After 20 years working with children and youth in a performing arts program that stages biblical narrative, I find myself wondering about the value of sacred stories. Apart from giving shape to the religious tradition they represent what role do they play in culture? Do sacred stories offer anything when it comes to the spiritual and psychological health of humans? Is the loss of a sacred story tradition one of the casualties of secularism in the west? Are our children and youth suffering from sacred-story deficit disorder?
I was raised on Bible stories so I know most of the fault lines when it comes to sacred narrative traditions. Here are a few of the most commonly cited reasons from people I know who have abandoned the religious narratives of their childhood:
Fault line #1: Traumatic
When God comes across as scowling and vengeful in one sacred story after another it is hard to trust the purported loving side of this, or any other, divinely-appointed authority figure. Indeed, the punishing nature of God as portrayed in Bible stories has been such a source of trauma for some that it remains an open wound well into their adult life.
To this day my younger brother (now in his mid-40s) tells the story of the time as a kid he returned from the corner store where he’d gone to buy a pack of gum only to discover that the house was empty. He walked around calling out and when no one answered he concluded to his horror that Jesus had returned and that for some wrong-doing in his young life he had been “left behind”. I came home 1/2 an hour later to find him balled up alone and crying in the corner of the couch.
Fault line #2: Boring
For some Sunday School experience was a source of such unbearable dullness that they thought they would pass out for lack of oxygen before the class was over.
The issue isn’t action. There is plenty of action in Bible stories. The issue rather is plot. The fact that the outcome of all the action was too predictable. The end was always the same:
A God who had the unfair advantage of all the power in his court would inevitably appear on the scene to save the hapless human antagonists from themselves or condemn them to their misery. Kids aren’t fooled by a story with tension points that are less than convincing.
Fault line #3: Colonial Christianity has been thoroughly critiqued in our post-modern context for the way in which its exclusive claims on religious truth displaced indigenous story traditions around the world.
I grew up among the Kikuyu of central Kenya at a time when western colonialism wasn’t yet a full generation old. Still in that one generation the centuries old Kikuyu origin myth of the nine-daughters placed on the land at the base of Mt. Kenya had been all but replaced by the Garden of Eden origin story introduced by Christian missionaries.
Later in life when I moved to the west coast of British Columbia I learned that the local origin myths of Canada’s indigenous peoples had suffered a similar fate. The “white man’s” Adam and Eve was rolled out over top of creation stories such as the Haida’s account of the first humans being coaxed out of a clamshell by a raven.
Fault Line #4: Exclusive
One of the most troubling features of so many sacred narrative traditions are their harsh exclusions. Whether on moral or cultural or political grounds it seems that too often sacred stories have a hidden agenda of advancing the political or social privilege of one group over all others.
One of my brothers is gay and because of the blatant prejudice of stories like Sodom and Gomorra, historical context notwithstanding, he has felt marginalized, hurt and angry by the community of people who refer to these stories as “sacred”.
Fault Line #5: Caricatured
Sometimes it seems that all that is left of Bible stories in pop culture is to spoof them. And its easy to do especially in their caricatured Sunday School version. The great greybeards and the bathrobes and the walking sticks and the all-important dialogue. What’s not to poke fun at.
A colleague who works with me in staging biblical drama showed this You Tube video to me a few years back. We laughed.
(If you find yourself offended (I was a bit defensive!) remember that parody is a sign of health for any thought system, religious or otherwise. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.)
So if sacred stories are traumatizing and boring and colonizing and and exclusive and ridiculous what’s left?
I’d like to think a few (maybe even important) things.
Here’s a list for starters. You’ll notice that it’s based on my personal (i.e. limited) experience of having been raised on the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not meant to be an exclusive or a promotional or exhaustive list, but it is what I know. I would love to hear where your own list merges and where it departs, especially those of you reading from other faith/spiritual backgrounds.
1) Sacred stories create a capacity for the soul to hold and live with paradox. Good sacred stories are honest about the complexity of the human experience and challenge our polarized modes of thinking where everything needs to be divided into the good and the bad and separated out into the categories of the deserving and the undeserving. The ability to understand reality as non-dual has been described as one of the hallmarks of mature spirituality.
