Pulitzer-prize winning feature writer Jacqui Banaszynski once went to the famine camps of Ethiopia.
Writing for the Harvard Nieman Fellowships, she described the horrors and death and sorrow she saw there:
"You sit in the clinic where the waiting line is hundreds long. Desperate fathers thrust their babies at you, assuming that because you are a kwahaja, a foreigner, you must be a doctor. You must be able to help. But all you have to offer is a poised notebook and some questions, suddenly too little to accommodate this reality."
Banaszynski goes on in this way, but then she describes each night how she heard a strange sound amid the sorrow, the sound of singing. Fathers huddled their children around and sang the songs of their culture — as a way of passing along stories.
In one of the most evocative pieces ever written about the meaning and power of story, Banaszynski wrote that her experience in the camps "may have been my first conscious awareness of the power, history and universality of storytelling. We all grew up with stories, but do we stop to think about how much they connect us and how powerful they are?"
She continued, "Events pass. People live and die. Things change. But stories endure."
In some ways, though, Banszynski's wrong. Stories don't seem to endure today, as powerful as they often are.
I thought of some of these things when I heard the strange story of Manti Te'o, star linebacker at Notre Dame and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose heart-wrenching story of the death of his girlfriend turned out to be a hoax.
First, I was frustrated by media accounts. There is an old adage in journalism: When your mother says she loves you, make sure you get a second source on it. Journalists obviously failed to do due diligence on the Te'o story. It would have been better for all involved if they had done their jobs as they had been trained to do, as difficult as it is in situations like this.
Most of all, I was intrigued by the power of story here.
As Banaszynski notes, stories may be the thing that makes us most human. Spend a little time on the Internet, and you find writers and psychologists talking of how stories can change the world or of how narrative shapes our understanding of things.
We're all vulnerable to a good story. If journalists — jaded and trained in skeptical thinking as they ought to be — could give into the tender hoax story of a generous linebacker and his dying girlfriend, then so could just about any of us.
Stories can invite us to wear rubber yellow bracelets and to give hundreds of dollars, even millions, to a cancer survivor whose seven Tour de France titles crumbled under the weight of epic cheating.
We tell stories to help us know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We tell stories to justify our actions. We tell stories to protect our sense of identity and value.
But in our modern world of the Internet, the story often crumbles. We find our heroes have feet of clay. We discover uncomfortable truths with the potential to undercut our feelings and our cultural beliefs or even our shallow faith.
The result seems a feeling of being lost, ungrounded. Some people come to believe, cynically, our world is governed by self-interest and greed and hypocrisy. We're left with a house built of sand and a ship guided by selfish fools bumbling to find stability.
I find it no coincidence that in the world of the Internet, there is a rise of disbelief in many quarters, as a writer for salon.com argued. Some may choose to take religion as one more type of hero worship, not much different than a belief in Lance Armstrong.
Others cling to religion as a comforting fable. Such fables are harmless in a cynical world, shielding us from the realities of life, in that view, but fables still. Call it the "Life of Pi" view of the world.
But Mormonism, as I have come to know it, has provided a tonic for all that cynicism. No, it's not that Joseph Smith was a perfect human being or that my ancestors' stories made them canonized saints — though I revere Brother Joseph and feel gratitude to the generations past.
My belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided something deeper. The gospel has provided a feeling of tangible proof won through hard study and prayer. (And if you think I am alone, watch the excited response of the young people of the church to the announced change in missionary ages here and across the church.)
I don't like much the idea of blind belief nor of comforting fables. What I like is the calm reassurance I feel from the story of the Atonement, the greatest story ever told. It's a story of deliverance from the terrible sorrow of the age.2 comments on this story
There's a marvelous Book of Mormon story of 2,000 stripling warriors, wounded, threatened and facing daunting odds — in some ways metaphorically like the pressured world we face today. The story is their story and ours. This is the type of story that endures:
"Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him." (Alma 58:11)
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.