Those of us who attended a Passover Seder or Holy Week service last week heard stories which have stood the test of time for at least 2,000 years.
One problem we Westerners have is that we can’t seem to leave stories alone. We have to analyze them, find the moral to them or figure out their meaning. I’ve quoted Martin Buber many times over the years in my columns. He taught that you can treat people, or anything really, as an IT or a THOU. For example, when you relate to a tree as an IT, you want to categorize it as a maple, an elm or an oak. You want to figure out how many board feet of lumber it contains or cut it down, count the rings and learn how old it is.
Poet Joyce Kilmer, in contrast, saw trees as THOUs when she wrote,
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
I had the privilege of interviewing Peabody Award winner Alex Kotlowitz two weeks ago. He’s a reporter who tells stories about people instead of analyzing them.
“What I try to do as best I can,” he explained, “is go out into the world on these journeys of discovery. The point is to try to tell to a tell story, because readers don’t like to be pandered to. They don’t like to be pushed or pulled. They don’t like to be told how to think. When you read a story, you can find your own way,” he said.
“Two people can hear or watch the same story and come to different conclusions. That’s the power and beauty of narrative.”
If you hear the story told for millennia at Passover Seders, for example, you may, like civil rights activists in the 1960s, hear it as a narrative about slaves being freed from bondage, and you might respond by singing along with Same Cooke “a change is gonna come.” Or, you might hear about the Passover lamb and think about Good Friday.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. When Dr. King was assassinated 46 years ago, I was an exchange student at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college. I heard Stokely Carmichael speak. Black Muslims would hand copies of Muhammad Speaks to me. I drank gallons of iced tea, and to my surprise I didn’t always get beat in one on one basketball games.
When I returned home that summer, a friend of mine asked me what I had learned. At the time I felt kind of stupid when I heard myself say, “I don’t know.” All I could do was tell stories about my experiences, because I knew that I sure did not understand the rich, complex things I had witnessed.
I’m content to repeat the stories, and some of my friends who have heard them many times seem to understand that I keep telling them to get at realities I can’t put into words any other way.
Part of the magic of storytelling is that it enables the hearer/reader to kind of identify with the characters in the narrative, even the ones we don’t especially like. Kotlowitz calls it journalism of empathy. Good literature, as opposed to melodrama, creates complex characters with both admirable and shameful traits. That’s what’s so amazing about most of the stories in the Bible. Most of the characters in them are deeply flawed. They are what Frederick Buechner calls Peculiar Treasures.
Any interpretation of the Exodus epic which claims that the people of Israel were perfectly obedient and more spiritual than other folks is simply not supported by the narrative itself.
I hope whoever was “preaching” last week didn’t bore you with doctrinal arguments or moral platitudes. And if you found it hard to swallow the stories you heard because they are not plausible in a so called modern, scientific view of the world, I fear you missed a chance to be impacted in ways reason can’t dream of.