In the Beginning Was a Really Good Story
Rev. Douglas Taylor
By the time I was twelve I had shifted into that phase of being a literalist on purpose, to annoy people – my mother and other authority figures mostly. “Douglas,” she would say, “do you want to take out the garbage?” (pause) “No,” I would reply, thoughtfully. She turned to me, exasperated, “Will you take it out anyway” “Yes, of course,” I smiled, jumping from my seat to do the chore. She learned to phrase her statements and expectations without niceties and polite colloquialisms when addressing me that year. I thankfully grew out of that phase but it took a while. I found myself still slipping into it from time to time even while entering seminary. It was discouraging to discover that some people see such literalism as the best they can come up with to demonstrate a commitment to their faith and beliefs. It was in seminary that I began to grasp how I had been using my 12-year-old literalism as a weapon of cleverness. Let us linger today in literalism and its implications.
In the beginning, it was not a problem to have two versions of creation written into the sacred text, two version of Noah and the flood, or four versions of Jesus’ life and teachings. People understood these were stories not about historic facts of how is all really happened. They knew them to be stories revealing information about who they were as a people.
Tonight at sunset begins the High Holy Days which begin with Rosh Hashanah. Our Jewish brothers and sisters in faith will be blowing the Shofar and eating apples and honey tonight to commemorate the beginning of the New Year, year 5773. It is the birthday of the world, according to some interpretations. Others see it as symbolic. To take it literally is to say that God created the universe and everything in it including Adam and Eve on October 7, 3761 B.C. Or maybe September 25, 3760 BC … calendars are a little tricky over time. There seems to be more support for the earlier October 7 date.
I find within myself absolutely no capacity to accept this date in a literal sense. The literal interpretation of religious a truth is limiting and flat and not the least bit inspiring – indeed it is deadening. However, as a story, chapter one of Genesis is beautiful and moving: look at where we came from! Everything sufficient for life arose at a word from God. All that is good is spread out and look, we are there in that story as kin to all the world. But then there is a second version of events that puts it a little differently. In the second tale we are not created ex nihilo, we arise from clay and the breath of God.
The biggest stories, what Loy called meta-stories in the reading this morning (from The World is Made of Stories), are stories of Cosmos, the Tao, God, Brahman. The trouble with them is that they don’t like to admit to being stories – the meta-stories each want to be known as The True Story. Once upon a time a fish swam through the water in search of the ocean. “Can you tell me where to find the ocean,” it would ask anyone it could. “Silly fish,” many replied, “This is the ocean – you are swimming in it.” Discouraged the fish would mutter, “I am swimming in water, what I am looking for is the ocean.” Perhaps the concept of “the ocean” is another story about the water.
Not all the biggest stories come from religion; science has them too, only they are usually called theories rather than stories. Yet they serve the same purpose. A scientific theory is not a statement of fact, it is the framework and narrative that strings the facts together into a meaningful message. The story that evolution offers leads me to wonder and awe in nearly the same way as the first chapter of Genesis: look, we arise from earth and stardust!
The second account of creation in Genesis is also compelling. It is the story of the expulsion from Eden and reveals a dramatic cosmic version of growing up. It is about the anxiety of adulthood and the burden of facing the world’s challenges on my own. Or at least that is one non-literalist interpretation that can serve to lead me to a deeper and richer life.
Or, consider this other version of creation. Once upon a time when the earth was new …
The Creator’s angels were afraid that people might try to kidnap or monopolize God, and so they decided that she had to be hidden in a safe place, a place where all people would be able to find her if they searched, but where none could own her exclusively. So they sent out angel scouts to find the perfect place … Meanwhile the Creator had already found her hiding place, the safest, fairest, and warmest place to hide, and yet the most difficult to find: inside each and every human heart. (from Elisa Davey Pearman’s book Doorway to the Soul)
A literalist must answer the question, ‘which one actually happened?’ Which account of creation is the true account? They’re all true to the extent that they are meaningful. A literalist must fit the stories together and make them say the same thing – or throw some of them away as untrue. Have you ever heard the argument that all four gospels tell the same account of Jesus’ life and death – and that there is no contradiction between them, it is merely our misunderstanding of how the events flow together? That is the argument of a literalist trying to make the complexity of life and faith fit neatly into an eye-witness account. Our problem today is not one religion’s story vs. another. Our problem is the literalist interpretation of any story.
