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‘Once upon a time...’

When my daughter, Gena, was 5 years old, she’d climb up on my lap, snuggle in and say: “Daddy, tell me a story.” And I’d begin: “Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived in a castle all alone …” “Why was she alone, Daddy?” And the story would build up from there. She knew the difference between that story and this: “Gena, your grandmother had to go to the hospital.” She knew the difference — even at 5 years old — between mythology and history.

Last week I got an email from a friend in Denver, Colorado. She said her big brother, who works in a town nearby, has begun going to Bible study and he has a question: “Since the Bible never says Adam and Eve repented,” he asked her, “did they go to heaven?” I read the email again looking for the punch-line to the joke. It was not a joke; her brother was serious. Now if my 5-year-old daughter had asked the same question, she would have expected my answer to begin: “Once upon a time …”

I get frustrated when my “literalist” friends insist that all Scripture is inspired by God and therefore all of it must be history. I guess that means God is incapable of understanding (and inspiring) mythology and midrash and metaphors and deals only with historical facts. But what about the parables?

I count 49 parables attributed to Jesus. You remember: the mustard seed, the barren fig tree, the lost son, the good Samaritan, etc. They begin very simply like this: “A man planted a vineyard, and put a fence around it …etc. (Mark 12:1) Nobody asks: “What was the man’s name? Who was his daddy? What church did he go to?” Parables are like myths — they’re not historical. They tell mythical stories; stories of good and evil like Adam and Eve; stories of human envy and anger like Cain and Abel; stories of survival like Noah.

People, not just children, have always needed stories like this. We have several unanswered questions that we’ve been asking since our caveman days, and only stories seem to give us any closure. For example, we still don’t know how this universe came to exist. Did all these billions of galaxies jump out of the “black holes” 14 billion years ago, and was this the Big Bang? Or did Yahweh do it all in six days about 6,000 years ago? We don’t have the historical answer — even with our advanced science — so we create stories.

For example: Why is every human both good and bad? Are we basically good in our mother’s womb, and we learn to be bad when our little brother takes away our toy? Or are we evil by nature and must learn goodness as we grow older? The story of Adam and Eve was created to answer this question. But when people take it historically instead of mythically, they end up with more questions than they had in the beginning.

And then there’s the big question: “What happens when I die?” Four thousand years before Christ, the Egyptians were putting spears in the graves of men and cosmetics in the graves of women, and they were telling exciting stories about the afterlife. Later on, the Hebrews had Sheol, a dark place under the earth where everyone’s ghost existed, and their stories morphed into the fiery pit of Gehenna where bad people would burn for all eternity. And of course, Christians have told hundreds of stories about heaven and hell, and even invented limbo for unbaptized infants. But does anyone know for sure what happens when we die? No. That’s the purpose of faith.

Faith of all kinds — Egyptian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic and even Atheistic — give us stories to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and there are so many things we don’t know. Faith stories are helpful when we’re sick, and many times they’re necessary when we’re dying. They bring joy to our lives and peace to our hectic existence.

Our problem today is when we don’t differentiate faith from knowledge and we begin thinking that our faith-answers are not only factually true, but the only facts worth considering. I like this quote: “The wise man questions everybody’s faith, including his own. The foolish man questions only the others because his is right.”

Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.

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