Hazel McHaffie

morality

The power of storytelling

Last year, during lockdown, I did a short online course in oral storytelling. Stories do indeed have a power and appeal of their own, and I’ve personally gained confidence and courage as I’ve used the techniques I learned in various contexts since.

So I was delighted to find a collection of stories told in a fascinating way and used to make important points. It was while listening to an online talk given by philosopher/sociologist/theologian Elaine Storkey, that I heard her reference one of her own books: Women in a Patriarchal World, and I was intrigued enough to order a copy. I expected it to be deeply erudite and scholarly and a one-chapter-at-a-time kind of volume. Not a bit of it! It’s based on her erudition certainly, but presented in a light and eminently accessible form.

Her initial statement, instantly got me – a fellow storyteller – on side:
Storytelling is a powerful form of communication.
Wahey. Tick.
At the very least, it presents us with characters, a location and a plot and invites us to listen in.
I’m listening …
Good storytelling goes much further.
Go on …
It opens up the shared humanity of others so that we get inside their life situation, travel with them and learn from their experiences.

And that’s exactly what her ‘good storytelling’ does. In twenty five chapters she tells the stories of women in the patriarchal world of Bible times – the midwives in the time of Moses, the five daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab the prostitute, Deborah the prophetess, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maakah, Huldah the prophetess, Lydia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, to name but a few. From these stories she draws out compelling lessons for us today; lessons that challenge us to see the issues of our own time, and think about what we could do to alleviate suffering, right wrongs, make the world a safer and kinder place. Every chapter, every story, has a section bringing important issues right up to date – Facing our challenges today, followed by a couple of Questions to ponder.

And those twenty-first century challenges include a wide range of big issues like leadership, oppression, injustice, commitment, resisting wrong, prostitution, nationalism, life and death decision making, morality, risk-taking, infertility, conflict resolution, safeguarding of children, whistle-blowing, climate change, empowerment of women. Impressive, huh?

But also disturbing stuff. What exactly am I doing to address the problems that beset our nation, our world, our time? And where I do ‘dabble’, how can I be more effective?

This writer is indeed a powerful storyteller. She’s also a strong example of someone who lives what she teaches. Multi-talented, esteemed and productive, but with a humility borne of her own deep faith.

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The Badly Behaved Bible

The Badly Behaved Bible. Well, the title grabs you immediately, doesn’t it? We’ve been raised on the idea that the Bible is about teaching us what’s good and right and how to behave in a godly way. So how can it itself be badly behaved?

I saw this book on a friend’s bookshelves during a Zoom meeting, and was intrigued enough to order a copy immediately. And wow! What a lot of things Nick Page challenges; and what a lot of common sense he talks. I confess I don’t go along with everything he says – which he would certainly approve of! – but I loved his robust down-to-earth head-on approach to a traditionally wrapped-in-serious-holy-language topic. Enough in itself to make you think again. He certainly made me sit up and think … and think again.

So many Christians have been brought up with the idea that the Bible is a sacred inerrant book, one coherent whole, and everything does, nay MUST, fit together. If it doesn’t, you’re somehow lacking in spiritual wisdom or knowledge or understanding or whatever other commodity might be crucial. Page has met them all in the course of his work as a writer, speaker, podcaster, unlicensed historian, applied ranter… Orthodox Anglo-Baptecostal.

I meet them when I give talks or lead retreats. Some are cheerful, but confused; some are subdued and quietly thoughtful; some wear the pained expression of people who have suddenly realised that the underwear they have on has shrunk two sizes in the wash. Others look genuinely shocked and distressed, as if they have discovered that their sweet, little, eighty-year-old grandmother has secretly been selling crystal meth down at the day centre.
All of them say the same thing to me: ‘I have this question about the Bible …’
It might be to do with the brutality and the bloodshed, the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Or a ridiculously obscure passage that they simply can’t understand. Maybe it’s a law or command which seems unfair, discriminatory, misogynistic or otherwise at odds with just, you know, ordinary decent behaviour. Quite often they simply can’t believe a word of what they’re reading – that a fish can swallow a man, that a boat can contain all known species, that God placed responsibility for the entire fate of humankind on two people and their behaviour around a fruit tree.

And with verve and humour and straightforward logic, not to mention a hint of borderline irreverent glee in places, he sets out to explain how the real problem is that people are starting from the wrong place. They’ve been misinformed or misled, he says. The Bible isn’t one cohesive and infallible whole; and furthermore it never claims to be. It’s a collection of books all with their own cultural background, history, development, genre and perspective. Every single one has been translated and is subject to translator bias and educated guesswork, with inconsistencies and mismatches and contradictions. Don’t even try to force the pieces of the jigsaw into one box, he recommends.

