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Skeptical of sacred stories?

Each of us must decide the personal meaning of the Passover and Easter stories.
By Jane Rzepka

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Ancient book (Volodymyr Davidenko/iStockPhoto)

(Volodymyr Davidenko/iStockPhoto)

Hooray for stories: the knee-slapper story you hear at a party; the astonishing story that widens your world; the quiet snuggly bedtime story; the heartwarming story that gives you hope, inspiration, or motivation; even the story that raises an eyebrow. There are a gazillion kinds of stories, and most of them we like.

Does that include the Passover story and the Easter story? Sure it does. For years I’ve preached, along with my colleagues in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, that stories bear truths. And that’s a fundamental part of what Unitarian Universalism is all about, the “free and responsible search for truth.”

But then I went to the Museum of Science here in Boston and stumbled upon an exhibit about magic shows. Magic shows, of course, aren’t at all about truth; they’re about tricking people. And guess what the famous magicians, Penn and Teller, tell us is the essential basis for trickery? Stories! “The story is as important as the trick,” they say. “The story helps you make sense of something you wouldn’t ordinarily believe.” And then the magician has you—you’ve been tricked into believing something just plain false.

Okay. To state the obvious, just because it’s a story—even a religious one, even one that’s survived through the generations—certainly doesn’t make the story true in any sense of the word. It doesn’t necessarily point to metaphorical truth, nor does it necessarily convey ancient wisdom. The story might reflect an abiding truth, but it might as easily promote a destructive superstition or cruel ulterior motive; it might be a trick.

On the other hand, certainly a lot of stories, religious or not, are straight-up all to the good.

And sometimes it just depends how the story is told.

When I was a child, my school didn’t have much of a grip on the separation between church and state, and so at this time of year we heard a lot about Jesus dying on the cross. I was a Unitarian, and this was the first I’d heard of the gory aspects of the crucifixion story—the nails in the palms and feet, the hours up there on the cross, the works. That he somehow rose straight up afterward didn’t matter much to me. What I got out of the story told at school was a sick feeling in my stomach.

At church, the same story was not so much about nails and blood but about a good man’s teachings living on after he was dead. His teachings came to life over and over again, not unlike the daffodil bulbs we planted in the autumn along the church’s long driveway. Some might say this is simply a wimpier version of the story, but it worked for me.

There was another difference between what I learned in school and what I learned in Sunday school. In school, the Easter narrative was presented as history; in Sunday school, as story.

To some Unitarian Universalists, it matters whether the basis of a religious story is historical, factual. It matters to a great many people whether Jesus did or did not come back to life after he died. Not wanting to be duped is a healthy part of human nature, and if the central story of a religion can’t be shown literally to be true, many, reasonably, are unwilling to base their life on it.

But some Unitarian Universalists find merit enough in the Jesus story to find inspiration or, indeed, a spiritual foundation. For them, the objective, historical truth doesn’t matter one way or the other; what matters is the wisdom found in the long-standing legend. When a story offers a basis for hope, health, celebration, and good works, why not call it a keeper?

You probably have your own sources of stories that serve you well, that you remember with gratitude and a smile, that lie beneath your life to help to make it stable. Maybe it’s the story of a great man named Jesus who rose from the dead, or an ancient story where slaves move to freedom. Maybe it’s family stories about Ellis Island, or a prayer shawl handed down, or pine saplings hauled out West in a trunk. Or the biography of a famous ball player or astronomer. Or some tale your barber told you once about a customer who showed courage, or promise, or spunk.

You are the person who decides which stories are your religious stories, which seem like trickery, and which speak to you as higher truths. You—you with your passions and your quirks and your particular preferences—are the person who chooses the stories for your life, the stories that buoy and sustain you, alert and amuse you, and fill your spirit.

Hooray for stories.

Reprinted with permission from Quest (April 2004), the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online congregation. See sidebar for links to related resources and articles.

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