god, just— apart from everything else i really, really love about my religion, apart from the food and the lighting of the candles, apart from getting to share something with my family that isn’t tangled up in unhappiness, apart from the sheer pride at being part of a tradition that stretches back for over three thousand years, apart from the long rambling philosophical discussions we had in hebrew school and apart from the peculiar happiness of having an identity that is separate and makes you separate and makes you stand out and makes you you—
i think so much of what i love about my religion is that it is so inherently grounded on the idea that stories are important.
my mother likes to say that biblical stories exist in order to teach us moral lessons, in order to get us to behave a certain way, but i don’t think that’s quite right; after all, it’s a book of laws. there are pages and pages of this is unclean, this is unholy, this is unfair, this is good and right, act this way, do not act this way, on and on
but genesis begins, very simply, with this is the story of our family.
and somebody knew, somewhere along the line— to not eat pig, to rest on the seventh day, to pray, these are rituals you perform every day, these are things you make your body do
but things like woman, snake, fruit, paradise, or and the seas parted, or there was once a giant and a boy with a slingshot— these are the things that stick, these are the narratives that you can use to build a structure in your head, like the outlines in a coloring book.
these were people who understood that making laws will build you a city, but telling stories will build you a civilization
and that “but did it really happen?” is so, so much not the point.
On that last, I just wanted to add a thought to this excellent post. It’s not quite on topic, but since I was going to reblog this anyway, I thought I’d toss it in.
John Dominic Crossan, who I revere as my master — I fully admit to having stolen ‘I revere as my master’ from the English translation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, by the way; in that novel, the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville says that about the great medieval scientist Roger Bacon, meaning that Bacon is his model in both spiritual and temporal things. Personally, that’s how I feel about Crossan — an Irish academic and former monk who’s an expert on the historical Jesus of Nazareth and was for many years a teacher at DePaul University; he co-founded the Jesus Seminar, an organization of theologians and scholars devoted to delineating the differences (and similarities) between the factual Yeshua ben Yosef, the carpenter and anti-imperialist activist in Roman Palestine, and Jesus Christ, the spiritual figure. I’ve read all of his books and heard him speak many times, and I really, really admire him and his thinking.
Anyway, that’s the context. I once heard Crossan say — I’m sure it’s in one of his many books as well, but at a workshop of his I attended, he mentioned debating hardcore fundamentalist Christians over how literally the Bible (especially the Gospels, in this case) was meant to be read, given that it talks about a man walking on water, say, or healing people’s illnesses through sheer will, and whether or not that was in fact not a literal transcription of what had happened but an instance of midrash, which of course a Jewish reader will know is the metaphorical nature of a lot of things described in traditional Jewish writings, holy and otherwise.
(A rabbi of my acquaintance once explained midrash like this: at one point in the Bible, the prophet Elijah parts the river Jordan and walks across without getting his feet wet. The point of this story is not that Elijah can do magic, but that Elijah is a really, really important figure — like Moses, who of course is known for parting the Red Sea, another story not meant to be taken literally.)
Crossan said that instead of engaging on the point of whether or not Jesus could actually walk on water or heal the sick or turn water into wine, it was necessary to take another tack, because otherwise all you have is two or more people telling each other what fools they are, and that’s not productive to either good fellowship or debate. Instead, he said, what he tended to do was to ask the fundie in question why Jesus had walked on water. Why hadn’t he, say, flown through the air? What message was Jesus trying to send to the disciples in the storm-wracked boat, and what message should we, hearing this story two thousand years later, take from it?
As the OP says, the point is not — I’d go so far to say that, in matters like this, the point is never — whether or not stories of this type literally happened as told. The point is whether or not they contain truth.
At least that’s what I think.