Monday, 8 December 2008

The power of story

There is an old saw which says that God invented humanity because God loves stories. In the tradition of the Hebrew people, there was a prohibition against rendering their God in the plastic arts and so they went to town on narrative and thoroughly delighted in it. The Hebrew sacred texts are story and counter-story describing worlds and the God who is active in those worlds. If you are familiar with the world painted by the Deuteronomist, that you get what you deserve, and God rewards the righteous, then the Book of Job comes alive as a counter-story, protesting that ill-fortune falls on the righteous too, and the reasons are hidden in the depths of God.

The Christmas stories are counter-stories. They are stories which are holding out for a God and a world which will work differently to the one in which the storytellers live. Matthew uses the Moses story, and Luke the call of Samuel, to tell their listeners that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth. We know that the Christmas stories are counter-stories because they use words for Jesus of Nazareth which the early audience will have associated with Augustus Caesar. Caesar was Son of God, Prince of Peace, and our Christmas birth story writers are saying that Jesus is these things, in other words, Jesus is, Caesar is not. Caesar’s Roman Peace is fine if you are Roman, and so long as Caesar has the biggest army. The peace of Jesus of Nazareth is about seeking out those who do not benefit from Roman peace, and including them at life’s table. Our Christmas stories are asking us whether our God is more likely to be found in a Roman palace, or a cow’s feeding trough.

All of this is commonplace for first year students in Biblical studies, I’m saying nothing new. But over the last several years my worry has been that we have lost our grip on the power of story. When you clear our public spaces of religious stories (particularly those pressed into the service of worldly interest) you are not left with a pristine post-Enlightenment space. The power of stories is that they are ways of inviting us to consider who we might be, they invite us to make lives in the worlds they describe, and they invite our loyalty and our resources. This is too much power to be left unfulfilled.

Into this space come the storytellers we know, news organisations, spin doctors and advertisements, each seeking to frame the world and our place in it. With the technological gap between generations, the worry is that our children are being formed by stories told by Nintendo, Sony and the like. After school our children step into virtual worlds which are laid out before them. They can progress through these worlds with the purchase of each upgrade, and they are being encouraged to acquire skills which will help them be promoted through the moral universes the games companies have described.

All of this goes by stealth because this happens unsupervised. Work-weary parents may even be grateful for the diversion. Narratives are being quietly assimilated, and these are shared in the schoolyard, and young friends measure each other by their skill and knowledge in worlds barely guessed at by those who have the care of developing the next generation.

We need to dispense with the tinsel-and-teatowel Christmas and recover its visceral power in the world where the story was first told, a world which was about brute force and malnutrition. We need to rediscover the power of telling stories of a God which runs counter to the prevailing values of the day.

If we can recover Christmas as a counter-story in its own day under Rome, we might want to start telling new counter-stories about the God we believe in, in our own day, to the Playstation generation.

Posted by Andrew Spurr on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 10:11am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

This plugs quite interestingly into the question of whether any modern religions can plug into a post-literate age, something which sometimes worries me.

Posted by: acb on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 11:39am GMT

Andrew is quite right, especially in saying that the use of story is to be able to show ‘that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth’. We need new stories to make this same point. But the way to do it is to start from the impulse of finding new ways of telling that story. What is so often done is quite the reverse. People are invited to retell the Christmas stories. This only serves to perpetuate the false impression that the stories in Matthew and Luke are historical, rather than exemplary. We need stories that forget entirely the crib and the kings, the stable and the shepherds, stories that radically rethink ways of expressing the presence of God in Jesus. We have more constraints on us than the evangelists did. We don’t feel ourselves to be free to invent new bits of biography for Jesus, no matter how founded they may be on Old Testament models. And that’s the problem. But it’s a task worth working on.