Consider the current violence and protest over blasphemy we see happening among Muslims globally over a video denigrating and insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Not all Muslims interpret the story of their doctrine as stories leading them to violence. Oh, the violence is there in the stories, just as it is in the Jewish and Christian stories as well as the stories of many other faiths. And perhaps a literalist interpretation would lead a believer to think that violence is the only faithful response. I am not so strong a scholar of the Monotheistic religions to know that this is in fact true, but it certainly seems to be the case. It is the extreme and literalist interpretations that lead people to behave with violence. But the literalist way is not the only way to understand a story.
Or consider the political end of the same recent series of events. As a liberal who champions values such as the freedom of speech as well as respect and tolerance among different religions, I feel like I am being asked to either condemn the ‘free speech’ of the video or condemn the different religion and its response. I am asked to side with the literalist extremists who promote lies and intolerance under the guise of ‘free speech’ or to side with the literalist extremists who demand that violence is a reasonable, even doctrinally correct, response to blasphemy. Which value of liberalism will I admit has fail? Which literalist will I support? I refuse to participate.
I will not live by a literalist interpretation of the bill of rights that says all speech is just fine and dandy. Nor will I live by a literalist interpretation of religious toleration that says all religious actions and statements should be equally respected and valued. Instead I live in a nuanced world where our higher values of love and justice are given greater authority to test and discern a way through complicated situations. Of course Islam should be respected. But violence and murder are in no way a faithful response to disrespect.
My point in bring this up is to show that your stories matter and how you interpret your stories matters, and it matters not just when you are in prayer or worship – it matters on the global stage in contemporary affairs. The world is made of stories and events unfold along the lines of these stories. It is true for religious beliefs, it is true for political and social affairs, and it is true for our personal lives as well. Myths and stories hint not only at insights to daily political motifs. They are also the original self-help manuals. Consider the truths they reveal for your personal and spiritual life.
The limits of our personal stories are the limits of our living. Our reading (from David Loy’s The World Is Made of Stories,) mentions an example of an anorexic girl who looks in the mirror and sees herself as overweight. Body image is a question of your story. There are countless similar examples: do you cast yourself as a helper, as a victim, as a person of power or one without power? Is yours a story of success or failure one in which those terms don’t apply? Meaning is made through story.
Here is an example of one of my personal stories. I have several. One is about growing up the youngest, another focuses on divorce and alcoholism, a third story of me is one of music and theater, and still another is the story of being a young father and husband. Each one contains truth about me, each is mostly factual and partly fabricated, and all of them tell me who I am. “All my stories are true, and most of them actually happened.” (from Letters to a Buddhist Jew) The one I will tell you now has been an important one for me.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us. There are traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us and shape who we are and how we see the world. I am a fourth generation Unitarian Universalist.
My mother’s mother’s mother, Cora Arvilla Beadle Miller, was one of the founding members of the Old Stone Universalist Church of Schuylur Lake, NY. That is the same church where my mother’s mother, Marie Elizabeth Miller Strong, played the organ and was Superintendent of the Church School, and where my mother’s father, Ashley Walter Strong, was Moderator and then President of the New York Convention of Universalists in the mid 1950’s. It is the same church, The Old Stone Universalist Church, where my mother, Elizabeth May Strong, now a retired Minister of Religious Education, grew up and began teaching when she was in eighth grade.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us; traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us. My mother’s mother’s mother was a church builder. May I be so blessed as to be the same.
Anais Nin said “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” David Loy writes “A story is a point of view. There is no perspectiveless perspective.” So prod your stories, learn their messages and their perspectives. Every story is a message aimed. There are no random stories of worth. You are a storied soul. The whole question of meaning is tangled up in the stories. Stories such as religious creation stories are not meant to be heard as historic fact. They are intended as statements of identity. We each live by personal stories that shape us and define us. We can choose our stories and our roles in those stories. None of us can change events and situations, but with effort we can control our responses, our interpretations, our definitions of ourselves in the face of it all.
So, “Shanah Tovah!” May you be inscribed in the book of life for a good year. May your story unfold with blessings and meaning and joy.
In a world without end,
may it be so