Example: The stories of David contain paradox. He was a conflicted person, who failed himself and his people again and again, yet this did not disqualify him from deep personal encounter with God.
The Shepherd David (E.Bouguereau,1895)
2) Sacred stories carve a pathway through loss and death.
The changing leaves of autumn are a reminder that decay, death and rebirth are an integral part of life at both the micro and macro levels. People need stories that show us a way through death. A strong sacred story tradition gives us the template we need to journey through loss into renewal with an open heart.
Example: The Christian story of Jesus’ journey through death offers a narrative path.
Christ in Gethsemane- by Michael D Obrien
3) Sacred stories enable us to face our “dark side”.
Sacred stories want us to grapple with the truest version of our self including coming face to face with the tyranny of our own ego and the death it must go through for us to live beyond our fears and defenses. We live in a culture where it is second-nature to blame everyone else for our problems. Good sacred stories insist that before we turn our need for “someone to pay” outward we ask whether the thing that is holding us back resides within.
Example: The stories of the Jewish prophets exemplify this spiritual
practice. The starting point for their careers was personal inventory, i.e. acknowledging their own insecurities and fears before God before making a single pronouncement about the shortcomings of others.
Isaiah: “I am undone.” (Loren Balisky, 1997)
4) Sacred stories provide an arena for grace.
I think of grace as a processing plant for suffering and pain. Grace is a
huge spiritual concept which includes confession and mercy and forgiveness and sometimes even reconciliation. Good sacred narrative will hold this almost impossible space without becoming simplistic or silly about it’s potential.
Example: The story of the prodigal son and the embrace of the watchful, non-judgemental father.
Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son
5) Sacred stories nurture a relational connection to God/the Creator In a study to identify what it is people value when they speak of their”spirituality”, researchers identified two things:
- a sense of close personal connection to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power)
- a vital source of guidance
Relationship with the transcendent/divine is at the core of spirituality and sacred stories reflect this. They provide images for what this relationship can look like and biographies of those who have embraced (or rejected) the relationship.
Example: The story elements contained in the Psalm 23 would be a classic example of this. That one Psalm alone sums up the spirituality of many who live very simple lives of faith. My great grandmother, Betsy is a good example. As my Dad tells it her life was unbearably hard. She was widowed young, raised six children on her own, laboured at back-breaking jobs in commercial kitchens to the point of mental collapse. Somewhere along the way she stopped going to church probably due to a combination of weariness and social stigma. Yet in her old age she would stop my Dad, then a teenager, in his tracks, and say, “Ronnie, not a day of my life passes when I do not remember that the Lord is my shepherd.”
6) Sacred stories create an enchanted universe where everything belongs.
Children live in an enchanted universe when they know they belong to it and it belongs to them. Like the Kikuyu whose creation myth tells them their people were created on location at the foot of Mt. Kenya and the Haida whose origin story tells them “two-leggeds” first emerged from a clam shell on the beaches of Haida Gwaii. Myths and rituals hold children and youth. They give them a place to land their own lives and know that they have not been cut loose in the universe to figure it out on their own.
In the story guild program that I developed the kids say a prayer that goes like this “Thank you God that my story is held in your story.”
Example: Most origin myths of traditional peoples including the origin myth found in Genesis 1.
In summary then, here’s my case for sacred stories:
First, what they are not. Sacred stories are not political platforms. They are not morality tales. And contrary to popular opinion sacred stories are not inspirational stories advocating up-standing character traits.
Sacred stories are metaphorical narratives that speak to the deep-level questions and longings of our soul. At their best they give us a symbolic roadmap that helps us find a way through struggle and separation toward wholeness and community. They hold our lives at a sub-conscious level and fortify our minds at a conscious level. Sacred stories are about the greatest of undertakings whether individual or collective: the journey of transformation into the fullest expression of what it means to be human.
To this end I would include epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as contemporary forms of sacred story.
Though I wonder how tellable they are, i.e. sitting on grandfather’s knee? (That’s a different blog).
Sacred stories were once considered essential guides into and through life’s so-called Big Questions. They are now on the endangered list in western, secular culture. Good? Bad? Inevitable? Will it make any difference human development and thriving? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.