Culture At Large

Reconsidering relatability

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

An off-handed Twitter comment from radio personality Ira Glass about Shakespeare has set forth an interesting discussion about what it means to find a story “relatable” and whether or not we should prefer to engage media that is relatable for us. Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, for instance, is concerned that the use of the word reduces our interest in art to only how it reflects ourselves as we would like to be seen, without the possibility of other kinds of criticism or personal growth.

Earlier this year, Rebecca Onion wrote a piece for Slate that complained about the word’s use in college classrooms to limit discussion of literature and history to what was familiar. She also saw how it was being used in social media to bond around potentially embarrassing shared experiences. Her conclusion about the term was largely ambivalent.

Indeed, seeing ourselves in works of art is one way we identify the truthfulness of it - if the people in the work behave in ways that are recognizable and understandable to us, it strikes us as a worthy portrayal of human experience. But human experience is much more diverse than any of us can experience ourselves, and this is one benefit of consuming stories to which we do not relate: to expand our view of the world. I have learned a lot about topics like racism, poverty and human resilience by reading about other’s experiences. That’s the angle The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg takes, both for and against calls for relatability. She reminds us that some experiences and identities are represented in media more than others, and people seeking self-representation might be doing us all a favor in getting more diverse stories told. But if we restrain ourselves to only consuming stories about ourselves, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to grow in understanding and empathy.

I keep reading the parts of the Bible I don’t relate to, because I think they are making me into a person who might.

An interesting thing about the Bible, I think, is the way it balances these two goods in itself. There is a sense in which the Bible will always be unrelatable, a little strange and different, because of its divine inspiration (as Stephen Woodworth’s recent TC post suggested). Though we are created in God’s image, God’s self is still quite different from us, so much so that we cannot handle the full extent of God’s glory. When God shows up in the Bible, it’s rarely in a way that immediately makes sense to us. This is, in many ways, the point: it makes reading the Bible an experience of challenge and transformation that takes us out of our perspective and closer to God’s.

On the other hand, there are also moments of intense humanity in the Bible that I do find comforting and familiar. The foibles of some Bible characters are strange to me, but others are all too familiar: when they express their questions, their doubts and their frustrations, for example. And the Bible is so rich that I relate to different things at different times in my life.

Sometimes it takes something we resonate with to bring us to a new way of being and understanding. That’s why I like the book of Habakkuk, which starts out with a question I totally get - Why is there so much injustice and violence? - and ends with an amazing prayer acknowledging God’s goodness beyond our understanding. I keep reading the parts of the Bible I don’t relate to, because I think they are making me into a person who might. I keep reading the parts I do, because they remind me that God knows what it’s like to be human, like me.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, Theology & The Church, The Bible, News & Politics, Media