The Rest of the Story
Earlier this summer, I was watching a news show online and one of the commentators kept clearing her throat. It would have been hard to miss, in and of itself, because that’s something rarely seen or heard on professional live broadcasts. But I was particularly tuned in to it because I’d noticed similar behaviors with other commentators for a couple of days by that point: coughing, clearing throats, even slightly raspy voices. What in the world was going on?
It then dawned on me that all of these programs were broadcast from New York City, one of many areas within the United States that had been subjected to dense amounts of smoke blown south from the massive Canadian wildfires. Air quality alerts had been grim for many citizens during those days and for good reason—even much farther down the Eastern Seaboard in Baltimore the air had appeared hazy, and an acrid taste had begun to irritate the back of my throat after I had remained outside for an extended period. That must have been what had affected the various reporters and pundits I’d witnessed online.
It got me thinking about how the videos of these programs (which I had viewed on YouTube slightly after the fact rather than in real time) would likely live online for many years to come. Would somebody watching one of them 5 years, 5 months, or 5 weeks from now remember, or even know about, how impactful just the smoke from those devastating fires had been for New Yorkers (not to mention the much graver consequences the actual flames had been to everything in and around ground zero in Canada)? Or would they just scratch their heads at the seemingly unprofessional behavior of these multiple broadcasters coughing, continually clearing their throats, and soldiering through their reports with hoarse voices?
If so, I would argue that their experiences of those video clips would be diminished, maybe not drastically, but at least to some level. Here’s the thing: none of those shows was talking about the Canadian wildfires. But knowing that they were happening at the same time as the broadcasts, and were having obvious real-life repercussions, would certainly color (even if subconsciously) the reception of what was being discussed, and ultimately lead to a fuller experience of the shared news items. It’s like the wisdom, and attraction, of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” segments. Nothing grows a so-so story into a truly compelling experience of engagement like the addition of those kinds of details, which may initially seem insignificant.
This reminds me of my favorite storyteller, Donald Davis, born and bred in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina amidst a folksy, narrative-infused culture. I remember him sharing a story once about a journalist who had come to interview the oldest member of his community. (We’ll call her Granny.) His evaluation of the finished product, published in the local paper, was fair to middling at best. What was his main critique? The story rarely got beneath the surface, and not necessarily in the ways you might be thinking. The interviewer never thought to ask Granny what she’d eaten for breakfast that morning or if she’d had a good night’s sleep the night before. Nothing was included about what the weather was like that day or how comfortable the room was where the interview took place. The readers had no way of knowing the condition of the house or what Granny was wearing … all things that might have influenced the answers she gave and, subsequently, impacted the readers’ understanding of who Granny really was. Knowing these kinds of contextual gems can sometimes shed immense amounts of illuminating light on a subject, completely changing the interpretive experience for those processing the information.
This is like preaching to the choir for responsible biblical storytellers (something I strive to be!). Sure, anyone could base a biblical story solely on the words provided in a given translation. And that might provide a decent (albeit superficial) account of the narrative … but it also might not be much more instructive than the journalist’s interview of Granny. What’s more, because these stories are from so long ago and a culture very different from our own (not to mention originally in a foreign language where much is potentially lost in translation), if we have any hope of maintaining a semblance of integrity with the original intent, we’re going to have to look into each passage’s broader context (historical, canonical, redactive, genric, etc.) to not only get a fuller story but one that most certainly will be more accurate. Why is this important? Because the Bible has far too often been misinterpreted, sometimes with dreadful—even fatal—results. But if these contextual gems aren’t obvious in the text itself, most people aren’t going to know any better and, even on a much less devastating level, their experience of the stories, at best, will be diminished (just like viewers in the future watching the coughing commentators from NYC during the early summer of 2023). That’s why I always advocate for erring on the side of more, rather than less, story … in whatever form it can be disseminated.
It’s like when I go to museums. I’m a placard reader. [And if you’re not a placard reader, I am not a good person to accompany you to a museum because you will finish way before me and be frustrated and impatient with me for how slowly I make my way through the exhibits!] As I gaze upon each work of art, I silently ask myself, “OK … what’s the story you’re trying to tell me?” As a storyteller, I want to know as much about each piece’s story as possible because all of that information will inform and impact (positively, I would argue) my experience of the individual pieces. And it’s why, during the several years I served as the curator for the little art gallery in my church, I would ask each artist to provide an Artist’s Statement for their exhibit.
Once, I asked an artist friend of mine to display her wonderful paintings of clouds. She enthusiastically agreed, but kept pushing back stubbornly about providing an Artist’s Statement. “The work should speak for itself! I don’t want to tell people what they should think about each piece or how they should interpret them!” I tried to explain to her that I didn’t want that either. I just thought that having some background information on her and her journey with art, painting in particular, might help viewers appreciate even more her beautifully painted canvases. This back and forth went on for a while. Finally, she “gave in” and provided me with this as her Artist’s Statement: “I adore clouds.” Period.
For what it’s worth, I actually loved it. It may not have been much but it was something, an enticing glimpse into the psyche of the artist that could only enhance the viewing experience of those visiting the exhibit. She and I recently recalled that experience and laughed … and continued to debate the merits of knowing contextual tidbits that might broaden/deepen/expand the experience of the receivers! She still held firm to her position, as did I. Afterwards (always after the fact … why can’t I ever think these things up in real time??) I thought of a response that might not have changed her mind but would have at least shown that probably more people than not were on my side, wanting and appreciating a fuller view:
“There’s a reason Paul Harvey’s signature radio offering lasted from WWII to his death in 2009—more than half a century! Clearly, I’m not alone in yearning to learn … the rest of the story!”