It’s All About the Story by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonEvery August my friend and colleague, Dale, preaches–does pulpit supply–at his local parish (St. Mark’s Episcopal) in our hometown.  He always has something valuable to say so I ventured forth eagerly on a recent Sunday morning to hear him even though “church” is something I gave up years ago.

Dale began his sermon noting that the news he reads online every morning while striving to keep an “ordered” and “routine” life is overwhelming.  Institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare are problems that affect us all.  We live in the “wilderness”–both physically and existentially.  How do we cope?  He asserted that the Bible explores humanity’s response to what we call “the human condition” and then proclaimed, “Darkness does not have the last word.  God does.  Hope triumphs.”  Dale’s sermon reflected a perspective based on the tradition (story) he embraces–Christianity, however, the “particulars” of Biblical stories have universal themes.  One of the functions of religion is to create a “reality” that enables hope.  Dale gave three Biblical examples of “wilderness experience”–examples that included the promise of hope. 

The first example:  Hagar (Genesis 16) tells the story of Abraham’s concubine who had a son, Ishmael.  God, according to the story, promised a son to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, even though Sarah was well past her childbearing years.  Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham “for procreation purposes” and Abraham obliged.  As the story continues, Sarah eventually has her own son, Isaac.  During Isaac’s “weaning party,” Ishmael, a teenager by then, mocked his half-brother.  This enraged Sarah.  Sarah complained to Abraham.  Abraham told Sarah to do as she saw fit.  Sarah saw fit to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the house.  Alone in the wilderness with her son, Hagar called upon God and God provided sustenance (water), giving her hope.  Ishmael’s lineage resulted in a great nation.

The second example:  Moses’ leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for years, often losing heart in spite of  God’s provision of manna every morning.  They complained.  “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand back in Egypt! There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16: 3).  The children of Israel, according to the Christian story, are the lineage through which came Jesus, the Messiah, the one who gives hope by delivering people from their sin.

The third example:  Prophet Elijah’s “dark night of the soul” (I Kings 19).  “Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.  He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life….’”  It’s hard being a prophet.  Most times, people do not want to hear what prophets have to say.  Elijah, exhausted and depressed, fell asleep under the tree.  An angel woke him, provided him with nourishment and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  God provided sustenance for Elijah’s journey, giving him nourishment and hope.

How do we not give up as we go up against the things that comprise our own wilderness experience–institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare?  It’s all about the story.  The three examples Dale used serve (as all stories do) as a lens through which to view the world.  What we consider “truth” is really story verified by our own experience.  We’ve all been in a wilderness.  We all have stories to tell about sustenance in its midst and deliverance from that wretched space.  By fitting ourselves into the stories of a tradition, we sustain its “truth.”  We take comfort in those stories–another way religion “works.”

Because of my Christian background (raised on Biblical stories), I learned to perceive the world through a specific lens.  So, I easily plugged into the sermon’s thrust.  My wilderness is “alienation”–never quite belonging.  For whatever reason(s), living within society–any society–is uncomfortable.  I just don’t “fit in.”  However, for over ten years, Dale and I have been friends–a friendship that grows stronger and deeper all the time.  I might even articulate this as “God provided the sustenance of friendship for me in my wilderness.”  There’s even a bonus.  I count Dale’s husband, John, as my friend as well.

I think all religion is, first and foremost, a story.  How do we get hold of experience?  Through the vehicle of story.  Stories vary from person to person and culture to culture, but when all is said and done, stories carry the distress of our human suffering, the hope for a way out of that suffering, and the joy of our triumphs.  The stories that shape human beings–whether Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist–take root in particular soils.  We (humans) spring from a wide variety of soils.  Our stories are different one from the other in the particulars; however, I think it’s important to find a story’s essence and not get caught up in the story’s particulars–circumcision, virgin birth, Muhammad’s night journey, etc.  What universal truths can we tease from the story’s particulars?  And then how do we connect our own experience to them?

Stories are not “how-to” manuals.  Stories reach and inform us on a deeper level–the place where our values take shape.  The values many of us hold dear (love, justice, mercy, compassion, joy), having been shaped by the stories that inform us, carry with them the potential to eradicate institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare.  A “how-to” manual fails because it lacks the ability to put that fire in our souls needed to accomplish the task.  Only stories can breathe that fire into us.

It’s not likely I’ll ever again become a regular church-goer.  As Carol Christ wrote in her recent essay, “No Longer Moved…by Symbols that Once Moved Me Profoundly,” “…the Easter drama is no longer my drama.”  Nevertheless, I like attending St. Mark’s occasionally.  Why?  They are an outrageous and diverse congregation.  The members seem to live passionate, quirky lives while loving their neighbors fiercely.  They even warmly welcomed the likes of me!


