The Seductions of Narrative

Some years ago, I ran my best half marathon time ever.  There were some special circumstances in this race.  I can think of two classes of such circumstances.  I’m going to tell you what they are because I am still confident that they are true.

But this essay is not actually about them.  It is about the pressure on me—some of it I experience, some of it I can only infer—to make this a better story.  The more times I tell it, the more pressure there is to make it a better story.  The further I am from the event itself, the more permission I feel to give in to the pressure.  It is that gradually acquired sense of permission that I call “seduction” in the title.  That’s what this essay is about.

I am the first example; the gospel according to Matthew is the second.

The Half Marathon

I think my time was 1:32 and a few seconds.  I was in my mid-50s somewhere and it was markedly the best half marathon I had ever run.  It was the Lake Oswego Half Marathon.  If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon, you will know Lake Oswego.  I got trapped at the start in a bunch of young greyhounds who were running together and enjoying themselves.  It would have taken a lot of energy to break out of the pack, so I didn’t.  I was dumbfounded to hit the 9 mile mark in 63 minutes.  I never had any intention of running that fast.  By that time, the bunch had loosened up a bit and I detached myself from it and slowed down some.

That’s half the story, but it isn’t the fun half.  Within a mile or two of leaving the group, I

started to feel the grind of the race.  I was tired and it was a long way yet to the finish line.  At that point, looking around for something to distract me, I saw a girl running alone way up ahead of me.  Maybe half a mile or so.  From my distance and with my need for distraction, she looked really attractive to me.  OK, I said, let’s see if you can get a little closer. [This isn’t her, of course, but you get the idea, and they did get the blonde ponytail right,]

So I did get closer and several miles later passed her.  I regretted that but she had begun to slow down even more than I had and I really needed to focus on what would get me up the last hill.  So she and the young greyhounds combined to produce my best half marathon time ever.

The Cheerleader

That’s the kind of “attractive” this girl looked like to me from half a mile back.  Now as I said, I have told this story quite a few times in the last 20 years or so.  The point of this second half of the story is that I fixed my attention on an attractive young woman and used that to run faster than I otherwise would have.  Given that that is the point, let me ask you this:  How attractive was the young woman?

At this point, we leave the attempt to describe accurately what happened.  If I am right about “narrative seductions” it is a lost cause anyway.  As the narrative focus takes over, I leave the area of the question “What really happened?” and go over to “What does this story need?”  My argument, as it pertains to Matthew and me, is that as the story is retold over and over, the grip the teller has to the specific and accurate details begins to loosen.  Not only that, the commitment to remember the details clearly and to tell them accurately also flags a little.

For me, that means two things.  The girl gets more and more attractive and the place in the race where she shows up gets more and more dramatic.  I can fill in what the girl looked like from the “cheerleader type” characteristics I have put together from a long career of teaching in elementary and secondary schools and from seeing movies where cheerleaders were treated as a “type.”  So I can say confidently that this girl had a great body, beautiful long blonde hair, and a graceful easy stride.  I “remember” that she wore her hair in a ponytail and that it was curled.  (Was it actually curled?  How would I know?)

The point of making her so attractive is the comedic effect.  Here’s this tired old guy running a long race and he looks ahead and sees this vision of loveliness and it so inspires him that he runs the race faster than he would have otherwise.  It makes me a comic figure and the more attractive she is, the more comic I am.  The story really needs her to be really attractive and in the telling and re-telling, I respond to that pressure, whether I feel it or not. [1]

And when in the race did this girl show up?  I don’t really remember, but it has to be after I left the young greyhounds, because I didn’t need her until then.  Also, in the last mile or two there was a nasty and unexpected hill.  You come around a corner somewhere between 10 and 11 miles (the race is 13.1) and all of a sudden, there’s this hill.  Oh no!  I can’t get up that hill!  Can I?  I have to!  Now that would be the perfect time for the girl to come into sight.  I come around the corner and there is the hill—but there is the girl too.

