Humans have been telling stories ever since the dawn of civilisation. What stories do we tell about ourselves and how do they affect our identity?
If I were to ask, “Who are you?” what would you say? Perhaps you’d start with your name, your family of origin or your cultural identity. If pushed, maybe you’d identify with your religion (if you have one) or social group. Answering such a question is also heavily influenced by your family of origin and the community you grew up in. But one of the most important factors I’ve found in self-identity are the stories we tell about ourselves.
Historian Yuval Harari has argued that our stories have significantly contributed to our success as a species. Concepts such as justice, equality and human rights are, as he put it in a 2015 TED Talk, “very good stories, very positive stories. But they are still just fictional stories we’ve invented.” Whether you believe such an extreme position or not, you can’t deny the power of stories.
As an active kid growing up in the ’90s, my friends and I were seldom out of sight of our bikes. However, there was one day of the week we were prohibited from riding our bikes: Saturday. If you’re not aware, Seventh-day Adventists celebrate Saturday as their Sabbath. It’s a day for worship, socialising and food. It was not a day for riding bikes. Why? I don’t know! There certainly aren’t any commands against the riding of bicycles in the Bible. All we knew was that it wasn’t allowed. Luckily, my parents had a more laissez-faire approach to that particular rule, so we mostly got away with it.
It all came to a head one Saturday afternoon. My friends and I were playing a game of “cops and robbers” on our bikes. Heedless of the danger, I was in the middle of a high-speed chase when disaster struck. As I tore down my gravel driveway, my bike’s front tyre struck a pothole, throwing me forward. Before I knew it, I was catapulted over the handlebars and sailing through the air head first. For a brief moment, I wondered if I’d finally solved the problem of human flight, but like Icarus, I immediately found myself on a collision course with the gravel. I crashed face-first, my bike landing on top of me as a final punishment for my hubris.
Thankfully I survived the ordeal, but if you ever meet me in person one day, you’ll be able to see the scar on my chin that I still wear as a souvenir from that day.
The tales we tell about ourselves
That experience became a story in my mind. My faith community had told me that riding my bike wasn’t allowed. Some from the community had also taught me that God punishes people who break His rules. Therefore, the story I told myself was simple: If I break God’s rules, He’ll punish me. Thankfully, this was a story I un-learned later in life but as a child I never questioned it.
Stories can change more than just the perspective of individuals. The Romans told the story of Romulus and Remus—two sons fathered from an illicit rendezvous between the god Mars and an exiled princess. The two were famously orphaned and mothered by a wolf, growing to become warriors. Eventually Romulus killed Remus over a dispute as to on which hill to establish a new town, after which the former went on to found the city of Rome. The city’s mythological foundations were literally built on blood.
Contrary to how moderns like us might regard such a sordid tale, Romans were proud of their heritage, particularly if they were a citizen. Roman citizens held the right to marry and own property, as well as the right to vote and hold public office. There’s a story in Acts 22 in the New Testament where the apostle Paul is arrested in Jerusalem after preaching to a crowd turned mob. The Roman commander orders that Paul be flogged and interrogated to discover why he had caused such a row. As they prepare to flog him, Paul asks a nearby centurion, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:25) The Romans are so flustered when they discover Paul’s citizenship that they release him immediately.
Contrast this with the Roman attitude toward slaves, women and non-Romans. According to French sociologist Marcel Mauss, “He has no personality. He does not own his body; he has no ancestors, no name, no cognomen, no goods of his own.” Women had a limited form of citizenship, as did non-Romans. Compared to a Roman freeman though, they were not equal. Regardless of where you stood on the social ladder, you were expected to obey the rules and not reach too high above your station. It was a world of extreme poverty and incredible economic imbalance. Social barriers were in place to keep the wealthy and powerful wealthy and powerful. The story was simple: some people were just better than others.
A new story
It was this first-century context that Jesus of Nazareth stepped into. Jesus seemed intent to break that mould. He ministered across a wide range of demographics, engaging with Jews, foreigners, the terminally ill, the disabled, the ritually impure, women and more. His radical generosity and inclusiveness continually perplexed and offended both His disciples and enemies alike.
What Jesus’ first-century audience didn’t understand is that He was operating within a particular story. The author of Genesis tells us that the first human (Adam) was formed “out of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word adam sounds like another Hebrew word adamah which means “ground”. So, the story goes, God makes the dirt creature out of the dirt. You’d think in the next movement, God would put these new beings to work to build Him some shrine or temple. But God does something unexpected. He creates humans “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Then, He “crowns them with glory and honour” and makes them “rulers over the earth” (Psalm 8:4-9). God actually wants to share His glory and power with these dirt creatures, to have them rule the planet by His side. Note that there is no a distinction made between social classes: all the dirt creatures are invited to this position of high honour.
That’s why, when the Jesus Movement exploded in the Roman world, one of its most disruptive taboos was how it broke down barriers between social classes. As Jesus Himself said: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). To a first-century person living in the Roman Empire, the thought of humbling oneself to the status of a slave (who was not even a real person) was akin to social suicide. And yet, this message took hold. The rich shared with the poor and people found a new identity: not in their accomplishments, wealth, failures or regrets, but in the life of Jesus.
What story have you told about yourself? Is it a story of failure or regret? Have you believed the lie people told you that you’re not smart enough, beautiful enough, athletic enough? Do you feel trapped in the box society has put you in? Have your relationship blunders convinced you that you’re not worthy of love? Has your trauma told you that you’re broken and can’t be fixed? Well, I’ve got good news: you don’t have to be defined by that story. Jesus wants to write a new chapter in your life. It may not be perfect, but it’s one of restoration, joy and hope. Whatever your story has said that you are—misfit, failure, broken—you don’t need to call yourself that anymore.
Because you are a dirt creature.
Jesse Herford is a pastor and associate editor for the Australian/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, Carina and their miniature schnauzer, Banjo. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.