… we have to stop trying to control it, to tame it, domesticate it, make it support what we want it to say … To open the Bible is to risk our theology, our presuppositions, our deepest-held beliefs.
The fact is, you see, the Bible is a very badly behaved book.

According to Page, we don’t have to struggle with theological contortions any longer. Forget those blanket statements and tablets of stone and fears of perdition you were fed from your cradle up, and instead take each book for what it is, a product of its time, flaws and all. Accept them.

… if we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges; one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple anchors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.

Only then will we be liberated from the mindset that shackles us to an indefensible position, that gives rise to such doubt and angst, and be free to see and hear the message for us personally in our own place, in our own time, and our own culture. Because make no mistake, he’s a genuine fan of this fallible collection of books, the Bible – he believes it to be a place to encounter God.

Oh, and The Badly Behaved Bible is a book for all shades of religious persuasion. The author isn’t about forcing everyone into a mould of his design; rather he wants us all to admit our doubts and questions and frank disbelief. If you don’t doubt, you won’t grow. You won’t change.

Doubt is not a sin. Doubt is a necessity.
Doubt takes you places. Certainty stops you dead in your tracks.

… it is not disrespectful to question the Bible, it is absolutely vital. Because it’s only by questioning that we move to a new understanding.

By now you’re thinking, why am I raising this on my blog about literature and ethics? Because Page draws attention to important aspects of literature.

When we read we subconsciously enter the world of that book. He bases his comments here on scientific research which has demonstrated this fact. We don’t just listen or read when we pick up a book; because of how our brains are wired we live the stories. We feel the things the characters feel. We face their challenges. At least with good stories we do!

Stories are transformational. Stories make us feel and think. Stories empower us …

There are different kinds of truth. A story might not be true in the sense that it’s borne out by historical or scientific or archaeological evidence, but it can still be true. It’s truth lies in its validity for us today. It’s a metaphor, a parable, teaching us something valuable about how we should behave or be, in our time and culture, with our modern understanding of all the -ologies.

This is an absolutely crucial point about the Bible. The truth of a metaphor – whether it is carried as a saying, a poem or a story – is not dependent upon the fact that it literally happened. Metaphors and stories do not have to be literally true. But all of them say something that is true.

The best stories challenge us. You know already my personal predilection for stories that leave me thinking about issues of morality or truth long after I’ve finished reading. So I would agree with this point, wouldn’t I?!

… ask yourself, ‘Is this true? What is the story about? What counsel has this storyteller got for me?’
Participate in the story. That’s why this story is there. Ask the questions. Use your curiosity.
And feel free to use your imagination.

I so agree with all three points, and indeed it’s exactly the reason why I went into writing stories to explore ethical issues all those years ago. So, Nick Page is on my wavelength. And this is one well-written and refreshingly different book that lives up to its whacky title.

 

 

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

A Christmas indulgence for me in a year of social isolation was watching period drama set in the 18th century. Pure escapism. Exactly what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the stresses generated by the pandemic. But by chance, a fitting introduction to a biography I’ve had in my tbr pile for ages, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; rather like an undemanding crash course in the life, times and customs of aristocratic families and high society in that era. So, time to get stuck in to the more serious business of reading the book.

I felt a degree of investment already in this particular family story. I’ve twice visited Chatsworth House (the Derbyshire seat of the Cavendish family through 16 generations); watched the present Duke and Duchess in action on more than one occasion; listened to Debo, the Dowager Duchess, speaking at a literary event (the real live variety!). And of course, we all know the story of Lady Diana Spencer (Georgiana’s great great great great niece) who went on to marry and later divorce the heir to the throne in our lifetime, and whose own life mirrors much of her forebear’s – the similarities will be obvious in my short review.

This acclaimed biography was the result of years of painstaking research (mostly for a PhD) and published in 1999 – two years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Running to nearly 500 pages of small print, it’s not for the fainthearted, but I found it fascinating and eminently readable, although I confess I did get lost in the complicated political shenanigans sometimes. The upside of that is heightened admiration for the author who has steered a steady course through mountains of data and a turbulent period in history. Small wonder that she’s wheeled out on as an authority in various documentaries relating to the royals or the Spencer family.

Born at Althorp (Diana’s home), on 7 June 1757, Georgiana was the eldest child of the first Earl and Countess Spencer. Beloved of her mother, she grew up in an exceptionally sophisticated milieu of writers, politicians and artists, and was from her childhood encouraged in the social skills. She dabbled in writing – prose, poetry and plays – as well as music. Striking and stylish rather than lovely, she was natural, with an unconscious charm, giving herself no airs, and entirely without snobbery. Unsurprisingly she became the darling of society, combining a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval wherever she went.

