The stories we tell ourselves

I was excited by the last week’s lively discussion on evolution and creation. But the point that particularly caught my eye was not about science, but about history.

In the comments section, Dan said, “I personally think all religion is about myth & metaphor, never history. And the core importance of religion is how it affects how you live your life, in this world.” He also expressed his bafflement at people who take the Bible literally, and their inability to shake their views despite contrary evidence.

I agree with Dan that religion draws on myth and metaphor. But then, I think all history is about myth and metaphor. I don’t mean that there are no facts, and no objective reality. I mean that history is comprised of the stories we tell to make sense of the facts.

These stories can’t help but highlight some facts, and ignore others, depending on the teller and the purpose for which they are told. I don’t see that as a problem. The danger comes only when facts are actively suppressed, distorted or falsified for the story’s sake, as we see in the Tea Party’s telling of American history, or Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford’s insistence that a $60,000 bike lane cost $6 million.

Now let’s look at the Bible.

The Bible is a collection of stories told in 66 books. These stories include songs, proverbs, fables, laws, biographies, letters and visions. They also include conventional histories. Like all history, they are written with a specific purpose: in this case, to teach readers about the nature of God, perhaps, or to show us how to live. But that does not make them untrue, any more than another history might be written for the purpose of showing how social or economic forces led to a chain of events.

Like Dan, I have always been mystified by the concept of an “inerrant Bible.” As far as I can tell, the Bible does not make this claim about itself. Paul does note that all Scripture – meaning, I think, the Old Testament, not his own letters or the still unwritten gospels – “is inspired by God, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

And who can argue with that?  Millions – including me — can attest that God speaks to them through Scripture. And clearly Christians everywhere have found the Bible “useful.”

In fact, both Jesus and Paul model how to use Scripture. They both re-interpret Scripture. Jesus’ famous, “You have heard . . . but I tell you” sayings come to mind. They sometimes quote Scripture out of context. But that doesn’t mean they are contradicting Scripture. They are simply deepening our understanding of it.

The myths we cling to

Unlike Dan, however, I’m not so sure Bible literalists are that different from the rest of us. Many years ago I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a fascinating examination of  the mythical power of secular history. Tey’s thesis is that Richard III’s characterization as a monster is derives from Shakespeare, not the facts. She then goes on to challenge historical myths old and new. She notes that we cling to these myths even when we hear facts that refute them. Indeed, rather than changing our minds, we become angry with the person who challenges the myth.

That doesn’t mean that history is never revised. But think how often the rewrites come at the behest of today’s needs. We discover that Aristotle was bi-polar, Alexander the Great was gay, or ancient non-European civilizations were more sophisticated than originally thought, not because the evidence was unavailable until now, but because it is only now that the evidence is consistent with our beliefs.

Which brings us full circle to Dan’s further comment last week, that “the core importance of religion is how it affects how you live your life, in this world.”

Our actions are our beliefs

Last Saturday I heard Peter Collins speak as part of “The Eighth Letter” conference.  Earlier in the day, we heard several people speak of their life-changing encounters with homeless people.  The speakers encouraged us to find ways to hear the stories of people on the margins.

Collins hit a different note. He talked about the false stories we tell about ourselves. For example, he told us about a 1930s article about Hitler in the Ladies Home Journal. The article described Hitler as he described himself: a hard-working and clean-living man, a vegetarian and abstainer, who loved giving flowers to children. Collins points out that it is what you actually do – not the story you tell about yourself – that matters.

And then Collins said something that has stayed with me ever since. He said that Christians often say that our actions fall short of our beliefs. But the reality is that our actions are our beliefs.

It’s a scary thought.

Friends, this blog has become a meandering story of its own. Time for you to weigh in.

Are religious myths of a piece with the myths generated by secular history?

Are actions the only thing that really counts, or does “right thinking” have a value of its own?




Filed under Joy's entries

4 responses to “The stories we tell ourselves

  1. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

    My intended ‘comment’ turned into an article, so will send that in a day or two. This subject is huge. And your questions at the end – entire topics to explore. You have such a wonderfully fertile mind! Thanks for raising these….rosemary

  2. I think myth-making is a human trait. Reality is so complex that it’s hard to avoid the temptation to tell a simplified tale that contains a moral. The moral has a function, namely to recommend future action or, at least, attitude. That doesn’t make the myth “untrue.” It just means it’s not the complete truth.

    Not sure about the other question. I’d say that, of course, “right thinking” has a value. But it has to be connected in some way to action, or it runs the risk of decaying into pharisaism. Proper action, I would say, is more important.

  3. Elizabeth Sherk

    On the relationship between right thinking and right action by Christians: Mahatma Ghandi once said, “Christianity is a wonderful religion-someone should try it some day!” He also taught, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.” And oddly enough, the man was not a Christian.

    These are Thanksgiving thoughts from me & my friend, Marie.


    Possibly, Christians of the character or quality of Jean Vanier or Henri Nowen are human beings who, like Gandi & the Dalai Lama have begun to embrace the their own Divinity, that the writer of John’s Gospel says shines in or on everyone of us as we are born into this world. I’m continuing to think about the first and second Adam. As the people of the longhouse would say, quoted from “The Great Law of Peace” , we are born human beings, but it is our lifelong responsibility to do the necessary spiritual work to become real human beings//perhaps not so different from what Paul might have meant by being descendants of the First or the Second Adam.

  4. If we expand our understanding of right thinking to include the vulnerability to have our imagination shaped by stories of mythological proportion – all the better if the myth is ‘true’ – we find ourselves in a place of doing new things beyond what either sound reason or ethics prescribe.
    Two phrases from Chesterton – ‘the ethics of elfland’ being one, where the good we do, we do being ‘love struck’.
    Reading his book on St. Francis so infected me, my thinking and activity experienced ‘reconfiguration’.
    I don’t know what to make of the ‘stigmata’, but who cares! What I do know, is that there is a way of living where love so marks a person, it feels and looks like Jesus, and the world is better ‘for his appearing’. There is no deeper longing than to see Jesus among us.
    Which had me going back to the gospels as though there was something more than just my theology to be fed.
    The gospels when drunk deeply by the imagination (a child-like belief in God), provoke, as Chesterton put it, ‘goodness to run wild’.

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