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Storytelling, Preaching, Meet in 'Golden Age'

by Judy Tarjanyi

Blade religion editor, Toledo Blade

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Edward Burne-Jones, Angels of the Fifth Day of Creation

Movies and the advent of cable and satellite TV have propelled this culture into a "golden age of storytelling" that has made its way into the nation's pulpits, says a fabled weaver of tales who once worked with the late mythologist Joseph Campbell.

"There is probably better storytelling presented with more art and skill than ever," said Dr. Jonathan Young of the Center for Story and Symbol, who will present a workshop at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Perrysburg May 2. Dr. Young, a psychologist, formerly served as archivist for Mr. Campbell, who became nationally known after his death through the Bill Moyers PBS series, The Power of Myth.

Citing examples like Field of Dreams and the Star Wars movies, Dr. Young said today's films are presenting stories that reflect the journey of faith by portraying inner adventure, the discovery of energies and inner possibilities, and how to connect with meanings beyond oneself.

At the same time, he said, there is intense theological interest in story as a form of teaching and as a way to get at or be receptive to the unfolding mystery that is the essence of religious quest.

Although his local appearance is being sponsored by Toledo's Center for Jungian Studies, Dr. Young said in the last three years he has spoken to 100 different church groups interested in exploring the possibility of story and its connection to the spiritual life.

For many Christians, that interest represents a rediscovery of something that once was an integral part of church life, Dr. Young said.

"A certain amount of interest in story was lost through the [Protestant] Reformation because stories rely on images and there was an intense reaction against images. There was the notion that that might have meant a kind of idolatry."

Before that time, he said, churches were places of drama and great celebration of story.

The practice was rooted in the use of parables in the Christian tradition that dates all the way back to Jesus Christ and continues through such key figures in church history as Augustine, Dr. Young said.

"The power of story as teaching method is that much more can be communicated through narrative than through discussion. Not only do you have the main overriding point that the storyteller is making, but in the images and metaphors of the tales, you've got larger implications."

Dr. Young said that as a psychologist he is aware of how the symbols in stories can bridge the knowable and the mysterious, the conscious and the unconscious by getting at something larger than a simple declarative sentence.

Edward Burne-Jones, Angels of the Sixth and Seventh Day of Creation

"The use of metaphor will reach past human language, reach past the conscious to the mysterious and inevitable to the transcendent."

To illustrate this, he said, Mr. Campbell once used the image of a deer to describe the speed of a human runner. Although the runner he describes was a man, calling him a deer got at his running speed in a way that saying he was a very fast runner could never impart, Dr. Young said.

"Metaphors allow us some small grasp of that which we cannot know. Right there we have a description of what the religious seeker is in quest of. In the sort of charming and enchanting presentation of a little human experience a story can slip around our defenses."

Dr. Young said the use of story in Christianity has developed into a growing movement that is now present in the large-scale use of story material from the pulpit and training for clergy and lay leaders in how to employ story in preaching and teaching.

"You see it throughout what used to be called the mainstream churches. American Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic homilies are full of stories now." Dr. Young said the trend is a bit less prevalent in evangelical Protestant circles, but that the telling of parables has always been strong in such churches.

By contrast, Dr. Young said, Judaism and Islam seem never to have lost their connection with story. The Talmud, a collection of history, customs, laws, and legends, and the Midrash, with its biblical interpretations and narratives, form a strong story base in the Jewish faith. Islam also has stories that are often humorous and curious - trickster tales where the protagonist is not entirely good yet does good in spite of himself, reflecting the ambiguity of human nature, Dr. Young said.

Understanding metaphor and symbol can enlarge the Christian understanding of Jesus's parables and other biblical stories that have become familiar over time to the religion's followers, Dr. Young said.

Many traditional layers of implication are to be found, "once you get past the simple literal reading of these stories," Dr. Young said.

For example, he said, the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, can be seen as more than a miracle story and a statement that God can do anything. "The other implication is that something ordinary like water can become quite profound at a special occasion. To take more implications and overtones from the story makes it more exciting. The celebration of the miraculous presence of the divine, which any ministerial leader is focusing on, can be strengthened by story, particularly those from the scriptures."

Dr. Young's own religious background is Presbyterian with a strong exposure to evangelical Christianity. His father was an early organizer for evangelist Billy Graham, who became a family friend. Dr. Young now worships in a Unitarian Church.

Dr. Jonathan Young will present a "Mythic Stories Seminar" from 3 to 5 p.m. May 2 in St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, 901 East Boundary St., Perrysburg. The fee is $20 ($15 for members of the Toledo Center for Jungian Studies, students, and seniors).