The Greatest Stories Ever Told

photoSince writing a regular column for the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal, I’ve started looking at stories in a new way. Lately, I have been thinking of them more in terms of what they do for those for whom religion matters.

To backtrack a moment: Literature professors look at stories for their internal meanings; interpretation, for them, is an act of decoding (to borrow a term from semiotics) to discover hidden meanings that may, incidentally, be unknown even to the writers themselves. Communication scholars, on the other hand, examine stories for their external meanings. What do stories do in the world? What do they do for their tellers and their listeners? How are they used to achieve a conscious or unconscious goal?

Here’s an example: I once brought in to my university the remarkable First Nation storyteller Dovie Thomason. In the course of her performance, she mentioned that traditionally, Native children don’t get punished when they misbehave. Instead, they are told stories about the infraction they committed. So if, say, Dovie played with matches in the house, she would hear a story about the dangers of playing with fire. That would be an example of how a communication class would look at stories. We are not examining them on the micro level of language so much as on the macro level of family and society.

Back to religion. Why is the Bible chock full of stories? What do the stories do for those who read it?

The simple answer is: This is history and law, and we have to learn it. Period.

For many people, that’s enough. As a seminary graduate, however, this doesn’t do it for me. We learned that the Torah (the word refers to the Old Testament) was written by a number of human beings, with different perspectives and different agendas. So in effect, we studied it from the point of view of a religion class, a literature class and a communication class. The “literature” part was to study the motivation of Moses and Jonah, the incomparable poetry of the writing, the way that stories unfolded. The “communication” aspect was to discuss why certain authors contributed certain stories from certain perspectives. (Some had political motives; some more religious motives; at least one was supposedly female, which might give her another motivation altogether.)

So as a Seminary graduate and a communication instructor, I am looking at the Bible lately and saying, “Wow. They knew that stories teach us, engage us and help us remember better than any other form of instruction.” That is to say, whether or not the Bible is a true history of events is not for me to discuss, at least not here. In making this particular point, it is irrelevant. What matters is the ingenious way that the author(s) of the Bible—whether human or Divine—put forth their messages.

I often say that infotainment, such a dirty word in elite media, is actually the best way to learn. Why does something have to taste bad to be good for you? Why can’t we enjoy our learning? The masters of the oral tradition, long before writing was developed, knew that the way to keep people interested in math, science or moral education was to entertain and educate at the same time: to tell them a good story.

You may have noticed that I left out how we studied the Bible from a religious standpoint at the Seminary—not the Bible as literature, not the Bible as communication, but the Bible as spiritual guide. From my perspective, all these years later, I would say that the spiritual part of my training encompassed both literature and communication. We learned that the Torah, whether or not it was a work of history, was, most importantly, a great work of metaphor, of symbol. Thus the ancient sages could argue forever about its meaning, about how we are meant to live. What does Abraham’s binding of Isaac (the story known as the “Akedah”) mean for us today? What does it tell us about relating not only to God, but also to our parents, children, animals, servants and social responsibilities?

From a communication standpoint, we also learned that the Bible is an important tool for teaching us how to be better citizens of the world. Thus one interpretation of the story of human beings’ appearance on the sixth and final day of creation was to tell us we are stewards of the earth.

Most importantly for me, the Bible reminds us of the overwhelming power of storytelling.

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