GREAT STORYTELLERS > (SCIENTISTS + THEOLOGIANS)?

Part 2 in a continuing conversation about storytellers and storytelling started (unwittingly) by Brett Weinstein and Jordan Peterson.

In an era of fake news and misinformation, how does storytelling play a role in society and culture? And what responsibility does the storyteller have? I’ll challenge readers with this: I think storytellers have a responsibility to communicate the Divine. That’s a big statement. Let’s dig into it.

Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein: “Metaphorically true, but literally false.”

In my last article I broke down a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein that focused on the evolutionary benefit of religion and storytelling for humanity. To quickly recap that logic:

  1. Human beings (uniquely) can delay gratification.
  2. Because we can delay gratification, we form beliefs about the potential for an afterlife.
  3. Belief in an afterlife is an example of delayed gratification meant to improve our communities and the lives of our offspring yet is, “metaphorically true, but literally false.” [Brett’s quote, which contextually refers to an afterlife not being real (“literally false”), but because belief in an afterlife alters the behavior (delayed gratification) of an individual or even a tribe during their time on earth, it can improve the lives of everyone in the community and the lives of all their offspring (which makes a belief in an afterlife that improves the human species, “metaphorically true”).]
  4. Faith in and adherence to metaphor and fantasy may present us with a higher form of truth than does belief in cold, hard facts. (Which was a question posed by Jordan Peterson.)

That last point hits on the focus of my last article. If that’s accurate — if we can improve humanity by convincing ourselves that the bigger metaphor or the meaningful fantasy is more important than provable facts — then the storyteller’s role in a given community may not only be critical, it might even be paramount to the community’s ability to survive and thrive over the course of generations.

The Critical Importance of Storytelling

I think storytellers have a responsibility to communicate the Divine.

Paramount? Yikes. That’s a lot. Now, there are undoubtedly numerous ways to push back on these ideas and the conclusions reached by both Weinstein and Peterson (on their podcast) or even my analysis of their podcast in my last article. But even if their philosophical framework contains flaws, the importance of the storyteller (or, perhaps more accurately, the stories they’re telling) in a given community remains incredibly high.

To showcase how high, consider this: when Brett Weinstein used the phrase, “metaphorically true, but literally false,” that presented Jordan Peterson with an opportunity to suggest that the highest form of truth may not be factual, but rather metaphorical or fantastical. And using that logic, he wondered aloud whether or not the highest form of metaphorical truth could be considered Divine.

The Definition of Divine

Divine. An interesting word choice for many reasons. Let’s consider the definition of that word, Divine:

1 “Having the nature of or being a deity.”

2 “Of, relating to, emanating from, or being the expression of a deity.”*

*(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition)

In a future article, we’ll focus more on the concept of the Divine and the idea that the most truthful stories emanate from a deity. That topic requires a totally different line of reasoning.

But the point to be made here, particularly for storytellers, is that Jordan Peterson is hinting at the possibility that the supreme truth equates to the Divine, and that the Divine may not even be literal.

*(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition)

Storytelling and the Divine Message

Let’s consider the resounding implications of Jordan Peterson’s question. Here’s that question reworded by me:

If humanity survives and thrives by adhering to supreme truth — whether that truth is metaphorical or literal — does that imply that supreme truth itself is:

  1. The goal of the storyteller’s artistry?
  2. A means to understanding the Divine?
  3. A means by which to communicate the message of the Divine to humanity?

If supreme truth is Divine, and if the message of the Divine results in the survival and growth of the human species, the question becomes, “Who will communicate supreme truth to humanity?”

Circling back one more time to Brett and Jordan’s conversation: if supreme truth might be metaphorical, not literal, then that points to the need for art to communicate that truth. Which means that storytellers become the messengers of the Divine (which we’ll break down even further in another article).

If society chooses to view storytellers as the messengers of the Divine — those seeking to deliver the supreme truth — what are the implications for the storytellers themselves? It would seem to me, that storytellers must then take on two roles (neither one often associated with the term “storyteller”).

The dual roles the storyteller must take on are: scientist and theologian.

How Storytellers = Scientists

The definition of science:

1 “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.”**

Storytellers become scientists by repeating the process of observing, testing, and learning over and over. Storytellers observe the world in an effort to form a hypothesis about the truth. Then, they test that hypothesis by placing a cast of characters into various settings or environments and monitoring how those characters might interact. Each draft of the story might present different variables into the equation, and those variables either work (i.e., ring true) or fail (i.e., ring false). How characters interact, make choices, and behave creates cause and effect outcomes. Those outcomes impact the individual characters, their tribes, and even the world at large.

The resolution of the story reveals whether or not the storyteller’s hypothesis has been proven true or false. Those hypotheses could start out as basic questions, like: What effect does hubris have on humanity (e.g., Jurassic Park, Stranger Things, Avengers: Infinity War)? Should we pursue justice for the less fortunate or let inequity reign (e.g., Just Mercy, Glory)? What limits (if any) should we place on ambition (e.g., There Will Be Blood)?

Every story starts with a question that becomes a hypothesis, and that hypothesis transforms into characters, arcs, plots, and a resolution. The tellers of those stories behave like scientists: observing, testing, and learning what rings true.

One caveat before we jump into the next section: Is it possible to tell a story that doesn’t seek truth or seek to ring true? Of course. Those stories are pervasive, and storytellers have become rich and famous by telling them. But those storytellers are scientists of a different sort. They’re not using stories to explore truth, they’re using stories to promote themselves. The science they employ poses this hypothesis: What can I tell society (or any given tribe) in order to experience personal gain? Which is more the question of the ruthless mogul than the artist…

The dual roles the storyteller must take on are: scientist and theologian.

**(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition)

How Storytellers = Theologians

The definition of theology:

1 “The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.”

2 “A system or school of opinions concerning God and religious questions.”***

As storytellers test truth, they move beyond just observation, testing, and learning. They must, because the purpose of storytelling (the “telling” part) involves communicating the results of the test (the hypothesis conveyed through story) to an audience. And in doing so, storytellers have an opportunity to delve into something deeper, just as Jordan Peterson suggested they might.

They have the ability to become a messenger of the Divine.

If the storyteller’s tests show fruitful results (e.g., a resolution to the hypothesis that resonates with truth), then telling of the story to others reveals that truth to the audience. And even if — to Brett Weinstein’s point — that truth is “metaphorically true, but literally false,” the end result may still confirm supreme truth, which may even be considered Divine.

And therefore, storytellers who delve deeper into truth, explore it, discover it, and then communicate it to others via their stories, have become akin to theologians: students and messengers of Divine truth.

***(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition)

Questions for Consideration

Scientists, theologians, and conveyors of Divine truth… Is that what storytellers are? Let’s pause here to reflect and consider the following questions:

  • Is supreme truth — even when conveyed in metaphor — Divine?
  • What implications does that have on stories and storytellers? Should we act, think, or feel differently?
  • What arguments exist that would contradict these assumptions and theories?
  • If storytellers do convey the Divine, what does that mean for society?
  • Should storytellers behave as both scientists and theologians or should they behave in some other way that I postulated here? And if so, how?

Leave your responses to these questions (and/or your general feedback on my musings) in the comments down below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

In my next article, a continuation of this series reflecting on the conversation between Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein and what it might mean for storytellers, we’ll analyze how closely “the Divine” may or may not represent a given deity. I hope you’ll show up and share your thoughts.

I love storytelling. I write novels and screenplays. My latest book, DEATH OF A BOUNTY HUNTER, is out now!