This post is Part 2 in a series. To read Part 1, click here.
Back in Bible college1 a professor once spoke of the bedtime storytelling routine for his children. This master storyteller discussed some of his favorite made-up characters and their adventures, but then went on to explain how he delineated between these extemporaneous tales and the slightly-embellished Biblical accounts he also told.
“When I begin a story with ‘Once upon a time,’ they know that what they’re about to hear is a story I just made up; it’s not true, and crazy things that can’t happen in real life will probably occur.
“But,” he continued, “if I start with ‘A long time ago,’ my kids know they’re about to hear something real—a story from the Bible. They know that, even if I add in stuff to make it fun, what they’re listening to actually occurred, so they can think differently about it.”
Though I was neither a husband nor a father, this system–coming as it did from such a strong preacher, storyteller, and role model–seemed ingenious and I couldn’t wait to try it out on my own kids someday. However, I quickly found his method didn’t work out in my own family. When I began telling my first son bedtime stories, he didn’t seem to notice or care whether a particular tale was “true” or not. All he wanted was to simply enjoy the story as it came to him. He wanted to laugh, to experience tension and resolve, and to be entertained and I found that, as the teller all I wanted was to offer those very same things–as well as a dash of hope and wonder. And in fact, I realized these were the very things I wanted from the stories I heard as well, whether from scrolls of sacred writ or the the pages of modern novels.
What I really wanted was not some assurance that what I was hearing was “based on a true story,” but that the story rang true; not so much that it happened, but that it happens. I realized it is what comes after an introduction that shapes us. Whether it begins with “Once upon a time,” or “A long time ago,” what I want is to be swept up into the scope of the tale, to meet people and go places I’ve never been, and ultimately, to be changed.
As I sat in that church library, seeking the words that could explain what, exactly, I had gleaned from a lifetime in the Christian faith (and what of that I was hoping to pass on to my children), I thought of the book that has held a singular place in my life—that text which has exercised such power over my imagination, peopling my heart with heroes and shaping my vocabulary with words and turns of phrase that have long since fallen out of popular use.
“How,” I wondered, “do I explain to these people that what I most desperately want to pass on are just stories?” How do I tell these progressive, liberal-minded parents that I’m not so worried about my children’s theologies or social stances, but whether or not they have acquired the taste for narrative? Their moral compasses and whether or not their faith is held with open hands will largely occur without much overt teaching (children, after all, learn more from what they see us do than say), but what will open their imaginations to new realities if they are not steeped in Story?
The words caught in my throat. How do I explain that I think, speak, and act in the ways that I do because from my earliest days, my life has been saturated by the words and stories of the Bible? How do I explain that from this singular book I learned more than the individual tales therein, but also gained a love for Story itself? More than that: it was the Bible, and my early and constant exposure to it, which softened my heart to receive other stories with such openness, ultimately teaching me to receive other people’s stories with the empathy and openness I believe the Divine requires of us (and which I hope to instill into my own children).
It was the from words of those Sunday School teachers, with their styrofoam cups of coffee and flannel-graphs and stock coloring pages, as well as my own readings on the floor of my bedroom, that I came to see this life as a tapestry woven from Divine love and embellished with humanity’s beautiful and terrible proclivities. It is in these words, so much misunderstood, misused, and maligned that I have learned of loss and despair and hope and longing; of victory and tragedy, compassion and cruelty, and faith in its manifold forms. The doctrines and dogmas have come and gone as I have moved from one tradition to the next, and that of which I am certain has decreased dramatically, but the stories themselves have weathered every storm and more than once offered commentary on my experiences of wrestling with their implications.
While the class filtered out of the room that morning, I considered how the scope of Divine embrace had widened for me over the years: how that expanded aperture came about by reading stories in the Bible. Stories of people who encountered the limits of their own love, who “failed and failed better,” who were caught up in the web of all things moving toward the Loving Source from which they’ve come. I thought of how Mikala and I tell our children over and again to simply, “Be kind and loving,” to always keep an eye open for those left behind and alone, and I wondered if those same stories might possess the power to say more than our words every could. If these ancient tales still had the power to enliven the hearts and open the eyes of these young people upon whose moral imagination the continuation of our very species might depend.
As I tucked my children into bed that evening, I asked what they’d learned in church that morning and my son began to tell me again of God’s promise to Abraham of a child and a tribe. I asked if he wanted to hear the rest of the story. He said yes and I smiled then began, “Once upon a time . . . .”
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1. Fine. I admit I went to one.↩