An ‘old Cherokee story’ and other lies from the pulpit

An ‘old Cherokee story’ and other lies from the pulpit March 19, 2016

“Which wolf will win?” “The one I feed the most.” I heard this story dozens and dozens of times from pulpits and in small groups and around campfires. Sometimes it was attributed to an old Indian, sometimes to an old Eskimo, sometimes it was an old African speaking to missionaries on the Dark Continent [sic].

âpihtawikosisân applies a full sniff-text and concludes this “old Cherokee story” probably originated with Billy Graham (or his ghost writer) in 1978. She also explains why these faux-Indian stories are damaging:

The replacement of real indigenous stories with Christian-influenced, western moral tales is colonialism, no matter how you dress it up in feathers and moccasins.  It silences the real voices of native peoples by presenting listeners and readers with something safe and familiar.  And because of the wider access non-natives have to sources of media, these kinds of fake stories are literally drowning us out.

And there’s something condescending at work, too, in the simple-wisdom-from-simple-people motif. It’s the infantilizing of non-white cultures. Whatever else this little parable is meant to teach, part of what it winds up teaching is that Those People are child-like and must be looked after/ruled over by white adults.

This story may not be as explicitly white supremacist as, say, the sermon legend about the missionary kid’s demonic rock music, but by portraying these simple people as inferior children, it bolsters the idea that they need to be supervised and parented and ruled over by their superiors (i.e., white people) — for their own good.

âpihtawikosisân also provides a quick mini-clinic on how to apply the sniff-test yourself when you encounter these vaguely sourced “old Native stories” that never seem to be specifically attributed to any concrete person, people or culture. It’s good stuff. Read the whole thing.

The other questions here, of course, are ones that need to be addressed by the white preachers circulating this stuff: 1) Why do they think attributing such sermon illustrations to a “wise old Indian” is helpful? and 2) Why do they think it’s cool/necessary/acceptable to pass such stories off as authentic?

Part of the answer to the second question, I suspect, goes back to something white evangelicals have taught themselves to believe during the past two centuries of their “battle for the Bible.” They’ve got it in their heads that stories only matter if they really happened historically. So they think they have to tell all stories as historical accounts that actually occurred.

The Good Samaritan Inn, in the West Bank, is not the real inn where the story really happened. There is no real inn. It’s not that kind of story. (Wikimedia photo by Bukvoed)

This is not how stories work. Bible-loving Christians ought to know that better than anyone, because the Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus’ parables, and those stories do not claim to be historical accounts, they do not need to be historical accounts, and in many cases do not work if they are read that way.

A literalist hermeneutic teaches a form of illiteracy. Those who strictly follow such an interpretive scheme wind up confounded by stories. They don’t understand how they work, and so they are unable to understand what and how they mean. That’s why the Good Samaritan Inn tourist trap along the Wadi Qelt in the West Bank — a souvenir shop on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho — is filled with American evangelicals who are constantly asking if this is the “real” inn from the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Illiterate literalists need there to be a “real” inn and a “real” Samaritan, because they’re convinced that only historical accounts are valid stories. That’s why they also need there to be a “real,” historical Noah and a real, historical Jonah, and a real, historical Adam and Eve. It’s also why they need there to be a real, historical gorilla who walked into a real, historical bar, or a real, historical fox who really, historically dismissed the unreachable grapes as probably sour anyway.

(It’s a slippery slope, you know. It starts with questioning the historicity of the gorilla being overcharged for a beer and it ends with a denial of the resurrection, the death of God, nihilism and despair.)

This need for all stories to be historical also tends to make this historicity the Most Important Thing about the story. Any story worth telling must have “really happened,” and the point of any story worth telling is that it “really happened.” This does irreparable harm to jokes, parables, fables, allegories, satires, myths and origin stories — among others.

It also leads evangelical pastors to, well, lie a lot when presenting sermon-illustration stories from the pulpit.

“Lie” seems like a harsh word, but I’m sure any other will do here. They have to lie and to present all of their sermon illustrations as factual, historical accounts, because they’ve trained their congregation to think that this is the Most Important Thing about any story. They’ve spent generations teaching these folks that the historicity of every story must be defended or else everything is meaningless. Then they get into the pulpit and want to underscore the point of their sermon with an amusing anecdote and they have no choice but to present that anecdote as a historical account. And the claim that the story actually happened winds up eclipsing any other point of telling that story.

That’s not how stories work.

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