The Common Good

Bible Stories Your Mother Never Told You -- and One to be Told Differently

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

Folks in my line of work ... i.e., writers in the field of religion ... do a lot of talking and lecturing during the fall, winter, and spring months when schools are in session and everyone more or less agrees that vacation time is over and done with for another year. Why exactly it is that the school year still determines vacation and play time for the whole of society has never been terribly clear to me, but I do recognize the immutability of the system.

During the summer months, however, when no one wants a lecture-series or special week-ends of emphasis or whatever, the job description for my tribe changes from writer and speaker to homilist ... or it does, if one knows how to make that transition. I, unfortunately, will never make a preacher, much less a homilist. I'll talk to any body of still bodies, and with real pleasure in the doing of it, but preach I can't. Instead, I tell stories, which is a round-about way of saying that I manage still to do something much nearer to a lecture than a homily ever will be.

Last Sunday, pray God, was my last this summer for playing the role of pseudo- or faux-homilist. Most of the clergy folk I know are now settling back into place and gearing up for the year ahead. Now normally, I would be sighing a sigh of relief, wiping my brow dramatically, and settling in to the usual late-July/early August pattern of preparing for September and the lecture trail. For some reason, though, I have not been able to do that this past week, and I think my hang-up has to do with last Sunday's story.

For years, I have said to publishers that someone needs to put out a volume of Bible Stories Your Mother Never Told You, a collection of stories about the grit and the realism and grandeur of the Bible as it is, not as we have sanitized and trimmed it to be. But there is also another book I have only recently begun to say needs badly to be written. That one is a collection of all the Bible Stories Your Mother Should Have Told You To Read.

The most dangerous thing that can happen to a religion, much less to those who follow it, is for that religion to become socially acceptable. Once that initially-welcomed shift in cultural acceptance has occurred, so too has the process of secularization, accommodation, and enculturation begun. Probably the most tragic and complete example of that progression in all of human history is the evolution of Christianity in the West after Constantine. And always, the thing above all others that must be debilitated or deactivated in such a process is the stories that have carried the faith and melded the community of believers into a body of the faithful.

Story is a function of time ... or Time, if that is a clearer naming of the thing. Story requires memory, and memory requires time. Story, not thinking, is the thing that separates us from the other creatures with whom we share the universe. It is not only that we have to retain and readily access the past, but also that we have to be able to access or conceptualize a future, if we are to live in time. And the minute we do those things, we have story. Not fact, but story. Persuade us, though, that facts are real in terms of Now and stories are ephemera of Elsewhere and Whenever, and we fall rudderless into a sea of roiling and disconnected events.

In order to enculturate or assimilate a religion completely, therefore, a social unit must be very sure to accomplish two things: it must suppress the bulk of the religion's not-so-nice stories; and it must somehow manage to domesticate the embedded stories that are too gripping or -- even worse -- are in violation of the society's worldview, common good, and general stability. Bible stories like that of Tamar or Jephthah's daughter fall in the first category, but Daniel in the lions' den or Noah and his ark fall into the second.

It was the story of Noah and his ark that I told last Sunday and that has played in my head all this whole week since. Noah, who was the first vintner ... a very noble acquisition of skills, may I add, and much appreciated, at least at our house. Noah, who was the first to whom God gave animal flesh to eat, rather than simple grains and vegetables ... not so universally lauded at our place.

Noah, to whom the Noachide Covenant or the Seven Laws of Noah were given and upon which, on March 20, 1991, the Congress of the United States was pleased to proclaim, as signed by President Bush, that this country was founded.

Noah, who rode the waves of shift from pre-history into the general configuration of the earth as we know it. Noah, whose actions opened up the way for the creation of the doctrine of the Righteous Gentile.

Noah, whose name itself means "comfort" or "relief" and at whose birth it was said that he would grant surcease to people in our kind's toils upon a cursed earth. Noah, whose faith through the 40 days of rain and the 40 days of waiting in the water for a dove to return, pre-figured Moses' passage through the waters of the Red Sea and Israel's 40 years in the wilderness, and the baptism of Messiah followed immediately by his own 40 days of torment in the desert. That Noah, whose passage is re-enacted at the baptism of every Christian.

That Noah, who is not a fact or a non-fact or even anywhere in the neighborhood of that construct of human function. Noah who dwells in story and is therefore. Noah who should never have been reduced to a child's toy or a silly rhyme about a floody-floody for children of the Lord. Noah whose grandeur and drama haunt me this Sabbath morning, for he stretches from then to here and from there to me. I am glad this Lord's Day for his abiding presence; and I am glad beyond all saying for the Story.

Phyllis Tickle (www.phyllistickle.com) is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

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