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

17 thoughts on “It’s All About the Story by Esther Nelson”

  1. Interesting question about the interpretation of those stories. Does the fact that Ishmael became a great nation make Hagar’s suffering all OK? Delores Williams stated that Hagar experienced God’s presence which saved her in the wilderness, but not God’s liberating power–she survived but it all did not turn out for the best in the end. This for me is the power divinity has–presence but not the power to determine events in the world, and no, in my thealogy, it does not always all turn out for the best in the end. So for me hope is more difficult to muster sometimes, because I “know” that divinity cannot intervene to make things turn out for the best for everyone. Hope does not triumph in any simple way.


    1. Several years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner published his little book, WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. The book came into being when he realized his son had a terminal illness and those who came to “comfort” Harold were not succeeding. Harold noted that from their responses they really were defending God. So, Harold wrestles with the whole question of theodicy.

      “Kushner’s argument, when put into syllogistic form, looks like this:
      1.If God were all-powerful, he could destroy evil.

      2.If God were all-good, he would destroy evil.

      3.But evil has not been destroyed.

      4.Therefore, God does not exist or He is limited.

      5.But there is evidence that God exists.

      6.Therefore, God must not be all-powerful.

      As Kushner put it, “I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by the laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom….”

      I agree with you that “Hope does not triumph in any simple way.” I have a very difficult time making sense of and finding ultimate “hope” given the atrocities we witness every day. There do seem to be “reprieves” now and again and I do like Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Can we look back over our long human history and see “things” becoming better for all–animals, the earth, people? I suppose that’s the question–or at least, one of them.


      1. He’s not very good with syllogisms. As stated t.he conclusion is either God does not exist, God is not all-powerful, or God is not good. God could be evil or God could be indifferent to good and evil. However, I do agree with the conclusion, sort of. Process philosophy does not speak of God as limited. Not to be omnipotent is not to be limited, it is simply not to be omnipotent, which is a necessary condition in a relational world.


  2. I very much appreciate your understanding, thanks Esther, as regards how stories from religious traditions can carry us through life — as you rightly say, “only stories can breathe that fire into us.” I have been quietly a follower of eastern spirituality for a long time and have studied many stories in the texts, usually very small stories, or vignettes, and yet always deeply packed with meaning. Many of them concern how nature does things as examples to follow — this is from the ancient I Ching, regarding a teacher-student relationship in any spiritual path:

    A crane calling in the shade.
    It’s young answers it.
    I have a good goblet.
    I will share it with you.


    1. Thanks, Sarah, for sharing the vignette from the I Ching. I’m not as familiar with eastern traditions as I am with the Abrahamic faiths, however, I do appreciate the stories from “Eastern” sources that focus on nature, showing us how nature provides sustenance for us–including that need we have for beauty.


  3. I agree humans are a group of story tellers. Since the day we sat in the cave around a fire and told our stories. The trick I think is to remember that each story springs from an individual’s experience and may hold some truth for us but another person’s truth is not “gospel”.


  4. These are words to live by. Thanks Professor Nelson. They remind me of Muriel Rukeyser’s line: The universe is made of stories, not atoms.


  5. Esther, I feel your post today blends so well with what Carol wrote about the symbols that no longer “work”. It seems to me that stories, like symbols, are meant to grow and change and develop as we do. But with religious stories, some people seem cemented in the old interpretations more than the story. Does Jesus “save us from our sins”? or does this Teacher give us lessons on how to be compassionate and loving…which is “salvation” in so many ways? Is God “perfect” in the context of observing our moral rules, or is God “perfect in love” as one preacher said? And if God is “all powerful” why does sh-t happen? The big question of suffering, especially to “good people” which has generated so many good stories such as the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures….with a conclusion I no longer fully embrace but which gets me thinking. And there are our own National Stories about the “Land of the free and home of the brave”…. totally enslaved to ?. Which brings me to the question: “How can we use story to mature and thrive?”

    Thank you for providing lots of things to think about today!


    1. Yes, yes, yes. Love all your questions as we all wrestle with how to move forward in what has been described by certain sages as “this vale of tears.” I think that all symbols (including stories) that remain viable do change/morph over time as we (humans) interpret those stories differently. I believe it is essential to understand our stories through the lens of our current experience(s) rather than force the “old, old story” into the “here and now.” The process is not neat and clean! Thank you for your wonderful response.


      1. — I believe it is essential to understand our stories through the lens of our current experience(s) rather than force the “old, old story” into the “here and now.”

        No there’s a line that well expresses how I felt about preaching from the Bible even as a child. It always seemed the story was being forced to make the point the minister was advocating.


  6. “Stories vary from person to person and culture to culture, but when all is said and done, stories carry the distress of our human suffering, the hope for a way out of that suffering, and the joy of our triumphs.” This suggests how stories are such a powerful and eloquent form of art. It seems like their fluidity is what allows the same stories to appear across multiple diverse cultures, each emphasizing particular elements and adapting a certain “flavor” based on the environment. Yet nonetheless, the stories retain their moral, existential, philosophical messages according to the needs of different people. Stories reflect so much about humanity.


    1. Good question to contemplate, Juliana. I’m sure we’d have different stories. There’s no reason we cannot tell and write those different stories today. Thanks for posting.


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