Some months ago, as you might recall, I sat on a panel assembled by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company to discuss forgiveness and redemption in Cymbeline. As it happens, the conversation was lovely.
My co-panelists were a reconstructionist rabbi and a non-denominational Christian minister. We avoided the most pedantic topics — no tiresome debate on whether belief in a deity is essential for true forgiveness — and in fact ended up agreeing on almost everything we said.
We were, you will not be shocked to learn, “for” forgiveness. We agreed on the notion that asking for forgiveness and forgiving someone are independent, vital human experiences. We also discussed the distinction between forgiveness and justice, at least as justice is typically defined by the judicial system, and expressed a fervent wish that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa might be more widely replicated throughout the world.
None of that surprised me. What did surprise me was the way in which our varying rhetorial techniques — specifically, the cultural references we made — were received by the audience.
Early in the conversation, the minister made a quite fitting and smart reference to the story of the Prodigal Son. Twenty or so members of the audience were parishioners from her church — in which, as it happens, we were sitting — so the story must have been at least somewhat familiar; my general impression, however, was that it fell a bit flat. Much later, the rabbi told a very poetic story about Maimonides that had both the minister and I nodding our heads vigorously; still, the audience sat quietly.
Between those two religious anecdotes, however, I happened to mention both Invictus and Crash, and in both cases I could literally feel the audience warming in recognition (particularly with the latter film). This happened not only when I mentioned the movies, but when my co-panelists mentioned them again in follow-up comments. The stories I cited seemed to resonate with people more strongly than the religious stories.
The references all three of us made to the play we were about to watch, Cymbeline? Almost no response.
Now, I’m enough of a scientist wannabe to know that I might very well have been experiencing observation bias. Naturally, it’s not surprising that the secular panelist felt that “his” stories were more effective rhetorically than the religious stories. But if my observation wasn’t colored by my worldview, then I think I know why it might have been the case.
How do we hear religious stories? How do we hear them when lay storytellers tell them, and how do we hear them when clergy tell them? I think we hear them as if they are Somebody Else’s Stories, as if they’ve been handed down to us through generations, as if they’re brittle and must be handled carefully, as if they cannot and should not be questioned, as if they are other. And this, I think, is why more and more people are losing touch with them: they aren’t (or don’ t seem to be) relevant, no matter how hard the clergy mike work to make them so.
On the other hand, the stories produced by Hollywood (for example) — the new stories our culture-makers are creating for us all the time — they feel like our stories, like we can bandy them about and get inside them and question them and live with them and interpret and know them. They’re far more accessible and modern and real.
In time, I believe, the stories we tell in the Big Religious Books are going to become so utterly irrelevant to modern existence that we will no longer tell them, at least not tell them often: about as frequently, perhaps, as we tell the story of Gilgamesh.
This is what happens to stories: they get written and told to help us accustom ourselves to the times in which we live, and then those times change, and the stories are no longer relevant, and eventually they die off, or (if they’re lucky and adaptable) evolve into new stories.
This is neither good nor bad: it simply is.
We needed religious stories for a variety of reasons for millennia. We may even still need them, though it’s hard for me to say how; I’m sure we don’t need them as much as we think we do, and we are probably over-worried that if we stop telling them so often, they’ll start to disappear. But as we get smarter and can reason more effectively about human nature and the nature of the universe, we will eventually find them quaint at best, I suspect.