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Power and Storytelling

`THOSE who tell the stories rule the world,'' says a Navajo woman in a collection of native American tales. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox uses her words to underscore what he calls ``the nasty realities of power.'' Even theologians have no haven in the pulpit from having to decide ``whose stories will be heard and whose will go unheard.'' Theologians are tempted to represent the mainstream and to neglect society's ``underside,'' Cox observed in a recent Harvard Divinity School convocation address: ``Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by consorting with prostitutes and publicans, with the religiously impure and the politically suspect. Could it be that he wanted to direct the attention of those he encountered to the underside of his own society and to the Reign of God that he saw appearing among the outcasts of his time.'' Today's theological challenge comes not from schisms within the mainstream churches, he notes, but from Christians in Africa, Asia, Latin America, from minority churches, and from feminist theology. To silence these voices could stunt the church's renewal.

The power-temptation for theologians - to appropriate the storyteller's channels - is no less a temptation for politicians, businessmen, and journalists.

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Who writes the stories, the speeches, columns, and reports that empower secular public life? Are institutions organized in a way that inhibits the individual and social progress democracy is supposed to foster?

Last week Washington was aflutter over changes made by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu in a speech President Bush delivered on global warming. Sununu reportedly ``toned down'' a draft that had been signed off on by top administration officials. Nothing new here.

Presidential speeches are not what they appear. They are seldom the president's speeches - his own master's voice. They are assemblages of views that are nibbled on by many bureaucratic mice.

Peggy Noonan, White House speech writer for Reagan and Bush, describes the system in her forthcoming book, ``What I Saw at the Revolution:'' ``This is where my heart was plucked from my breast and dragged along West Exec, hauled along every pebble and pothole. This was my Heartbreak Hill, my Hanoi Hilton, this was ... the staffing process.

``In staffing a speech was sent out to all of the pertinent federal agencies and all the important members of the White House staff and the pertinent White House offices. If the speech was relatively unimportant perhaps twenty people in all would see it and comment on it. An important speech would be gone over by fifty or so.''

When bureaucracies speak, they usually do so in the pseudo-voice of the White House leader. (Some credit here for the Bush administration: Richard Darman's introduction to this year's federal budget allowed the OMB director his imaginative personal essay.)

The popularity of the chief-executive-officer mode of organization is partly at fault for the distortion in communication. ``The typical chief who rests uneasily atop the pyramid of any large institution is grossly overburdened,'' notes Robert K. Greenleaf in his book, ``Servant Leadership.'' ``The demands of the office destroy these persons' creativity long before they leave the office.

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``When more converges on the single chiefs than they can handle (but they must appear to be handling it alone), they most often resort to concentrated briefing and the support of ghost writing.

``In the end the chief becomes a performer, not a natural person, and essential creative powers diminish. Thus the concentration of power tends to stunt the growth of the one person in the institution who should be the model of growth in stature, awareness, communication, and human sensitivity.''

We should have a rule in public life that every speaker must utter his own words. This would compel chiefs to share responsibility widely, preserve their own creative powers, end bureaucratic ventriloquism, and open channels democratically to the less-heard voices of renewal.

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