Culture

A lot of my friends are non-Christian, but many of them have had experience in Christian churches thanks to religious parents or grandparents. Most of these experiences happened during childhood, leaving particularly strong impressions on their young minds. These impressions have frequently been reinforced by the experiences of others and by depictions of church in the media.

When I talk to my friends about my own work and experiences in the Uniting Church they often make assumptions about our congregations and expressions of faith. Some of these – the overwhelming number of older people attending worship services, for example – are reasonably accurate; others are not. My friends, both those who have experienced a particular type of church and those who are completely unfamiliar, bring their own assumptions about what the church looks like and does. That everyone is super conservative or old-fashioned in their thinking. That we cross ourselves and pray to an uncountable number of little-known saints. That only men can be ministers or leaders. That intolerance and sexism are rife. When I talk to them about things that contradict these assumptions they are often surprised.

This situation reminds me of a TED Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. TED Talks cover a wide range of topics and are presented by people from a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives. In her talk, Chimamanda speaks about “The danger of the single story” – put simply, what happens when you have only one perspective or only know one story about a person, family, community or country. “Show a people as one thing,as only one thing,over and over again,and that is what they become,” she says. Chimamanda shares her personal experiences on both sides of this issue – including an assumption she made about a poorer family while living in Nigeria, and the assumptions that were made about her as a Nigerian woman when she travelled to the United States to study. When we hear only a single story about something or someone, we must often misunderstand them.

The stories that we hear about places and people are frequently told from only one perspective – the perspective of those in positions of power. The adage that “history is written by the winners” has too often been proven true. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person,but to make it the definitive story of that person,” says Chimamanda. In the past, Christians have often been placed in this position of power. But as more people in Western countries, like Australia, begin to identify themselves as agnostic or atheist, this is beginning to change – and so, the narratives about Christianity and what it means to be a person of Christian faith are changing. It may surprise you to learn that I don’t consider this to be a bad thing – I see it as an opportunity.

Everyone deserves to tell their story rather than have their story told by others. I believe we need to listen to people’s lived experiences of church – positive and negative – without interrupting to protest that “our church isn’t like that.” But we should also feel comfortable sharing our own experiences of church, particularly with others who know only a single story of Christian faith. By allowing these stories to overlap and coexist, I think a truer picture and better understanding of the Christian church can be created.

Chimamanda says: “Stories matter.Many stories matter.Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise.Stories can break the dignity of a people,but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

I encourage you to look beyond your assumptions about people and places, to listen to the stories they share, and to share your own stories courageously and honestly.

This editorial article first appeared in the May 2015 "Story" edition of New Times. Read the rest of the edition here.

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