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Lost and Found: Stories from the Rubbish Heap

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.”

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.


The End of Sunday School

It’s a strange feeling to be in a profession that is slowly collapsing. As a religious educator I have been hired by churches across the denominational spectrum to work with an institution that is now running on fumes: Sunday School.

It makes for a daily exercise in humility when the initiative I have built my career around is used in popular culture as a synonym for something bland and boring. “A Sunday School answer” suggests a response that is either rote, naive, ill-informed or just silly. “Sunday School morals” implies a set of values that are out-of-touch, old-fashioned, inexperienced, even repressed. The expression “You won’t learn this in Sunday school!” condescends. It implies that the thing being spoken of is edgy, daring, exciting, controversial in contrast to the simplistic, one-dimensional, predictable, and uninspired Sunday School.

Satirizing one’s Sunday School experience has become its own sub-genre of pop literature complete with caricatured teachers and deplorable theology.
On the drive to church for the first time, I sat in the back seat, excited and nervous for this new experience,” reads one post on the 28,0000 followers Facebook group, Raising Children UnFundamentalist:
My parents brought me to a bright-colored room with other four-year-olds and a teacher who was the largest woman I’d ever seen. She was white and she was in charge. My parents left and the moment was more data for my abandonment issues later.
“Sin makes your heart black,” the giant explained. She wore a baby blue, floral-patterned dress and coke-bottle glasses, her light brown hair slightly matted against her damp, pale skin.
“Have you ever lied? Have you ever stolen? Have you ever been mean? Then you’ve sinned. Sin separates you from God. He hates sin. He can’t look at it. Someone had to come along to satisfy His wrath. So He sent His son who lived a perfect life, with no sin, to die for us. He was crucified. They took a long spike and nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross,” she explained gravely.
Horror. She was telling us a horror story.

Dumping on Sunday School is low-hanging fruit in the culture wars, easy points for those wanting to distance themselves from institutional religion. After all Sunday School, being Sunday School, is unlikely to defend itself.

The press is bad. Yet, all is not lost. If there is one thing Sunday school has done well in its brief 250-year history, it’s pivot.

It got its start as a movement for social reform in mid-18th century England, a time when the children of factory workers and farm labourers received no formal education and typically worked alongside their parents six days a week sometimes for more than 13 hours a day. In response to the poverty and associated rise in juvenile crime in his community, a newspaper editor by the name of Robert Raikes opened the doors to his home on Sundays and used his Bible to teach children living in the Gloucester slums to read and write. Other households and churches followed suit.

A hundred years later, the Education Act of 1870 rendered Sunday School’s basic literacy mandate redundant. The movement regrouped to fill another need in the social fabric becoming a place for young people to gather. Sunday Schools on both sides of the Atlantic, became known across denominations for hosting picnics, sporting teams, debate and drama clubs. Facilities were built and staff hired to support the influx.

Then, in the post-war era extra curricular activities were increasingly secularized and monetized. Municipal governments took up the community-convenor mantle and registration for Sunday school clubs and social groups dwindled. Staff were laid off and buildings abandoned.

But the Sunday school movement didn’t disappear.

Instead it scaled back to the one remaining mandate that had never been far from its core: the teaching of Bible stories to children and youth. Sunday Schools moved into church basements where most can be found today, sustained by church volunteers and meagre church budgets. The sale in pre-packaged, ready-to-use Sunday School curriculum is a multi-million dollar industry in the USA today.

Still, bigger storm clouds were brewing on the proverbial horizon. In the closing decades of the 20th century interest in organized religion began to plummet. The decline began a trend with no end in sight. Unable to pay their bills, churches of all denominational stripes started closing their doors. The demise of Sunday School, dependent as it is on the health and well-being of the institutional church, seems imminent.

So, as the end nears, my work can feel ridiculous. It’s tempting to count my losses and run. Indeed, I tried that once. After twenty years telling Bible stories to kids in a local Baptist Church I resigned my post and took up milking cows on a dairy farm. I was away for three years. But I’m back. Why?


Because I believe kids, maybe now more than ever, need stories to navigate by. And not just any stories, but the big ones, the mythic ones, the sacred ones (call them what you will), – unwieldy, gritty, raw, demanding – the stories that take the human predicament seriously, that call us back from our hubris, that place us on the path of transformative living where forgiveness, imagination, community, sacrifice, divestment, celebration and gratitude are not just lofty ideals but a roadmap into an uncertain future.

