A friend recently lamented that her favourite theologian had taken up writing novels. “I loved his theology, but I’m not a fan of his fiction.”
My response was one of a new respect for the theologian.
To my mind the greatest theological challenge is to take a distilled piece of doctrine and ask “what would this look like if I came across it in a novel?”
After all, life happens in story and the Bible happens in story. Shouldn’t the interface between the two be seamless?
Extracting Data from Source Material
In the summer of 1993 I worked at an archaeology lab in the Negev desert. All our material came from the Mid-Late Bronze age site at Tel Haror near Be’er Sheba.
Everyday the field crew brought up buckets of broken rims from ancient cooking pots dating back to 1400 BCE. Every day the rims were sorted in the lab, a fraction were catalogued, bagged and sent on to Ben Gurion University for analysis.
And every day mountains of picked-through potsherds ended up in the rubbish pile.
That, of course, is how the scientific method works. Hypotheses are made from extracted source material, conclusions are advanced in academic circles and the data is either catalogued, discarded or recycled.
And archaeology has long sought to establish its credentials as a bona fide field of academic study. To do so it has needed to downplay its storied past and prove it can swim in deep water when it comes to quantifiable assertions. Indiana Jones hasn’t helped the cause.
In a similar way, since the time of St.Paul, Christian theologians have sought to present faith as a system of reasoned thought with measurable outcomes. For obvious reasons the Judeo-Christian scriptures have been the primary source material in this credibility project. Biblical narrative is sifted through, parsed, spliced, weighed and measured for doctrinal content then recycled until the next inquiring scholar comes along.
In this way Bible stories suffer much the same fate as Bronze Age potsherds. They are processed for their potential contribution to a larger field of study.
This sifting through biblical narrative is modelled to children from the moment they step into most Sunday school classes where Bible stories candy-coat doctrine. As if their too-tight Sunday shoes aren’t painful enough.
I’ve spent my career observing children as they respond to the telling of Bible stories. Often there is an initial moment of promise when the earth quakes and the tomb rips open and Roman guards fall to the ground like dead men.
Eight-year olds lean in, bug-eyed.
Then comes the moment that tips them off. The story is just a front. Set in motion to solve a problem it didn’t create. Usually it’s a change in the teller’s voice. After all, she too is operating under coercion to deliver on something larger.
In a right-leaning Sunday School “something larger” will have to do with giving one’s life to Jesus. In left-leaning, about giving Jesus to one’s life.
Either way, kids sniff it out. Their gaze drops. They get silly. They rib-check the person sitting next to them. They look at the clock.
Storytelling Makes a Comeback
Fortunately there are signs that stories as ways of knowing are making a comeback. They aren’t just fodder for psychology or theology or sociology after all.
It turns out science has its work to do, and so do stories. They may be mutually beneficial but one is not subservient to the other.
It wasn’t that long ago that “stories” – whether myth or fairy or folk or bedtime or Bible – were considered something for children or pre-literates. That the adult mind was believed to have graduated to higher states of knowing. So why the breakthrough?
There seems to be a slow awakening in our post-religious, post-mythic, post-modern imaginations that our souls are underfed. And a collective remembering that what nourishes the soul are stories.
In a world overwhelmed by crisis, the mythic imagination slowly emerges from the fog as something to navigate by. Deep, ancient, unwieldy stories offer beacons when climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s poor, sign posts when youth depression and suicide is on the rise, gravitational pull when forcibly displaced people end up on the streets of our neighbourhoods.
The growing interest in Indigenous knowledge is to thank for leading the way. It recognizes storytelling as the deepest form of medicine, treating injuries of mind, body and soul with traditional and contemporary stories:
Today, some of the most popular Indigenous novels and poetry are stories of resilience born from trauma…These were not simple lessons of coyotes getting into mischief, but lessons from the deepest pain… how to overcome the deepest levels of grief and adversity. Navigating trauma with the help of storytelling encourages resilience…the alchemical process of story as medicine. Story as Medicine:Indigenous Storytelling as a Path to Resilience, Siena E. Loprinzi
Speaking recently on a School of Mythopoetics podcast, celebrated international storyteller, Martin Shaw, noted “the reason oral storytelling will not go away, is because it has this radical purchase on your imagination. If I’m doing my job…I’m going to start hurling keys from the stage and whatever kind of cave or cage or prison you might find yourself in, that key is going to bust you out.”
Little surprise that all shows on Shaw’s upcoming Canadian tour (May 2023), Codes From the Old World, are sold out.
As someone who has spent my entire career advocating for Bible stories to be given their voice back, this cultural resurgence in oral storytelling comes as exciting news.
I only hope it hasn’t come too late for biblical storytelling. That trust hasn’t been irreparably lost. Audiences have their guards up. It’s hard for sermon-jaded, post-Christian, Sunday School traumatized audiences to relax into the narrative arc of a Bible Story without feeling an undercurrent of suspicion. How will I be corralled at this tale’s end?
One of the great gifts of working with children is that they don’t have as much unlearning to do. Story is the air they breathe. They are forgiving listeners. Always ready to give a good story a second chance.
Sacred Canopy‘s approach to biblical storytelling is one that has long practised full immersion of kids in the story and leaves it at that. Let the connections happen as they happen. Nevermind the story is too big or unwieldy. Never mind that kids don’t always “get it” the first time through. Nevermind that it might take them a lifetime to live all the “aha” moments where they discover for themselves the pathways of grace, community, downward mobility, non-violence and forgiveness.
Treasure in the Rubbish Heap
I never did follow the science on our archaeological field work that summer in 1993. I didn’t keep up with the academic journals and don’t know if our lab results provided any breakthrough insights toward a collective understanding of human impacts during the Levantine Late Middle Bronze IIA .
What I do know is that before leaving the field school I went around to the rubbish heap of discarded potsherds behind the lab and pocketed a random rim fragment to keep as a souvenir.
To this day the sherd sits in a small archaeological collection on a bookshelf in our living room. Sometimes I stop, pick it up, and turn it over in my hands. I marvel that this same piece of pottery was handled by another human being as alive 3500 years ago as I’m alive today.
It speaks to me of human ingenuity, the vast arc of time, the brevity and mystery of life, the interconnectedness of generations. I know it’s not the full story, but for me such soul-generated glimpses into the past have always been story enough.
A lively, timely apologetic for de-adulting when reading the next Bible narrative, and re-childing our listening and rewilding our imaginations in the adventure of letting the stories have their say.