Absorbing talk from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last Friday night at the LSE – part of an event that included Professor Richard Sennett and a waggish Sir Howard Davies. Their theme: ‘On Narrative and Ritual’. Rowan began by talking about how we use narrative to make sense of things, and quickly anchored narrative in the material world. He used Sennett’s definition of narrative momentum as his platform: “’To believe in narrative movement is to believe that events in time connect, experience accumulates’. Implicit in that is that narrative synthesises a whole range of transactions that happen in real time, between real bodies – because we think with matter. Ideas are embodied and enacted. We speak with things.”
Narrative connects material transactions, and you can read them as making sense, said Rowan. “But material things are difficult. Material things resist… We start to think when we bump into things. And we construct pictures of the world around those patterns of bumping.”
“Difficulty is part of human thinking. Something resists, but that resistance also draws us in, invites us, or provokes.” This is why, in his words: “Narrative is a difficult business. There is nothing more difficult than telling someone all about yourself, for example. I am difficult to myself. In the words of Saint Augustine, ‘Quaesto mihi factus sum’ – ‘I have become a question to myself’. Narrative is an unfinished business.” The Archbishop then pointed to the New Testament, which opens with narratives (not creeds or ideas) that cover the same ground but say different things about the same events.
Of course, different versions mean everyone has to work a lot harder to define what’s right and what’s not. “Talking about God is and should be difficult,” said Rowan. However: “Difficulty can give you traction. The perfect human state is not a frictionless, undifferentiated place; a place without resistance… Narrative should not be seen as a way to control conflict. Rather, it is a place in which conflict can play out.”
This is something I often say to businesses. Like all aspects of life, business involves both mutuality and contest. A frictionless version of your message has much less traction than a proper story – a narrative that contains conflicts and resolutions, light and shade. A story without the energy of drama lacks power. Readers will give much more credibility to a communication that acknowledges problems, issues, controversies and other points of view. The most compelling and persuasive communications discuss their subject in a rounded way. Or as Rowan says: “Faith builds into itself some recognition of difficulty.” Of course, that takes confidence – confidence that your version of events is the most persuasive, at that point in time. If it isn’t the most persuasive, that should lead you to analyse the facts of the matter – the difficult material basis for your narrative. And that’s what impressed me most about the Archbishop and his discussion of narrative: while many in the world look to religion for a narrow version of immovable truth, he suggests we apply an open mind to an ever-changing story. Tim
PS The LSE has added a video of this event here.