Posted by: toby forward on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 1:16pm GMT

I've been active in Folk Arts circles here for years. Organizing, but also dancing and doing recitations and folk tales. Our youth worker at our parish a few years ago had me come in for a couple of Open Houses she had for neighbourhood children, and tell Bible stories to the kids in the form of folk tales. It went really well, the kids were in the raptures, ate every word. They were all urban kids and had never heard folk tales, or anything else, told in dialect, that's rare even for rural kids these days. It was interesting to tell the story of the The Fasting in the Wilderness, not merely in dialect, but to make it something that would hold kids' interest.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 1:48pm GMT

I don't know what you mean by modern religions, Mormons, Baha'i?
As far as Christianity is concerned it functioned in pre-literate societies for most of its life. Bibles were only mass-produced fairly recently.

Posted by: Andrew Spurr on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 4:14pm GMT

How true this is! On many levels.

15 years ago, when I first came to the Theological Institution at Lund University, I was amazed at the Silence: there was no dialogue, no conversations. I was used to the Synagogue in my home town, founded as a Calvinistic/Absolutist stronghold in a very Catholic, never ever Roman, but 1st Millennium, Church of Sweden land.

With Time, Calvinism had been supplanted, as everywhere, by Pietism; Swabian realism, as it is called, and the Cathedral (named not for a Saint but for Calvinist King Gustaf II Adolph) was silent. The Bishop was an ex atheist, first trained as a Doctor. It was very much into lithurgy and our other confirmation booklet (“Young today”, the first was a local reworking of the Pietist 1878 State Catechism) was all about sex, sporting youth of the day, as percieved – its photos très à la mode de 1967.

Silence. No questions asked, none wanted, none permitted.

The Synagogue was quite the different thing. “Conservative” Judaism, that is 19th century liberal; an organ (no longer in use since the arrival in 1945 of the kosher keeping survivors from the camps) and even a Book of Hymns (translations by a local Vicar).

The Congregation in the Synagogue had precisely the same conflict anti Modern vs Modern that we did, but had to remain on speaking terms…

Judaism has its dogmatisms. I remember a lecture (by on of the heroes of modern sociology; “the authoritarian man”) talking about the sorrow that he and his Christian wife were not allowed in the same grave… And I remember another one, by the Rebbe (his Lithuanian/Ukrainian forbears would never have acknowledged him as a Rabbi, he said), about the rape of Dinah in Genesis 43…

But at Lund there was Silence. Silence in the corridors – and what was worse, the teachers had been given computer for their homes; thus not needing to show up at all – wiping out any idea of an academic environment. I later found out that the did, individually, have contact with colleagues in New Zeeland and everywhere, just not with the person in the next room…

Do we, as humans, actually want to take the risk of meeting the other? as a fellow human being...

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 4:49pm GMT

The novelist Reynolds Price tells, in the preface to his book of biblical translations, "A Palpable God," how he cured a spell of writer's block, by returning to biblcal narratives - learning the languages - and translating stories. He says something like this: a human being can last x days without food, y days without water, but not one day without stories. I reccomend the book.

Posted by: Cynthia Gilliatt on Monday, 8 December 2008 at 5:26pm GMT

I really enjoyed this. For me it makes Jesus quite human (as opposed to our local evangelicals who focus on Christ saving them from their dirty-ness.

thanks for sharing.

Posted by: bobinswpa on Wednesday, 10 December 2008 at 6:44pm GMT

One part of counter stories is vindication.

Job was vindicated. The Jews from Exodus were vindicated. Jesus was vindicated.

When have women or Cheva been vindicated?

Posted by: Cheryl Va. on Wednesday, 10 December 2008 at 7:14pm GMT

Ford, I'd be more interested in how you use the folk tale idiom to retell biblical stories. I've taken several classes dealing with folk tales. I think those folk tales may be responsible for my liberal views concerning the bible :)

Posted by: bobinswpa on Thursday, 11 December 2008 at 4:43am GMT

bobinswpa, do I know you from a mailing list I'm on? If not, I'm reluctant to put my email address online, but there must be some way we can communicate off list.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Thursday, 11 December 2008 at 1:02pm GMT
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