Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Storyteller at the Creation Museum - Sacred Stories Are A Touchy Subject

I travel from Durham, NC where I live, to Evanston, Il for work about three times a year.  Anyone who has made this trip knows that you pass by the exit for the Creation Museum when you head around Cincinnati.  As a storyteller, I have always been fascinated by creation myths.  I've also been confused by them.  I understand that they are at the center of our understanding of culture and identity, and I absolutely love them, but it galls me that they are used to justify the most ridiculous, vile and inhuman behavior.  People also use them to divide 'us' from 'them' and prove that their beliefs are somehow the 'right' ones while others are obviously wrong.

"Mythology is what we call other people's sacred stories."
-Joseph Campbell

He also said:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
Joseph Campbell 
Read more at 

I grew up with the stories from the Christian Bible.  My parents are originally from Texas and the stories of creation were a big part of my understanding of the world.  I met my first atheist when I was in third grade.  It was a huge thing.  I was living in Seoul, Korea at the time, surrounded by army, navy, air force, marine, and expat kids heading to Seoul Elementary School on a big, yellow school bus.  I remember this kid sitting on the bus with his lips clenched tight, staring at nothing as all around him the other kids taunted him and told him he was going to hell.  In hindsight, I realize this wasn't much of a threat to him because he didn't believe in hell.

I was not one of the taunters that day.  Not because I wasn't shocked, but because I had never in my life encountered someone who didn't believe in God.  I didn't even know that was possible.  The idea had never entered my head.  I spent the entire bus ride in silence, contemplating how he could be walking around without getting struck by lightening.  A year later, I found out about Judaism.  I had no idea there were people in the world who didn't believe that Jesus was the virgin born savior who died so everyone could get to heaven.  It was pretty amazing.  Not long after that, I learned about the Buddha, but I didn't realize it was a religion with tenants.  In fifth grade, my entire family converted to Catholicism.  In sixth grade I encountered the Greeks.  This was not my first brush with their stories, but it was the first time I understood that once, many years ago, it was a living religion.  Then, in seventh grade, my world went spinning completely out of control and it never really recovered in terms of my understanding of religion.

On one of my parent's bookcases, I found a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.  I admit to being attracted to the lovely blue man on the front cover.  I read it.  Somewhere in the reading I figured out I was reading a spiritual text.  It was fascinating and much racier than anything I remembered about the Catholic teaching I'd embraced.  So, when I finished the Bhagavad Gita, I read the Bible for the first time...cover to cover.  Then, I read stories about the Buddha.  I came to a conclusion that I was certain would confine me to the deepest depths of Dante's Inferno.  As much as I enjoyed the stories and found wisdom and truth in them, I was fairly certain that they had as much actual chance of having actually happened as Cinderella's trip to the ball.  I was reading stories.  Beautiful stories.  Powerful stories.  Deep, soul altering stories.  Interesting stories.  Scary stories.  Stories.

I became concerned that perhaps I had stumbled all unwilling into a secret that I alone knew.  How could I possibly bring this up with anyone?  Would I be stoned?  Would I be turned out and disinherited?  How would my parents ever be able to look at me again now that I'd become...become...what had I become?

I locked my shocking thoughts in my heart and decided I'd take them to my grave.  It wasn't until many years later that I found out I wasn't the only one to hold these thoughts.  I watched an interview where a very put out famous television preacher decried those who kept claiming that the Bible was a collection of folklore from early Jewish people instead of know, I don't recall what he actually called the Bible, but it boils down to a book inspired by God that was wholly true.

Well, you might wonder, what does any of this have to do with storytelling or visiting the Creation Museum?  As a storyteller and writer, I always try to understand different points of view.  I try very hard to make characters as real as possible by getting beneath their skin and trying to see what they see.  I try not to judge what it is I see, but understand what it is I am seeing.  Understanding what someone believes doesn't mean you accept what they see as fact.  One of the things I have found most fascinating is the belief that the Bible is one hundred percent true.  I haven't believed that since I was nine or ten years old.  For me, the literal interpretation of the Bible went out with Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.  Though, to be fair, I continued to hang on to the belief in unicorns longer than most people.  It is hard for me to understand an adult who believes in the worldwide flood or two of every animal in the world on a boat, or talking snakes, or turning into a pillar of salt.  

In order to get a handle on this difficulty, I spent two years submerging myself in Christian talk radio, literal Christian websites and discussions and trying to figure out how the world must look to someone who believes in the literal truth of a seven day creation.  The culminating event of this research was my visit to the Creation Museum.

I have to admit that I felt very uncomfortable there.  I felt like a fox in the henhouse.  I felt as if I were sitting with people who were there to worship the cornerstone of their reality and I was just there as a gawker.  I felt like an invasive species.  I was silent for the entire two hours I was there.  I listened to people talk about the exhibits.  I realized I wasn't the only gawker.  I realized that there were lots of people who felt they were seeing history, but lots who thought it was ridiculous.  I was relieved to realize I didn't think it was ridiculous, but it did occur to me that now that I was seeing the Bible laid out like a museum that I still didn't understand how somebody could believe this in a literal way.  To my eye, it looks even more like a story when you bring it to life.