Martin Shaw, the great mythologist (and recent convert to Christianity) suggests that we reframe “living with uncertainty” to “navigating mystery”:

The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting. (Eminence Magazine, Navigating the Mysteries, May 2022)

So I walk with a wide and open heart toward my own vocational demise. Why? Because if there is one thing I know for certain it is that endings are often only beginnings in disguise. That what appears to be an endless night may in fact be the predawn hour.

Oh, by the way, that I learned in Sunday School.

On Whale Carcasses and Bible Stories

After hearing Vancouver-based theatre artist, Tetsuro Shigematsu, describe what happens to a  whale after it dies, a thought came to me: maybe Bible stories are to spiritual ecology what whale carcasses are to marine ecology.

Shigematsu’s description of the epic demise of the world’s largest mammal is as much poetry as it is science:  The life of a whale is unfathomable (his voice mesmerizing) but equally extraordinary is its death.

At first the decomposing gases cause the body to float to the surface where the sunlight accelerates the decomposition process. Eventually the skin, the layers of blubber,  break open, gases are released. And then it begins its slow journey downwards; its final swim to the bottom of the sea. And when it lands, this is where things really begin.

Those trillions of calories are a bonanza for all kinds of life. A universe in which countless generations of species will live and die. It’s ribcage is the edge of the known universe. Consider the whale’s eyeball alone which, to plankton, would be as vast as the moon. The optic nerve, as mysterious a passageway as a cosmic wormhole. And the brain itself, all the neuro pathways, all the dissolving synaptic passages, all those tiny creatures thoughtlessly consuming once precious memories of love and loss, of dreams, of song cycles, of the sacred.

So here’s the question: what would change if we thought of the Bible less as a worldview that needs defending on moral or theological grounds, and more as a collection of stories endlessly giving themselves away?  Afterall, the image of life feeding off of life is a profoundly mythic and spiritual one. It takes giving one’s body away, as it were, for life to be reborn.

For a child, decaying stories will not do, of course. A story needs to be well-formed and clear, in the prime of its life, so to speak, with the narrative arc fully intact. When it comes to storytelling children settle for nothing less than a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end.

However, could it be that overtime the life of a story ebbs away and that at some inevitable point it’s death is not only inevitable but necessary, even important? Maybe in the decay process listeners will take take refuge in single sections – the Psalms, the Gospels, the creation narratives – feasting for lingering periods, until eventually, they too are gone.

Once we’ve feasted on a story long enough perhaps it takes up residence in us at a cellular level. Perhaps we can be relieved of the need to wring more from it, the need to prop it up as the robust narrative it once was. Maybe as we mature in the faith all that is left of the stories that once plied the mighty seas of our life are the bones –  and even they, with time, will dissolve into the sediment of the ocean floor.

I’ve mentioned before how I love bumping into story guild alumni. What I see when I look at these young adults who came up through the ranks, are the dozens of ways they inhabited sacred stories through dramatic play for whole seasons of their lives. And whether they attend church or not, whether they have the right doctrine or not, is of no consequence to me. What matters is that the stories reside deep in their DNA and will be there for them when life comes calling (as it will).

I grew up with a version of the scripture called “The Living Bible”. I was a devout kid and used to carry that Bible around in the crook of my arm. But as Christendom crumbles and the stories of the faith are lost to the public imagination, it occurs to me that perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps there is something to gain from allowing this most beloved of books to be called by another name: “The Decomposing Bible.” And maybe that doesn’t need to be as scary as it sounds. Maybe in their dying, the stories of an ancient faith, like the body of a composting whale, have nourishment to offer universes yet to be born.

The Day Jesus Crossed the Sea: Fear and the Gerasene Demoniac

With climate disruption, supply chain mayhem, and a never-ending pandemic there is no shortage of reasons to live fearfully these days. The reason for our fears may be unique to our time but as pundits of human history have been quick to point out, living fearfully is not new to the 21st century. Every generation has had its own fear demons with which to wrestle. It seems that fear in all its many guises is part of the human condition.

How to respond to fear is one of the most important gifts that healthy spirituality has to offer. To its credit the Bible takes this mandate seriously. One of the most common refrains spoken by Jesus is “Don’t be afraid.” Taken on their own these words run the risk of being glib or simplistic.

Fortunately Jesus backs up the invitation with an embodied way into fear-filled situations that diminishes the lie of invincibility that fear likes to flaunt. With the soul force of love grounded in Divine Being, Jesus stands in fear’s path and refuses to let fear overstep its boundaries.

