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Archive for July, 2012

This past weekend I had the great fortune to be invited to the Madhyamaka Buddhist Centre near Pocklington, to lead story walks around their beautiful grounds during their annual summer fair.  It was a great opportunity to tell a story I had been saving for the right occasion – one involving the Buddha, and his advice to a rich merchant, which takes the form of a parable of a royal cherry tree and its friend, the humble kusa grass.  The grounds of the centre also offered the perfect location for this tale: a vast and hospitable spreading cherry, with a bench beneath it for the weary.  An elderly lady, her collarbone bandaged, joined the group of listeners and of course, sat on the bench during the tale.  It seemed obvious to address her as the Buddha, and she filled this role graciously.

Well, this (as usual) got me thinking about religious stories.  I have done so only to a very limited extent – Judaism offers some witty fables which fit into even a secular gathering; in my local Methodist church there is sometimes an occasion for me to tell (children in Young Church, family fun afternoons) a story from the vast Christian storehouse.  Generally, though, I’m wary of this.  Why? 

Is it anxiety, a reluctance to be perceived as preaching, or taking the role of an authority?  Well, as a very weak sort-of-Christian, I suppose this is my problem.  We live in such an overwhelmingly secular society, that can be very hostile to instititionalised religion, or anyone ‘telling us what to do’. 

And yet stories very rarely do tell us what to do.  That is the point of them, really.  They just tell us what happened when someone else did something.  Then we can think about that, argue about it, reflect on it.  Our culture has been formed, enriched, built almost, by religions and their stories – in fact, they are our birthright and heritage.  Just as much as the folktales and myths that are my ‘comfort zone’. 

Another storytelling experience recalls itself to me…a couple of years ago I was telling to 9- and 10-year-olds at a primary school in Keighley.  It was a C of E school, but I guess there were about 10 non-Muslim children in the whole school.  The topic: our world and how we look after it.  I told a non-religious story, The Magic Garden, about a wise man and his acolytes, who each gave advice to a pair of friends on how to use a pot of gold they had discovered.  I was astonished at the intensity with which the children engaged with this story.  Without any prompting from me, a forest of hands went up as soon as I was finished.  A passionate and eloquent discussion ensued of the rights and wrongs of the different advice given by the acolytes.  And the children immediately applied this to their own lives – what would happen if such a thing were found in the school grounds?  How should it best be used for the common good? What did this have to do with our shared planet?

I would never have seen such a reaction among the much more secular children of York.  Guaranteed.  These Muslim children, whether or not they were from religious families, were from a culture that was much more comfortable in discussing ethics.  I guess (of course I can’t be sure) this came from their familiarity with religious stories and principles.

I have a sense that storytelling is one of the things that is filling a gap for our disillusioned, alienated, much-too-secular society.  It’s one of the more wholesome things, compared to consumerism, for example.  And I think I ought to be a bit braver about using religious stories!

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