My trip to the Creation Museum gave me an insight I did not expect.  It gave me a reverence for sacred stories that I do not think I had before.  Whether you believe in a sacred story or not does not matter.  Handle them with care.  Honor them for the power and change they have wrought to others.  I have learned the hard way that if you challenge people's sacred stories, even in the pursuit of conversation, you will blow holes in yourself long before you get them to consider their beliefs are stories.  So, if you decide to tell a sacred story, here are a few suggestions.

1)  Find out about the culture that originated this story.  Is there something in particular you should say or do before you tell it?

2)  Make sure you are not telling a story that would offend the people who hold it sacred.

3)  Make sure your audience understands the context for the story.

4)  Get permission when possible.

5)   Honor the story 

As a storyteller, not telling sacred stories is only half the battle I fight to not step on sacred toes.  I have been given very explicit instructions over the years before I ever got to the stage.

At a school in the mountains of North Carolina I was informed that I should under no circumstances tell stories where animals spoke.

At a school in Tennessee, I was informed that I should not tell any stories where something living transforms into something else.

At numerous religious schools I have been informed that I must not tell stories that come from any other religion other than the one they believe.  i.e., in a Jewish Day School I was told not to tell any Christian stories.  At a Catholic school I was asked not to tell stories from Islam.  

I used to find these restrictions ridiculous.  I'd think to myself, why are you so threatened by stories?  That was before my visit to the Creation Museum.  That was before I went back through my own life and realized that stories are what set me on the path I follow today.  I understand why stories are threatening.  I understand why they are scary.  

Sacred stories answer the big questions.  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What are we supposed to be doing here?  Why do things happen here?  How did we get here?  Where were we before we got here?  What happens when we leave here?    

We are made of stories.  At the center of it all is the sacred story.  That is what makes sacred stories so powerful.  We build our reality upon them.  They make us feel whole.  They tell us where we belong.  Losing them is frightening.  

Many sacred stories are no longer parts of living religions.  That doesn't matter.  There are many sacred stories that you will not believe in.  That doesn't matter.  There are many sacred stories that seem outlandish.  That doesn't matter.  Treat all of them with respect, because once, these stories were the living embodiment of someone's soul.  

Happy Telling.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shameless Plug for A Great Book

I finally got a copy, actually a couple of copies, of Social Studies in the Storytelling Classroom by two mensch, Jane Stenson, and Sherry Norfolk.

This book has gotten high praise in some amazing places.

"Accessible, inspirational and practical plans that make storytelling a portal to faceted insights about culture, history, geography, and identity".

Janice M. Del Negro Ph.D. GSLIS Dominican University

"I found this book a must for anyone teaching social studies."

Harry Ross, Ph.D. Associate Professor, National Louis University

There are more, but you get the drift.  Social Studies is a subject ripe for creative drama, storytelling, creative play and twenty first century learning and thinking skills.  Every social studies classroom in the country should have this book.

Social Studies in the Storytelling Classroom is full of lesson plans.  Yes, to anyone who doesn't teach and doesn't want to, this sounds very boring, but for teachers and artists who teach, this is a dream come true.  The subjects, covered in creative, insightful and helpful ways, run the gamut from appreciating cultural differences, to exploring religions, the civil war, immigration, geography, and constructs of cultural norms.  There are many templates that could be used in multiple settings and over whatever period of time the instructor needs.

This is a fabulous book.  I don't say that just because I have two pieces in it.  I say it because I learned a great deal from reading it.  Thinking about social studies through storytelling makes sense because social studies is a recounting of the stories of how our society and other societies moved through history.  History, I might point out, is just that, a story.  The interesting thing about social studies is who gets to tell the story.

When I was a kid, the story of who we are as a nation was very skewed.  I only got one side of it and a very cursory side at that.  We, as a nation, are getting better at telling the story of who we are, but we still shy away from understanding what it means to be a huge, diverse country.  The cat is out of the bag.  We are not monolithic.

Elizabeth Ellis writes a fantastic article about why we need to explore diversity and the strength we have when we go forward as a group of people who understand each other as opposed to a group of people who are being taught there is only one way to think or believe.  There is more than just one side to any story, as anyone who has ever written or worked on a fractured fairytale will tell you.

There are too many amazing essays, lesson plans and ideas to put them all in this review, but Jane and Sherry got some impressive artist teachers to give them a hand.  The list of all star contributors is staggering.  There are essays and lesson plans from Bobby Norfolk, Noa Baum, Tim Tingle, Alton Chung, Beth Horner, Susan O'Halloran, Andy Offut Irwin, Carol Birch, Willy Claflin and that's just a partial list.

Pick up a copy of this if you work as an artist teacher.  Many of these exercises can be adapted for Language arts and English.  It would also make an excellent gift for a social studies teacher in your life.

Happy Reading Everyone!