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How to Read a Story - Part 2

To modern ears, many folk tales, classic children's stories and biblical stories can be difficult, with the repeating theme of rewards to some and dramatically harsh and disastrous consequences to others. I like to explore ways of finding the kernel of meaning in these stories, looking at the point of view of the various characters in the story, and of the writer, the reader, and the compilers who selected the stories to highlight and preserve.

I have read that anthropologist and philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss developed theories about the meaning of folk tales across cultures. For Levi-Strauss, the important thing about the stories isn't the plot itself, but the way the treatment of common plots varies from one culture to the next and from one generation to the next.

This is a helpful insight. Many cultures have had stories with similar plot elements. A flood story. A struggle between enemies. A battle. A famine or drought. Stories with rewards for good choices and negative consequences for wrong choices.

The Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) included stories typical of the era and region: stories of floods, famines and wars; marriages, family trees and wise teachers. Readers and listeners who knew this genre of story would have noticed subtle themes: a living God who cares about the outcome of human activities; the victory of weak over strong; a heritage that flows from a second son rather than a firstborn son; the blessings of a child of a long-barren woman; wisdom that comes from prophets who point to an invisible God.

In the New Testament, when Jesus told parables, he was also using a storytelling style that was familiar to listeners. In this storytelling framework, there might be two brothers or three servants or two builders or three farmers, and there is a task or challenge at hand. Each takes a different approach, and the one who makes the better choice is rewarded. Jesus put his own spin on this storytelling style, with blessings to the meek or humble, to those who graciously receive a gift, to those who are lost or weak, as well as those who are truly wise and strong.

Stories can have layers of meaning. Your heart goes out to Hagar and to Sarah; to Joseph and to his brothers; to David and to Saul; to Daniel the exiled Israelite and to the Babylonian king who is awed by the God who Daniel speaks of.

Gradually the circle of caring widens, human experience connects us, the cycle of reward and punishment develops into something much more complex.

March 2014