How I Came to Love Stories and Agree with Philip Pullman

Reflection 15-9-13


Let me tell you a little of my faith journey. I had quit my job with the Soil Conservation authority to go to study theology. I thought ‘now that I am a Christian as an adult, I want to pursue this as far as I can.’ Unconsciously however, I also thought that I could ‘get at’ (get closer to) God through this study. So after three years, I had to think about what I would do next. Tis put some pressure on me about a vocation, and my faith. I had a very anxious time when I had to admit ‘I have studied for three years and know a lot more about God, but don’t know God much more. It was then, providentially, that I was reading Sam Keen’s book ‘Reflections on a Peach-seed Monkey’. In it was a story told by the famous rabbi Baal Shem Tov.  I quote it to you here.


Whenever the Jews were threatened with disaster, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer. Always a miracle would occur, and the disaster would be averted.

In the later times when disaster threatened, the Maggid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer.” And again the disaster would be averted.

Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Lord of the World, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I know the place and that must be enoigh.” And it always did.

When Israel of Rizhyn needed intervention from heaven, he would sit in his study, put his head in his hands and say to God, “I no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor to say the prayer, but I can tell the story and that must be enough.” . . . And it was. God made human kind because God loves stories.


This was a breakthrough for me. I could not light the fire or say the prayer, but I loved the bible stories, and I had my own story with God, which was taking shape. I could tell them, and tell that, and that would have to be enough. It is impossible to ‘get at’ God, but a relief to be a human being, who could tell stories.


Since then I have been big on stories. I have said that being the Church is about ‘finding our story in the story of God.’ I have also thought that sermons should be more about stories than about ideas. People often talk about ‘sermon illustrations’ as if the ‘illustration’ is secondary to the ‘point’ that it is illustrating. But more often than not, I remember the stories in a sermon than the ‘point’ that they were meant to be illustrating. I think I have reverted a little to ‘making points’ but I still think ‘If I don’t know a story to tell about how what I am preaching about is coming true, or not, then I don’t know what I am talking about.     


So this week I was very pleased to have my theory of stories confirmed and added to by an article in ‘the Guardian’ about a famed teller of fairy tales Philip Pullman (see the notice board).


Here is what Pullman says about stories. (He means fairy tales, but I think Bible stories are better). First of all he quotes Einstein ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales’. This happened to us. We were read to! Enid Blighton, but mostly Bible Stories. Pullman says that stories ‘Loosen the chains of the imagination. They give you things to think with and the sense that all kinds of things are possible.’


This is true. Knowing Bible stories unlocks my imagination. I often ask myself ‘So what Bible story am I in at the moment? What is God doing with me? What can I hope for as an outcome? Having been brought up on Bible stories means that my imaginative horizon is always being shaped by the miracles and hopes of God’s presence with us. This is a very rich kind of a life.


But having an imagination is also a great gift. I remember an advertisement for ‘Arnotts Scorched Peanut Bar’  In it a professor is pacing up and down saying ‘There must be some way…to get more peanuts into Arnotts Scorched Peanut Bar. That is my picture of myself. Wandering up and down saying ‘There must be some way…’ If a thing cannot be imagined, then it cannot happen.


So for us, the Christian story tells me what happens when little people with faith and trust come up against Giants, it tells me what happens when people blame you for everything, and throw you overboard, it tells me how to get moving when I am paralysed, it tells me how to be persistent, and on it goes.


The fun thing about stories is that they are not ‘doctrines’. That means that I can come at a story a number of times in a number of different ways and be comforted or challenged by them differently each time. Lots of different people can like, and share the same story, without being forced to believe the same ting about it. That is liberating.


Pullman says about the liberating nature stories, and about language in general that ‘Language is for talking and sharing things and enjoying rhymes and songs and riddles…’ This is what makes me enjoy learning foreign languages. I love learning songs, and playing with words like ‘Le mort d’amour’ or ‘Le porc du port de Territet’. Ha! Having learnt to enjoy the same funny elements in English makes learning French or German easier.


Pullman also says that ‘our lives begin the day we discover that we have been …born into the wrong family.’ He uses the story of Cinderella as a template, but this story is also the story of the Prodigal son. Pullman says that ‘You have to grow up, you have to move on” The meaning of life is in to going away, and the coming home in a different manner. ‘Going out and coming back’ is the nature of things. He says ‘You are obliged to go because if you don’t, you have no story. And what a terrible fate, to have no story.’


People have said that ‘Adventure is abject terror…in retrospect.’ This too is ‘getting a story’. I think it could be taken up for us here. What we are doing together is writing a story. Instead of doing nothing, we are letting our imaginations, fired up and shaped by God, loose on the world. We are creating the story of this people of God with our God. We aare a people with a story!


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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