The most foundational lessons common to us all come by means of story.
Story and poetry and song and art and humour.
It seems almost counter-intuitive really, given the magnitude of the stuff we’re supposed to understand, the high stakes of living together in some form of harmony. I mean, who thought it a good idea to convince wayward souls of the need to love their neighbours as ourselves with those tricky parables? Why tell children nursery rhymes? Why not wait until they can read and just give them the case notes? More efficient I would imagine. As is the expectation of our logic-bound culture, shouldn’t these things be done in a classroom somewhere with textbook-tomes the size of small cars? Surely the importance of such a message should require all of us to ace a mid-term somewhere?
Looking out over the immensity of human history, replete with bardic tales of joy and woe, love and war, pillage and propriety, the answer would seem to be a resounding, NO.
Instead, they painted pictures on cave walls. They built cathedrals of stone, marble, and gold. They painted canvases with colours too rich to mention. They wove seeking and curiosity into epic stories of sea journeys, fleeing oppressors, screwing other men’s wives, cutting strong men’s hair, or building floating shit-filled boats to avoid worldwide floods. They composed titanic symphonies with notes crashing like waves against each another, all of it tumbling together to cry out in singular voice – here we are!
Even the most agrarian of cultures, trapped as they were in the often bone-crushing cycles of poverty and loss, were inspired enough to tell their tales in ink, chalk, acrylic, wood and stone. Indeed, every culture that has ever existed has in some way spoken of its ebb and flow, triumphs and tragedies in these ways. From Ethiopia to Egypt, Peru to Palestine, Canaan to China, Ireland to Iceland. Gilgamesh, Homer, Chaucer, wilderness-wandering Israel – it’s always about journey framed in epic story.
Most of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christian Old Testament, is one great narrative. Stuff from no stuff (creation). Nation from nothing (Israel). A 40-year long desert hike (Israel’s wilderness wanderings). War, pillage, rape, judgement, restoration, repeat (the rest of it). Far and away the best-loved book of the Bible, is a collection of poetry and songs, both happy and sad (The Psalms).
Jesus is as well known for telling good stories as he is for his grudging participation in the theological stew we’ve renamed ‘faith.’ We attribute to him not just a cross and a resurrection, but turning water to wine at some dude’s wedding reception. Creating feast from frantic in the loaves and fishes. A weird story about the wrong guy doing all the right stuff in the good Samaritan. Farmers sowing seeds in places both good and not so good, and fig-trees, and virgins, and tax collectors, and gardens, lilies, landowners, religious teachers, and the list goes on.
With his questionable choice of teaching methods, it’s arguable whether he’d find a position as a substitute teacher in the rough part of town, let alone Saviour of the world. But, there it is.
If the Bible tells us anything at all it is this – learn to love stories. Learn to love telling them, hearing them, remembering them, finding ourselves in them, retelling them. The sense of childlike wonder, the anticipation of what comes next, the page-turning expectation is so much better, so much more formative, than cracking open a textbook better used to sit on while hearing a story.
Something about arresting our senses in the beauty of which we’re capable points to Something/Someone beyond our under-the-sun existence. Only hushed awe and the reverence of a good story well told is sufficient to hold the sacredness of our lives.
We have one life. We have limited time.
Together then, let us once upon a time.