From the standpoint of the story, that is ideal.  If the girl had shown up a couple of miles earlier, while I was running through an undistinguished farmland, it would have been a waste of narrative resources.  Much better to delay her until I have seen the hill and was feeling the despair.

Matthew’s Scribes

Now for a change of scene.  We are still talking about narrative seductions and we are still talking about the writer as the one vulnerable to them.   But we are not talking about cheerleaders anymore; we are talking about the way Matthew describes the role of the scribes in the Birth Narrative he offers.

It occurred to me this year that Matthew intended to set the Jewish scribes against the gentile magi—to build up two solid blocks of “these guys” and “those guys.”  What I need to do now, in the materials, I am preparing, is to focus on the polarities.  This is not to say that the magi and the scribes have no commonalities.  Both groups are made up of learned men, for instance.  It is only to say that I am not going to emphasize those commonalities; I am going to attend to the traits that distinguish them from each other.  And I am going to argue that in doing that, I am following Matthew’s lead.

Here are the elements that come to mind.

  • The magi were gentiles and the scribes were Jews.  That’s the easy way to start.  
  • The magi were scholars of “nature;” [2] the scribes were scholars of the Law (both written and oral).  
  • The magi were so moved by the star at its first appearance, that they travelled immediately to Jerusalem and when the star reappeared to guide them to Bethlehem, they were “filled with delight.”  The scribes are described as people who have knowledge of the scriptures, but who have no personal attachment to it at all. [3]  
  • The magi are free to act independently on whatever their findings show.  The scribes are called in to offer their expert advice to the king and the topic is where the king’s replacement is to be born, so the king might be a little touchy about what they tell him.  They are, in any case, immediately responsible to Herod and the magi are responsible to no one at all.  
  • The magi carry through the project.  They find and worship the Christ child.  They give highly symbolic gifts. We never hear another word about the scribes.  For Matthew’s purposes, they are called in for their special knowledge; they give it and then go home.
  • The magi receive guidance in a dream—the same kind of guidance Jacob has been relying on—and so are able to evade Herod on their way home.  The scribes, as I said, have no further part in the story. [4]

Matthew’s distortions and mine

No one ever argued that if the events Matthew discovered had been captured by a good video camera, it would look just like Matthew’s account.  Of course it wouldn’t.  Matthew is duty bound to emphasize some things and to skip over others.  He is telling a story after all.  And I, following Matthew’s lead, am trying to catch the main elements of the story and the way they relate to each other and to further emphasize those elements.

That makes the scribes blacker and the magi whiter (those are moral, not ethnic judgments); it makes them less diverse and a group.  But it does what the narrative “asks” to have done; it is why the narrative provides inducements. [This picture tells us more than we really know, but you would be surprised how hard it is to find a picture where Jesus is a little boy and where the magi come to a house to see him, so I’ll take it.]

Now if the facts of the case are materially important; if we really need to play the journalistic accuracy off against the thematic clarity, then there are reasons to be more careful.  But always, there are the selective inclusions and exclusions that will make it a better story.  They work on your mind like gravity works on your body.  You have to have a really good reason for working against them.  And I do sometimes.

[1]  And, not that I think about it, there are all kinds of attractiveness—the classic, the erotic, and the athletic come to mind—and I would be a very odd kind of storyteller if I did not allow the response of my audience to move my account in one of those directions or the other.

[2]  When you believe that “natural events” tell us about human events, it tells you how “nature” was conceived of at the time.  As moderns, we can say that we understand differently than they did, but we cannot say that 

[3]  You could argue that Matthew’s lack of interest in their emotional involvement in this quest is not fair and is, in fact, a part of Matthew’s prejudice against them.  That might very well be.  My interest here is only in relaying how Matthew portrayed the two groups.

[4]  They do in Luke’s account, of course.  We are looking at Matthew this year.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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