Thrust into public life at 16, naturally vibrant and attractive and appealing, adored and feted by so many, an acclaimed hostess and leader of fashion, she nevertheless endured a chaotic and chequered marriage, having little in common with the fabulously wealthy but reserved and shy fifth Duke of Devonshire. Neither understood the other.

Sexual freedom and licentiousness were common and accepted amongst the ton at this time, and both parties were serially unfaithful. Before their marriage, the Duke had a mistress and a child (a girl, Charlotte, whom Georgiana took into her family when the mother died before Georgiana had any children of her own), and he continued this liaison. To her chagrin, and that of her in-laws, however, motherhood remained elusive for Georgiana for some nine years. She suffered a number of miscarriages, partially laid at the door of her reckless living, drinking and gambling to excess, and her bulimia. In spite of her position and appeal, in spite of moving in the highest circles at home and abroad, she was tormented by self-doubt and loneliness, always seeking attention and praise. A woman of contradictions.

Within two years of becoming the Duchess she was thoroughly disillusioned with her marriage, and fashionable life, and the dissipation within her high society circle, as well as frustrated by the convention of her time that restricted women in so many ways. One relationship however, had a profound influence on her: that of a brilliant though flawed politician, Charles Fox, who led her into a life in politics. It was politics indeed that lifted her out of her meaningless life of parties and fashion, and gave her purpose. Within the space of five years she matured into an adept political campaigner and negotiator in her own right, although she was vilified for her too-modern-for-18th-century-sensibilities practical involvement in electioneering – about 100 years ahead of her time.

Hugely influential in her direction of travel too, were powerful ambivalent relationships with two women – Mrs Mary Graham, with whom she formed an intimate bond and could really be herself; and Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess) who became her constant companion and confidante, but who also struck up a liaison with the Duke, whom she later married. Ironically they both conceived children by the Duke within days of each other.

In spite of enormous wealth, status, exalted connections, moving in the highest circles of royalty and aristocracy, innate abilities, advantages, time and opportunities, Georgiana’s life spun out of control as she sank into her addiction to gambling, and accrued ruinous debts. The Duke grew more and more intolerant and variously demanded a separation, or exiled her abroad. But Georgiana held one trump card; the Duke still needed a legitimate male heir.

With so many affairs and illegitimate children on the part of the Duke and Duchess and Bess (who formed the third side of their ménage à trois), elaborate arrangements had to be made to preserve a facade of respectability and to ensure the children were adequately cared for and protected. I was unaware that in the 18th century fathers were automatically given custody, but so it was. However, Georgiana’s maternal affection shines through, and even when she was banished abroad, she set about educating herself so that she could help her children learn. (Shades of parents today struggling to stay abreast of their children’s schooling during lockdown!) In so doing, she developed a keen interest in matters scientific and geological, becoming accepted into professional circles and acquiring a valuable collection of minerals and fossils for a museum within Chatsworth. It was only her scientific studies that stopped her craving for gambling.

Overall the book leaves one with a distaste for the rudimentary medical knowledge and lax morality and tumultuous politicking of the 18th century. Descriptions of Georgiana’s treatment for an eye infection, and her agonising death, are positively nauseating. Our modern sensibilities balk at the blatant infidelities and machinations in the marriage markets amongst the ton, too. The hapless children are passed around like parcels to disguise their parentage.

On the other hand the practice of writing letters to all and sundry has much to commend it. They have provided a rich mine of information which gives colour and depth to their stories, and they make fascinating reading. By comparison, today’s electronic messages pale into insignificance. It was rather shocking then to read, As a general rule, the Victorian descendants who took it upon themselves to preserve their grandparents’ papers employed a rigorous policy of sexual segregation: women’s letters were destroyed, men’s letters were preserved.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, then, was full of contradictions, perhaps best summed up by the author in her epilogue as …
an acknowledged beauty yet unappreciated by her husband,
a popular leader of the
ton who saw through its hypocrisy,
a woman whom people loved who was yet so insecure in her ability to command love that she became dependent upon the suspect devotion of Lady Elizabeth Foster,
a generous contributor to charitable causes who nevertheless stole from her friends,
a writer who never published under her own name,
a devoted mother who sacrificed one child to save three,
a celebrity and patron of the arts in an era when married women had no legal status,
a politician without a vote
and a skilled tactician a generation before the development of professional party politics.
A remarkable woman indeed.

If you want a potted sanitised version there’s always the film version!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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