In July of 2009, Chimamanda Adichie gave a Ted Talk in which she talked about the danger of the Single Story. The talk recounts the ways in which we trap groups of people by only telling one story about them. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she said, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
The same is true for the metaphors we use about God. When we only say that God is our Father, and forget that God is our Mother, we trap people in the Single Story. That trap can be damaging for someone who has difficulty connecting with father figures. The same goes for any metaphor that becomes the only metaphor we use for something that is beyond our understanding.
I learned this lesson most-profoundly from a hospice patient I met when I was a chaplain. This woman, who I’ll call Hope, was a devout Christian who was certain that God would welcome her when she died — and yet she was terrified of dying. As I visited Hope over the course of weeks, I couldn’t figure out why she was so afraid, until one day when she opened up to me about the one and only time she had left Grant County. She and her husband had gone to Phoenix to visit his family, and within twenty-four hours of arriving, she had begged him to take her home. “I hate traveling,” she said. “I’ve never left Grant County again.”
As I pondered why she needed to tell me this story now, I finally realized what was making her so afraid. This was a woman who loved life and laughter and exploring ideas, so her family, her friends, and the hospice staff were trying to help ease her fears by talking about the “amazing journey” she would soon be going on. But she was thinking, “I hate traveling.” All she could think about was that trip to Phoenix.
So, we began to talk about “going home.” I invited her to share stories about her mother and father, whom she loved and looked forward to seeing. We talked about her sister, who had died the year before. They loved to cook and eat together, and we imagined the banquet God would prepare for her on her arrival. Hope’s family and friends agreed to use this metaphor when they talked to her, as well. And soon, she was not afraid, but looking forward to her home-going.
I return to Chimamanda Adichie, and her observation about stereotypes. The Single Story is a trap that can be damaging. The problem is not that our metaphors for the Divine and the Beyond are untrue, it is that they are incomplete. We need multiple stories, so each of us can find our place in the stories of God’s people, so the child of a single mother can know his God loves him like his mom, and so Hope can know she’s going home.