Sarah Polley’s “Stories we Tell,” St. Paul and Father Abraham

by Brian Walsh

Sarah Polley’s recently released documentary “Stories We Tell” is a deeply personal exploration into the stories that are at the foundation of a family’s identity and sense of home. The story is Sarah Polley’s own.

The joke had been running in the family for years that little Sarah looked so different from her siblings that she really wasn’t the offspring of her father. Just a joke, right? Well, as a young woman this wonderful Canadian actor and director went looking for the truth. Spoiler alert! Her dad isn’t her dad.

Now this would be a terrible shock to anyone and would raise profound questions about one’s own identity. You have spent all of your life thinking one thing about who you are and who your father is and now everything is changed. Or is it?

But Polley’s film does not dwell on her own experience of all of this so much as how the story is told by the rest of the family, the friends who knew of that affair so many years ago, and by both her biological father and the husband of her mother.

It is a wonderful film that allows the various characters to tell their story as they know and believe it.

Who is her father? And what will be the story that she will tell, together with all of the other characters in this real life drama, that will make sense out of her life, provide a foundation for her identity and, if I may say so, provide a place of home for her and everyone else.

Another spoiler alert.

Sarah Polley comes to love her biological father, but it is clear that in the end, the man who loved her all these years, who saw her through the death of her mother, who has been her father (warts and all) year in and year out, indeed, the man who’s voice narrates most of this film – he is her father.

It is important to know who your father is. Your real father. And sometimes blood lines and DNA are pretty irrelevant to that knowledge.

That is something close to what Paul is telling both Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome when we reach the fourth chapter of his epistle.

The question is, who is your father? Everyone needs a father. Without a father, no one, and no group can have a clear identity. We all need to have a story, or stories, that tells us who we are and where we come from. Those stories invariably have to do with fathers (and mothers, of course, but that is not the topic today).

So the question that Paul raises in this homemaking epistle is, who is your father?

Jews in the community would know the answer to that question. Abraham is our father. We are born from father Abraham. That’s who we are, that is our clear identity ‘according to the flesh.’ You can check out the DNA.

You can see the problem that could now emerge. If Jews are children of Abraham, including Christian Jews, then who is the father of Gentile Christians?

Or think of a story like Sarah Polley’s. If Michael Polley is not her biological father, then does she now have a different status in the family from her siblings? Is she now only a “half Polley”? Well, no. And the film beautifully depicts the reality of her identity as a child of Michael Polley – DNA be damned.

So whose father is Abraham? Or to put it slightly differently, what is the identity-grounding story for Gentile Christians in Rome? Who is their ancestor? Who is their great, great, great, great Grandaddy?

Are you a child of Abraham because of DNA? Or are you a child of Abraham because you embrace the promises to Abraham, you embrace the faith of Abraham, you find your life reshaped, re-imagined, re-narrated by the story of Abraham?

If Gentile and Jewish Christians were going to make home together at the heart of the empire, then they would need to start telling each other the stories that constitute that home. And that is why Paul wants to re-tell the story of Abraham.

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