“Fabulation—Theism as Story”
<(LJ keeps inserting bad code. I give it up for tonight.)
Toward the end of this course on the philosophy of religion, James Hall considers the possibility that the religious traditions tell stories for a purpose or purposes—that this is their paradigm.
Earlier, he’d argued that while one can’t reasonably criticize a paradigm from outside, since the criticism will be on irrelevant grounds*, one can and should ask whether the paradigm is effective, and what it accomplishes. He decides, argues, or asserts—I can’t recall which one—that to be effective the stories connected with religious traditions should be instructive, illuminating, and/or uplifting. (This sort of moralistic view of religion isn’t uncommon, but it is far from universal, and I don’t share it. However, non-theists and theists alike often adopt it. I remember a church friend assuring me a bit over a decade ago that we all go to church to become better people. It surprised me at the time, and I thought about it, and realized that that certainly wasn’t my motive. My understanding of my purpose in church participation has evolved since then, and may evolve further.)
These stories must be clear, says James Hall, who then compares “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” with “The Barren Fig Tree,” which he just doesn’t get. I have every sympathy. I was also puzzled by the blasting of the fig tree, and my best guess was that it was a miracle story current for prophets or holy men generally—a bit like the story of the Buddha rewarding the shading cobra with an image of his fingerprints on its hood, or like the story of Elisha siccing bears on the little boys who teased him. That was it was specifically pointed out, in Hebrew Bible II, that figs are a consistent prophetic image for the people of Israel. The Jesus story of the barren fig is a story in the prophetic tradition of Israel that accuses that people.
Well, Hall goes on to talk about Hans Brinker and A Dog of Flanders as subtle and thus effective stories, as compared with the blatant and bludgeoning Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At this point I wondered first, what time machine he’d stepped from. Hans Brinker and A Dog of Flanders were still recommended and reprinted when I was a child, but I do not know that I have ever known anyone who’s read them. (Come on, commenters! I know some of you have read them!) I tried to read them—I was a dutiful child—but I failed. The other things I was supposed to read that I failed to read were Lorna Doone and Robert’s Rules of Order. It was a rare phenomenon.
But then, thinking that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a tiresome moral story—I realized that James Hall not only lacked prophetic literature context in his actually-extensive Bible reading**, but he couldn’t necessarily recognize what sort of literature he was reading. (Work on this kind of framing is known in Bible crit circles as Form Criticism, and it isn’t necessarily at all easy when encountering the literature of a remote culture. Consider Margaret Mead taking the Samoans' responses to her questions about how children were conceived as sober scientific accounts. (And think as well of how they may have understand such questions from an adult woman.)) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is of course an outrageous parody of moralistic literature, and one that indicts the moral arbiter.
Hall then states that stories must have a constructive point, like “Johnny Appleseed”’s about the value of generous investment toward later public fruit, and unlike “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which recommends fraud. We seem to me to have a type error again. I think it works to read “Johnny Appleseed” as a moral story, though it can also be understood as historical legend or eccentric-character legend based on the historical John Chapman. But reading “Jack and the Beanstalk” as any moral document just strikes me as bizarre. Yet to Hall, this is a fault of the story.
The stories associated with religious traditions must have the power to move, if they are to be effective. For Hall as a boy, “The Man Without a Country” and the story of Nathan Hale were very moving. The Poky Little Puppy, which he complains of having read to his toddler son scores of times, is banal and pointless. Clearly Hall is moved by stories that involve and explore patriotism and its cost. Clearly, he is not moved by stories about delicious experiential temptation and the consequences of disobedience, as most small children probably are. (I was.) But what strikes me here is that it doesn’t seem to occur to him that for his son to ask to hear The Poky Little Puppy so many times, it must have moved the child.
