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The Power of Stories

I recently visited my nephew, Mark Pfeffer, in Anchorage, AK. Trained as an architect and a developer by profession, he and his wife, Desiree, have a beautiful house on the shores of the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet.

But its location isn’t what makes the house unique. Its design comes from a question asked of students long ago by one of his architectural professors at the University of Nebraska, a question that Mark has tried to answer throughout his building career.

“What story does it tell?”

We may not realize that a building can tell a story, but Mark’s house does – a story of tragedy and hope stemming from a 1964 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Canada and the northwestern U.S., killing 131 people. It destroyed parts of Anchorage, moving houses, bluffs and earth.

Immediately Pleases the Eye

So, Mark and Desiree’s house consists of several modules, each reminiscent of the many small, neighborhood houses destroyed in the earthquake. But don’t get the idea that the “module” concept amounts to a conglomeration of boring blocks. The modules are arranged in a manner that immediately pleases the eye.

The house tells a moving story, and Mark enjoys telling it.

I had heard the story on a previous trip to Anchorage, but this time it conjured up for me the power of “the story” and the reason the Bible – yes, the Bible – has been such a compelling read that it is the best-selling book of all time. Half of Americans own one. Who knows how many ever read it?

I believe fewer people may be reading the Bible, and fewer may be able to relate to its famous stories about the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark, the Exodus and parting of the Red Sea, God’s test of Abraham’s faith, all in the Old Testament; and Jesus’ birth, the three wise men, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Last Supper, Jesus before Pilate, his death and resurrection, in the Christian Bible.

That’s the case even though these stories are filled with human angst, joy, betrayal and disappointment, hope, cruelty, wisdom and heroism, exactly the elements present in the best-selling novels today.

“Yes, but Are They True?”

One of the problems is the Bible’s antiquity, of course. Many modern people read the Bible as if it were history. “Yes, but are they true?” contemporary people may ask about biblical stories. The answer of biblical experts is “yes” and “no,” and the “yes” has two dimensions.

First, the “no.” Experts with whom I’m familiar say that some of the stories were borrowed from tribes, nations and cultures that were neighbors to the ancient Hebrews and may not be literally true. And for decades, Christian and Jewish religious leaders have agreed. Although there are historical facts in both testaments, the Bible is not meant to be a history book.

The story of Jonah in the belly of the whale, for instance, may be among borrowed stories. Similar tales of man versus whale or great fish occur in the mythology of the Romans and Greeks. And other stories, including the crossing of the Red Sea, did probably not happen as the Bible describes them.

The historicity of parts of the stories of Jesus’ birth have long been called into question. The story of the visit to the infant Jesus by “the wise men,” for instance, is likely mythical. Many of the infancy stories – with the exception of some details, such as the census by Caesar Augustus at the time of Jesus’ birth – are likely myths, in fact.   

Myths Can Be True

So, why bother with mythical stories? The answer brings us to the two dimensions of the “yes.” First, myths can be “true” in the sense that their meaning is true. That’s the case with such mythical tales as “Cinderella” that provide many valuable life lessons. (Biblical stories, of course, are not the same as fairy tales because we believers see them as inspired by God.)

And second, many aspects of the stories are historical. Besides Caesar Augustus’ census, archeological sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls make much of the religious and cultural life depicted in the New Testament credible.

For Christians and Jews, the Bible is the Word of God in the words of humans. For people searching for God in those traditions, reading it is indispensable. If it’s been a tough read for you in the past, try again, maybe starting with the Psalms and Acts of the Apostles.

Stories are powerful. Besides helping to build houses like Mark’s, they can change hearts and minds.

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