by Will Fletcher.
‘Every name tells a story.’ These words are pondered by Jim as he sits in a New Orleans’ bar in Patrick Neate’s novel Twelve Bar Blues (a book to be read with caution if you are sensitive to bad language and topics including prostitution). Jim finds himself surrounded by people with exotic sounding names – the African American bar owner called Molly Malone, as her parents loved the song; Sylvia di Napoli, a lady he met on a plane to New York and then travelled around the USA with as she sought to discover who she was; and Musa, the African witch-doctor who arrived to help Sylvia discover her destiny. Surrounded by such characters, Jim felt as though he was the only one whose name did not tell a story.
What made Sylvia’s story more gripping (though in places more confusing) was that hers was a story told over different centuries and countries as we read her story in parallel with that of her ancestors. Her story was not just about her and her parents, but also grandparents and beyond – people whom she had never met – yet whose stories were intimately tied up with hers.
At the same time as reading this novel, my mum gave me an old Family Bible, given as a wedding present to one set of my great-grandparents. In it is listed all the births, marriages and deaths on my mother’s side of the family ever since. It mentions my great-grandfather, Francis: born 1886, married 1909, died 1972. But it only contains facts. What brings him to life for me, what highlights those points of connection across the generations are the stories I’ve been told about him: Trades Unionist and Labour Party member, passionate about justice, an avid member of his community, clearly enjoyed writing as he wrote a monthly newsletter to all the boys from his village who were away fighting in the Second World War. Knowing where we are from is more than a list of dates or events. Sylvia reveals further wisdom when she says, ‘Truth doesn’t prove anything but itself. Stories are about people.’
We are being encouraged this year by our President and Vice-President to consider the question ‘So what’s the story?’ For each of us, whether we consider ourselves a Sylvia or a Jim, has a complicated story that leads us to this moment, made up of characters we know, those who are only names in a family tree, and even those whose names have been lost to us. Complicated those these stories might be, they are important as they reveal something of who we are, and we may glimpse those familial traits passing down the generations.
It is not just in our biological families that these stories are important, but in our faith family as well. We retell our faith stories as we read Scripture week by week, and as we recall the story of salvation in Communion liturgies. Going further, in the opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is linked back through David, Ruth, Jacob all the way to Abraham reminding us that we have a common ancestry of faith filled with the good, the bad and the unknown. Retelling these stories (including those with which we may be uncomfortable) is at least as important to us in helping us understand who we are as reciting a list of facts or statements.
I wonder whether we also need a greater focus on retelling those stories of our faith family that lie between us and the events of Scripture. We can all easily speak of our ‘tradition’ either in a positive or a negative sense as though it has always existed, as though we have always thought this way, or done this particular thing. Yet the stories of our ancestors in the faith are far more complex and far richer.
The last wisdom from Twelve Bar Blues for this post is about our reason for such sharing of our stories. When it was suggested Musa had arrived to help Sylvia discover where she was from, he corrected this saying he had come to help Sylvia discover her destiny. We may have a different way of speaking of our future, but the sense is the same. We should seek to discover our stories from our faith family, not only to understand where we have come from, rooting ourselves in our past; but also to discover where our future may be heading.