The Power of Story

The headline on the Guardian website caught my eye:  Bread is Practically Sacred: How the Taste of Home Sustained My Refugee Parents.” The article that followed was an edited extract from the book My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. On the topic of bread being sacred there are many ways to go so I followed the link. As it turns out, this piece is a moving and often humorous account of how his parents approached food in their homeland of Bosnia and how food sustained them when they fled Bosnia to live in Canada.

But while the subject of sacred bread drew me into the article, there was a particular paragraph that jumped out at me in a totally different context. Mr. Hemon brings his narrative to a conclusion with an effort to explain a process that is almost impossible to comprehend for those who have never experienced it. Ordinary words failing him, he illustrates this difficult point with a story, which he introduces in this way:

“This idea is best expressed in a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.”

He then goes on to tell a brief story, the events of which are plausible; they probably never happened exactly as written, and yet they probably happen all the time. The story line has been enriched through multiple re-tellings which added layers of meaning. By the end of Mr. Hemon’s  story, we have a clear visual image, and certainly understand more fully the futility of immigrants’ quest to recreate the food of their homeland in their new land. Score one for the power of story.

The Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. Over the years, when I have envisioned the Gospels being written, I have imagined that there were four wise sages who carried the stories of Jesus in their heads as oral history. At some point, they went off in a room by themselves, they took out a pen and scroll, dumped their recollections onto the papyrus and sent it off to the publisher.

Modern Biblical scholarship says that the gospels, while attributed to one person, were probably written by and for particular communities of Christians. Those communities may have included a couple of people who had personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth, along with many others who had encountered the risen Christ. And there was probably a healthy collection of folks who knew someone who knew someone who had heard the stories from someone else who knew the person who was there when it happened. To this wonderful mix, you add the movement of the Spirit in these communities and literary skills of the writer collecting the stories. What comes to us are stories of events that are enriched by personal experience and deepening faith. The stories are not only true, but they are packed with layer upon layer of even larger truth. They are more than true.

I like to imagine these communities gathering by oil lamps discussing over and over their own accounts of, for instance, the feeding of the 5,000. Everyone in the room remembers the story differently, with different details and nuances of meaning. Mark’s community remembers the event one way, and later the communities of Matthew, Luke, and John add their own details and nuances. They were writing by and for their own communities, but their story is so much richer  “because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people,” and as such it more than enriches us today.


Noah’s lawsuit: Is God trying to say something?

The headline reads like a punchline: “Owners of Noah’s Ark sue over rain damage.” Does God have a sense of humor or what? In the case of Irony v. This Has to Be a Joke, Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, is suing its insurance carriers.


The administrators of the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, 300 cubits/510 feet long, claim that heavy rains, while not reaching biblical proportions, caused a landslide on their access road. The ark itself was not damaged by the flood, nor did the park close; but for a time it looked like people who wanted to get into the ark could not because of the water, just like in the Bible.


The 77-page lawsuit seeks not only compensatory damages, but punitive damages, presumably because someone made fun of Ark Encounter – which also happened to Noah. The suit asks for a jury trial. They will need to find 12 people with no sense of humor.


Ark Encounter is rumored to have cost $100 million. It opened on July 7, 2016, a date (7/7) that was selected because of Genesis 7:7, “Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”


They claim to have 1 million visitors a year. Tickets cost between $15 and $48. Imagine how much money Noah could have made selling tickets.


This story is why Twitter was invented:


“The Onion has gone too far.”


“Thoughts and prayers!”


“Now I believe in God.”


“All right . . . who prayed for rain?”


“I hope the penguins who walked from Antarctica are safe!”


“Looks like God doesn’t want anybody to go see it.”


“And on the eighth day God created tort reform.”


Oh, there’s more:


“Seriously, shouldn’t Yahweh have prevented this?”


“Noah’s replica will have to start an”


“So biblical . . . just like in Genesis when Noah sued the Lord God for the flood damage to the Earth.”


“Mitch McConnell’s state. Go figure. Shocker.”


“It only carried a 40-day warranty.”


“God’s will.”


If this is a publicity stunt, it is genius. Aren’t you tempted to visit? You could be the person who asks too many questions:


Where are the dinosaurs?


How did they fit that many animals in a space that is not big enough for that many animals?


How could there be enough water to cover the whole world?


How did the dogs and cats get along, or the mice and the elephants?


Why didn’t the lions eat the bunnies?


Were the bunnies still creating other bunnies?


Were the animals in a coma?


After a month did Noah wish he was in a coma?


Do you consider the recent rainfall an act of God?


Did you think about suing God and not the insurance company?


How did a story about the annihilation of most of the world’s population – men, women and children drowning, heads bobbing up and down in the water – become an amusement park?


Do you think you might be missing the point?


Noah’s ark is not a children’s story, a funny story or even a story concerned with history.  This story is true even if it never happened.


If you get past the strangeness, it sounds like recent events. Terrible things are happening to God’s good creation. Violence is rampant. Terrorism is on the rise. War is considered a solution. Politicians refuse to listen to their enemies. Hungry children are starving.


We understand their situation. We have had 13 school shootings this year. We have gotten used to walking past the homeless. Innocent teenagers die in our prisons.


How will God deal with the brokenness of the world? God responds not as an angry architect whose building has been ruined, but as a grieving parent whose heart has been broken.


God sees the violence in the world and decides to turn away, to forget the whole experience, and walk away. God decides to return creation to the chaos from which God called creation. God will let the waters cover the earth.


But there is one person whom God cannot forget. God’s love for Noah changes the plan. The story which up to now is all darkness takes a turn to the light.


The grieving God decides to save the world. God will stay with creation, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind.


After the rain has stopped, God points to the rainbow in the sky and promises never to give up on us. God says, “I take my warrior’s bow and restring it not as a weapon, but with the colors of creation.”


We travel through waters that threaten to engulf us, but none of the suffering we know comes from God’s displeasure. God is doing everything God can do to offer hope, end our heartaches and bring us home.


That is no joke.