Stories must be credible, says James Hall, and contrasts the ineffective Flash Gordon movie serials with the Star Wars movies. Both are set in fantastical locations, but Flash Gordon is so ridiculous—particularly Ming the Merciless—that its stories are ineffective. Hall of course neglects the artistic expectations of different times—and of course there’s something to the comparison he makes. But I also suspect that the Flash Gordon series spoke deeply to gawky boys who wanted to be heroes and had crude ideas of what that might mean, and who, I suspect, could only imagine themselves as possible heroes under outlandish circumstances.***
Effective religious-associated stories should avoid manipulation and coercion—should be like “Achilles and the Hare” [sic] rather than “Tommy Turtle.”^
Effective stories should be free of untoward side effects and dysfunctional intentions—should resemble “The Little Dutch Boy [who stuck his finger in the dike]”^^ rather than the “Johnny Suck-a-Thumb” of Struwwelpeter. I’m not sure, though, that untowardness and dysfunction are so absolute. There’s a very large literature that self-evidently has no criterion of avoiding children’s terror at ferocious punishments, from dismemberment to death to eternal hellfire. And in fact I find a lot of parenting today seems directed toward inspiring selected fears in children: fears of “stranger danger,” for instance, and of course those fears that are correlates of bigotry.
And for Hall, effective stories in a religious tradition should be imaginative and fresh, not trite and hackneyed—he compares Goodnight Moon with “Sleeping Beauty.” Here we have another category error— Goodnight Moon was written so that its repetitions would encourage sleep in members of the small set. And as for “Sleeping Beauty,” it seems to me that Hall demonstrates a significant lack of interest in any feminist concerns associated with the story.^^^
And finally, Hall says that to be effective religious stories should be portable across contexts, as hearers and their circumstances change— as Romeo and Juliet was made into West Side Story. So he has some awareness of context and its relevance, though I don’t think he’s as aware of it as he ought to be.
But most of what I’ve said is about details. Here’s what they add up to, for me. I don’t think Hall understands stories that well. And I think he’s kind of a crude reader. (Which in fact just kind of cements my views on him from much of the other 35 lectures in the series., so it’s rather satisfying.) His notions of theism and religion seem kind of crude to me, for cogent example. It’s worth noting (hi, bobby1933!) that he rejects faith-related story as something to stimulate confusion, wonder, or through them, transcendent experience. And he seems to see faith-related story as very finished in its intent, whereas I see a lot of texts as attempts to remember and to figure out.
For me, though, a most striking point is the glorious unselfconsciousness with which Hall’s appreciation of a story is Absolute. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory strikes him as coarsely moralistic because it is. The story of Jesus blasting the barren fig tree is absolutely and universally obscure and that’s why he says it is.
One of the characteristics of socio-economic privilege is assuming the rule of judge—not as an individual, but on behalf of the universe. (The privileged one just knows the universe better, I guess, and so is cursed and gifted to help the rest of us.)
So far as I can tell, the more privileged the person, the hard s/he finds it to understand what privilege means. After all, each of us is conscious of Not Having All the Cookies We Want! Of Being Thwarted!+ And So On!
And I wonder whether, perhaps, hearing this spun out in a context of stories might possibly illuminate a privileged person who remembers loving The Poky Little Puppy.
*This was based on Wittgenstein’s discussion of paradigms as “language games,” about which one can say nothing but, “this game is played.”
** Hall was the child of evangelical Protestants, by a father who was a pastor as his father before him had been. He read the Bible very, very regularly, and probably participated in sword drills— which I never heard of till I read Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!
*** And in war, you might say. But I suspect that at that point war seemed a little too close, with its blood and pus and killing and crying and being shattered for it to be a desirable dreamscape for all the wistful gawky boys.
^ I don’t remember the lecture surrounding this bit, so here I’m just reproducing what the Course Guidebook says. I’m thinking that Hall means “The Tortoise and the Hare,” since “Achilles and the Tortoise” is about a sequence with a convergent sum. But “Tommy Turtle” just throws me. Earlier, I corrected Peter and the Wolf to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I’m inclined to think that these errors of title are kind of indicative.
^^ Hall clearly has some kind of Dutch thing going on. I don’t know why, though.
^^^ Particularly if he’s thinking of the non-bowdlerized version in which the slumbering woman has several children by the prince before being waked.
+ There is often no recognition of any distinction between being thwarted by being denied opportunity and being thwarted when people don’t do/feel/think what you want them to do/feel/think. I remember my former husband telling me that if I found him bossy, he found me bossy, too, because sometimes I didn’t want to do what he wanted us to do.