As is the case in any good story, Jerome Bruner’s book about stories includes a significant number of unexpected twists. This is no accident, as the author’s goal is to explore the central role that narratives play in helping us to make sense of life’s many reversals (28). The book’s subtitle suggests its first big surprise. Why, pray tell, would Bruner turn to the legal profession to probe humankind’s propensity to make stories? After reading along, you may find yourself thinking, “Oh, of course!” The genius of Bruner, a renowned educational psychologist, is to articulate what most of us intuitively understand about the intersection of daily life and story—and to use the unexpected toward that end.
A second major surprise is that a scholarly work with a nondescript title could be such a great read. This book is a delight! Bruner’s creative juxtapositions, beautiful way with words, powerful personal stories, wide-ranging illustrations, humble insight, and almost giddy sense of wonder all contribute to the delight. Consider the language and content, for example, of the following statement: “Story-making is our medium for coming to terms with the surprises and oddities of the human condition and our imperfect grasp of that condition. . . . Stories domesticate unexpectedness, give it a sheen of ordinariness” (90).
As the above quote and the book’s title suggest, Bruner’s interest turns around the construction of stories, what he called “narrative meaning-making” in an earlier work (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 1986). In that book, he contended that factual (i.e., law) and narrative (i.e., literature) modes of making meaning were very different. But now, in yet another surprising reversal, Bruner takes issue with his own theory (see note 19 on pages 115–16). He argues here that factual and narrative ways of knowing belong together, that they must be intentionally and constantly held in tension. His generative reflections upon the interplay of memory and imagination, past and future, precedent and promise, convention and invention, along with form and fancy, provide compelling reasons for holding that tension.
In what could function as Bruner’s thesis, he writes “it is our narrative gift that gives us the power to make sense of things when they don’t” (28). Christian educators will find much to commend and also to question about human agency in that thesis. We also would do well to heed Bruner’s caveat that our ability to hold the above tensions together in our story-making can literally make the difference between life and death (105-7). In the end, I recommend that every Christian educator at every level enter into conversation with Bruner through this delightfully provocative little book. Surprised?