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The Power of Story

Everything is shaped and created by the power of story. Our families, our values, our society. Stories can be factual, or they can be fiction. Sometimes the line between the two becomes blurry. But, as Elizabeth Lesser said, they help us understand and navigate through an often complex, crazy and confusing world. Sometimes those stories serve us well for centuries, and sometimes we need to evolve past the old stories in order to claim a new truth that we’ve discovered.

We rarely consider the power of a story, rarely question which stories we’re taught and which ones are left out. People have forever taken for granted that history books tell the whole story, that everything in the Bible is true, and that the way and structure of society is the way it has always been and the way it is supposed to be.

It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I read a whole new history book with stories of events I had never heard before. Turns out that, because the push for the separation of church and state, religion was almost entirely written out of the history books that I grew up with. In addition, seminary brought to my attention that women, blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics were also mostly left out of the history books. It wasn’t until the 1990s that federal guidelines were created to be more inclusive of those groups. 

What stories are included in our history books, and what slant is emphasized, has become a hot political issue. Why? Because people know the power of story to shape our attitudes, beliefs and opinions.

There is an old saying that says: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

Biblically speaking, the power of story was fully understood when the canon of the New Testament was formed. The elite, learned men of power had an agenda, a message they wanted preserved and sacralized. They also had one they wanted left out, erased and destroyed. We knew little about the rejected texts until the last 60-70 years. It should be no surprise that those stories were of women, the Divine feminine, mysticism and being one with God.

Bible stories have shaped so much of the world as we know it today.

For example, the story of Adam and Eve has served to confine women to being “helpmates” of men, second citizens because they were created second - out of man, not out of God as Adam was. This story was clearly not ever intended to be factual, but men have turned it into the inerrant word of God to maintain power over women. Women are still fighting for equality – to be seen, heard, and treated as equals. Adam and Eve has also been used to condemn homosexuality, as well as to hold humanity in a fallen state of sinfulness.

Slavery was a common practice in Biblical times and passages in Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy and Titus have been used to justify using slaves. A number of Proverbs verses legitimized Child abuse – spare the rod, spoil the child, as they say. Anti-Semitism comes directly out of the Gospel of Matthew. The text of Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” has contributed to the over population of the Earth, the ridiculous condemnation of birth control, and has given permission to use and abuse the resources of our planet to the detriment of our health and future. The Bible has also been used over and over again to justify "holy wars" and violence – pick any one of a number of examples from the Old Testament where God supposedly condoned violence against any group who worshipped another God (never mind that it says “Thou shalt not kill” in the Ten Commandments).

My question that haunted me this week was: what has been the defining Biblical story of Christianity? I'd have to choose John 3:16 as the winner, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” John 14:6 runs a close second: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.”

Both of these passages have been the cause of much fear and violence. Because of these stories, Christians have claimed to have the one true religion, have condemned all others to hell, have seen fit to fight numerous wars, kill countless people because of a few lines we can’t even prove Jesus said, or if he did what he really meant by them. I can say with all certainty that he wasn’t saying that Christians were the best because there weren’t any when he supposedly said it (if he said it).

Or perhaps the defining story of Christianity is the story of the cross and what Paul says in Romans 5: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us.”

How many millions of people throughout the centuries have been told that Christ died for them, that he had to in order to undo the mess that Adam and Eve (but mostly Eve) got humanity into because they disobeyed God and all humanity was forever stained with “original sin” (thank you Augustine for that awful “story”)? How many have believed that they were nothing but miserable people, rotten to the core, not worthy of love, and afraid of God because God would punish them or send them to hell for any one of a million or so sins?

On the positive side, I do believe that Jesus was a master storyteller, using his gift to speak to hearts and souls in a way that simple words don’t. Stories tend to stay with us for a while, continuing to speak to us and encouraging us to think harder about life. Jesus had a way of telling stories that turned the status quo upside down, taught a new set of values and a new understanding of God.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son, or the vineyard owner who hired workers at three different times during the day, but paid them all a full day’s wages (Mt. 20:1-16). These are powerful stories, but they haven’t become the defining stories of Christianity because they are hard.

If I could choose a story to define Christianity, I’d choose Mathew 22:34-40. It’s the story of this guy named Jesus whose family was well known, he’d been brought up in their community, he’d learned holy scripture at the feet of the rabbi. But now Jesus had all kinds of new ideas that sure sounded like he was criticizing the way things had always been done. It sure sounded like he was judging the religious authorities and their actions. Jesus was now drawing crowds who seemed to be mesmerized by his teaching. So, the two sects of Judaism, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who didn’t often see eye to eye on things, joined forces in trying to discredit Jesus.

In this passage, the Sadducees (the wealthy, the conservatives, the literalists) had tried to take Jesus down a notch by asking him a question they didn’t think he could answer, but it didn’t work. Then the Pharisees (the working class, the more liberal in their interpretation of scripture) decided to give it a shot. After some consideration they asked, “Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?”

Jesus replied, “You must love the Most High God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.’” The Pharisees couldn’t refute this.

If only this had become the defining feature of Christianity. If only we hadn’t focused so darn much on the blood of Christ, hanging his crucified body at the front of every church and making people feel personally responsible. If only this story of Jesus speaking his heart to the powers that be and reminding all of us to love God, ourselves and everyone else were the most important tenant in Christianity. What would we look like now if we strived to live this instead of worrying about who married who, and who gets to make the decisions, and who really understands what is going on in communion?

Perhaps then we could stand together fulfilling another one of Jesus’ stories in which he declares, “You are the light of the world.” The light that shines in the darkness and brings hope, warmth, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

I’m very much a Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books three times and have all the movies, so this story from Brene’ Brown, in her book Braving the Wilderness, struck a chord with me. She talks about going to the opening night for the sixth Harry Potter movie: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Toward the end of the movie she explains, “our wise guide and faithful leader Dumbledore is killed. There’s a scene where Harry is bent over his body, weeping. Dumbledore was the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as a father figure, mentor and protector to Harry. Even if you’ve never read the books or seen the movies, you know the scene: a young protagonist losing his or her parent figure and guide. It’s an essential element in the arc of many great stories.

As a crowd of students and professors gathers around Dumbledore’s body, an evil face appears in the dark sky. It is the face of Voldemort, the evil wizard responsible for Dumbledore’s death. As Harry places a hand on Dumbledore’s chest and continues to weep, Dumbledore’s dearest friend and fellow teacher, Professor McGonagall, played brilliantly by Dame Maggie Smith, raises her want to the sky. From the tip of the wand comes a single burst of light. One by one, each student and teacher raises his or her wand to create a constellation of light that overcomes the dark and menacing sky.

At that moment, in a movie theater in Houston… [Brene’] looked around to find that two hundred strangers, most of them with tears on their cheeks, had their hands in the air, pointing their imaginary wands to the sky. Why? Because, Brene’ writes, “we believe in the light. Yes, we know that Harry Potter is not real, but we know that collective light is real. And powerful. And in the face of hatred and bigotry and cruelty and everything that dark sky stood for, we were so much stronger together.” 

This is the power of story, to unite us as light for the world, loving God, loving each other and loving ourselves.

Love & Light!

Kaye