Bruno Bettelheim, in the The Uses of Enchantment, discusses the meaning and importance of fairy tales, such as those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. Bettelheim suggests that if children are allowed to read and interpret these stories in their own way, they will get a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In other words, Bettelheim suggests that if children are allowed to read about the trials, tribulations, successes and failures encountered by the heroes of fairy tales, this will better prepare them for the trials, tribulations, successes and failures that they will encounter in their own lives.
It’s a strange thing, but generally speaking we humans tend to learn more about life from stories about life than we do from lists of rules and regulations about life. Bettelheim also believed that we are far more likely to follow a mentor than abstract standards of right and wrong. He said “The question for a child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’
Reading this, I was reminded of an ad I saw in one of Ray Martin’s ‘Our century’ series. Cars had begun to increase in speed quite considerably in the 1940’s and this made playing cricket on the road quite hazardous for children. So the government employed none other than Don Bradman to produce 1 minute movie segments for newsreels to warn kids to find other venues for their games. What kid with a cricket bat would not want to do what the Don suggested?
Good stories and good role models in action work for us because both involve narrative. We are hard wired to understand a good story far better than we understand lists of rules and doctrinal statements, because a good story touches more of us. Statements touch our cognitive senses but a good story can touch our emotions as well but more than that, a good story invokes our natural desire to solve puzzles, make interpretations and identify ourselves with the characters in the story.
In the Gospels we have narrative at two levels. First is an account of the things that Jesus said and did while he was on earth and the second is his parables. The reader working his way through any one of the Gospels cannot help but ask “Who should I be like? ” and ” Who am I actually like?” We cannot help but find characters in our own world that are much like the ones that Jesus interacts with and even the larger than life characters we find in the Parables can be quickly identified with ourselves or someone we know.
Most of the Old Testament is a grand narrative and a lot of it is not explained. God however helps us to work it out by giving us the law and some clear statements peppered throughout the story indicating what he likes and dislikes so we can work it out as we go. In seeing the trials tribulations, successes and failures encountered by the people of Israel we can make greater sense of our own lives when we face the same things.
While I am no great fan of some of the doctrine of the Emerging Church Movement, one thing they do understand well, is that we all need to know where we stand in the meta-narrative of the human race. Unless we know the stories of the past that have shaped us we can never really understand our place in God’s grand plan. Lets face it, doctrine and law have no meaning unless we can locate ourselves in time and space. I have no reason to believe anything unless I can see in some form of narrative what the consequences of what I believe will be.
Jesus took on flesh and lived among us so that we would know who we should be like rather than what lists of do’s and don’ts we should live by. If you didn’t have the gospels you would never be able to put flesh on loving the Lord our God with all our heart mind and strength and loving our neighbour as ourselves. We all love a good yarn.