In the Gospel of Mark the story is told of a man who lived alone among tombs, an outcast among his own people. A spirit of fear called Legion has taken control of his body and mind. Public theologian and activist Brain McLaren draws a direct connection between Legion and the occupying presence of the Roman military in first-century Palestine.

This season’s Burrard St. Story Guild production is the story of Jesus putting an end to the advance of a fear that has been passed from one context to the next and growing ever larger as it moves: first from the soldiers of Rome, to the villagers in the country of the Gerasenes, and finally to the exiled man living alone in a cemetery.

Why Jesus allows Legion to enter a herd of two-thousand unsuspecting pigs driving them to their death is a question that goes unanswered in the story. Scholars suggest that a herd that size would be the modern-day equivalent of a large corporation and that the pigs were most likely being raised to feed the military-industrial complex of Rome, i.e. the antithesis of the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless the drowning of the pigs begs the question of the price the earth has had to pay to absorb human fear. And is there a connection to Jesus own death only months later when he enters the abyss feared even by Legion in order to root fear out at the deepest levels of human existence?

In his book, How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins suggests that one of the ways to hold fear in check is to find a story bigger than the story fear is trying to tell. Legion and the Pigs:The Day Jesus Crossed the Sea points us in the direction of a bigger story – a story that recognizes the potential of compassion over exclusion, love over hatred, and solidarity over isolation and fear.

So please join the six kids of this season’s Burrard St. Story Guild and our guest performers – either in person at 10:30 on December 5, 2021 at Canadian Memorial United Church (corner of 15th Ave. and Burrard St., masks and double vaccine required), or online for the free live-streamed telling of Legion and the PigsThe Day Jesus Crossed the Sea.

When Stories Meet: Shad, the Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders and Story Guild Alumni

Finding the right balance between ‘my story’, ‘our story’, and ‘God’s Story’ is critical to Sacred Canopy’s programming and productions. It’s this three-way dynamic that keeps our storytelling grounded, accessible, and healthy.

If any one of these is left without the counter weight of the other for too long, the distortions quickly set in. A singular focus on ‘my story’ and you get tedious introspection, on ‘our story’ and you get tribalism, on ‘God’s Story’ and you risk religious fanaticism.

One of the ways we explore the “our story” component of this triad is to interweave a contemporary story with the ancient biblical story. Both stories make their way onto the stage for the end-of-season production.

Usually these contemporary stories are of ordinary people doing ordinary things, like the time we re-enacted the story of an elder Trinidaian couple in our congregation immigrating in the 1960s to racially segregated Toronto (yes, Toronto, not a typo!). In Night Vision, we interwove the Chariandy’s story with the story of Abraham and Sarah, their shared struggle, across millenium, to find their footing in the new country to which they had been led.

Sometimes, however, the people we’ve found to work with hold a much larger place in the public imagination.

On another occasion we invited the Juno-award winning Canadian rapper, Shad to work with our Eastside Story Guild on a rap for the opening scene of Angels and Ladders our telling of the rivalry between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Needless-to-say, the sanctuary was packed out on the opening night of that show when Shad performed live with the kids, riffing off The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Then there was the time Wet’suwet’en activist and treaty-rights defender Freda Huson invited us to what was then the little known Unist’ot’en resistance camp in northern BC. For three days we listened to Freda’s stories of building a healing centre in the path of a pipeline. We chopped wood, smoked mountain goat, walked the land with Freda and captured it all on film. Back in Vancouver we used huge, ceiling-height screens to interweave the Unist’ot’en resistance story with our own season-end telling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah.

And now, years later, and within weeks of each other both Shad and Freda have received international recognition for work that presses hard toward a more equitable and just world for all. Shad for his newly dropped genre-bending album, TAO, that moves the cultural conversation forward on many fronts (“capitalism, racism, surveillance, Black excellence—or lack thereof—and more”), and Freda, winner of the Right Livelihood Award for her “fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.”

Our first story guild alumni are all young adults now: some in fledgling careers, others looking out college windows, and still others picking up their weekly minimum wage pay cheques. Regardless of where they find themselves I like to think of them scrolling social media and coming across these stories of Shad and Freda, two people with whom they once shared the story guild stage, two people still making a difference, still making the world a better place.

I’d like to think it reminds our alumni how interwoven, and held, all our stories really are.