Gleaning New Truths from the Old Stories

Such thoughts fascinated me, because I had always assumed that the moral of the story was the moral of the story. Sure, as you got older, you could learn more from it, but the general idea remained the same, right?

The student of story in me couldn't stop there. If a listener could glean multiple, even opposing, morals from the same stories, then couldn't the teller just as easily tell the same set of stories toward dissimilar ends? That's when a reality that had previously been invisible to me became apparent: There are no neutral tellings of the biblical narrative. And if ritual is, as mythologist Joseph Campbell notes, the embodiment of myth (a story enacted), then there can be no neutral rituals either.

The myths and rituals given me had shaped me in a manner that for the most part reflected the way they were told, the things valued by the persons telling them. My fundamentalist tradition valued being right about God and being on his side when he came again. If I wanted my children to be shaped differently, then I had to be just as intentional accentuating other ways of being in the world.

Now, in one sense, this was quite liberating. I now had agency where before I couldn't have imagined any. However, in another sense, it was as scary as hell (literally). It was "moral relativism" in its most concrete form: potentially changing the morals of Bible stories to better suit me. Until I realized, that is exactly what had happened previously. Someone had taken Bible stories and assigned morals to them that in some cases had nothing to do with the stories themselves and, in other cases, over simplified the most complex of interactions and, in still others, forsook the pursuit of hard-won virtues, settling rather for more easily accessible expediencies.

It was now my quest to enter into these ancient myths and rituals around which and through which people had organized their lives for centuries and apprehend anew God at work in them. What an amazing opportunity of faith, to trust that God would make herself apparent in meaningful ways in the life and imagination of someone like me. Yet isn't that the beauty of faith? Unlike belief, it's not about certainty; it's about journey into possibilities richer than what we know now.

Call it lack of faith on my part (or good internalized fundamentalist angst --not all fundamentalism is bad, you know?) but I couldn't be satisfied with the prospect of just making stuff up. I was beginning to see that was what many religious traditions had done, whether intentionally or by extrapolation, but I wanted something more trustworthy than that. I wanted an interpretive lens through which to substantiate, if not justify, particular tellings of a story. That lens was the life of Jesus. Not "King of Kings," "Lord of Lords," "oh how I love to call his name," "saved my soul, made me whole," super-spiritualized Jesus. Not even, he-was-a-good-man-who-embodied-the-divine-and-his-example-is-worthy-of-emulation Jesus. But the way in which he walked this earth in faith that, come what may, all could and would be reconciled to God's hopes, dreams, and desires for God's good creation, and the power to live in what can and will be is available even now.

The process of story telling from that point on became fairly simple. Stop treating the entire Bible as if everything in it were meant to be emulated. Read/tell the stories with all the pieces and parts with which they've been handed down to us. Recognize that the stories involve characters (and storytellers) with the real human tendency to claim God in things where God would only be caught dead. Also see that with a text that spans millennia, some stories start in one place with one group of characters, but the arc of it may not touch down until several centuries later in a different place, among a different group of people. Ask questions; raise doubts and concerns with what you encounter. Consider the action and dialogue of the story through the example of Jesus, and trust that example to reveal where God is in the story, regardless of how often you've heard otherwise when the story was told.

What I found when I began to read and tell stories this way was that the various lists of virtues found in scripture began to show themselves evident in the stories as well, just not always in the places I had been taught and not always with those I had been taught were the heroines/heroes. I had to learn to listen again for a God who would not be tamed, a God who shows up in unexpected places—like on the picket lines against the Jerusalem gentrification project led by the most honorable Ezra and Nehemiah and in a had-to-have-been-mind-blowing premarital sexual escapade between fairest maiden Esther and the heathen king Ahasuarus, just like she did among the homeless of the Occupy Bethlehem movement on the night Jesus was born.

I also found that there were as many morals to each story as there were points of view involved, which suggested that my definition of "the moral of the story" had to evolve, or I had to find other language with which to express what I was experiencing when I encountered a story. I chose the latter and have begun using the phrase, "The intuitions that arise for me out of this story...." Not only does the language of intuition help deconstruct an overly-rational approach to scripture, which is more a work of art than a work of science—more literature, less law—it also places interpretations of scripture squarely in the column labeled "The Best I Apprehend at This Stage of My Journey."

8/26/2013 4:00:00 AM
  • Passing on the Faith
  • Progressive Christian
  • Children
  • education
  • Parenting
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Spirituality
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • About
    Close Ad