most leaves downyellowed grassLight comes thruplenty of room
Through the past twelve or so semesters, this final seventh of a forty-plus-year career in teaching, it’s all crystallized in a course I designed and continuously revised called Good Stories. The heart of our engagement centers in the essence of the making of a good story. In the oral culture, story is alive, not frozen in print or on screen; and the vitality pulses in renewal, even in revolution.
Life depends on change and adaptation, including social reorganization as well as advancing consciousness; this inner-outer dynamic pushes forward an enacted conscience as reflected in the subtitle of the course: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice. Looking out in the window of today’s world, we must wonder if we’ve been telling enough good stories.
Despite the prevailing overemphasis on entertainment, narratives can be shaped and enacted for the force of goodness; this potential is convincingly evident in the narratives enriching the major religions of the world. Consider, for example, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, Kenan Rifai’s commentary on Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Crossan’s books on parable, especially those of Jesus. Instead of renewing life, far too much discourse, particularly in our educational system, seems to have lost the revolutionary power to inspire us beyond hegemonic selfish interests that freeze and kill.
Change comes hard, particularly to persons who are fat and happy or drugged into distracted illusions that deny climate change, poisoned food and water, toxic dogma, soporific screens, and inane mind/heart numbing test-taking. Good stories happen not just in the telling but in the calling for them by persons who are searching. Rumi’s radical narratives were frequently paused by the command for the storyteller to stop talking; persons have to be ready to break open.
Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of this comes in the narrative around King David. Walter Brueggemann consolidates several incisive explorations with the synthesis that “this narrative is distinctively counterculture, subversive, against our presuppositions” and “against such a self-deceiving enlightenment” (p. 49, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory). The reformations of power and surrender shape in the heart rending parable of shepherd and lamb, love and death.
That the essence of a good story rumbles in its revolutionary power is also modeled in Rumi’s “The Merchant & the Parrot.”** The caged bird (yes, remember Maya Angelou) provokes us to consider our spirit contained within the body.
‘My parrot, O my most sagacious bird,interpreter of all my thoughts and secrets!Whatever comes to me that’s just and unjust,she told me from the first so I’d remember.’A parrot with a voice from revelationbegan her life before the first existence,This parrot is concealed inside yourself;you’ve seen her image in phenomena.Alan Williams, Trans. Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 162.
** Several print versions of “The Merchant & the Parrot” can be seen through this page: http://www.mythfolklore.net/3043mythfolklore/reading/rumi/pages/12.htm. It includes translations by Whinfield (19th century) and Barks (20th century), who each translate Rumi according to the poetic expectations and liberty of their time. If you are interested in a more literal translation of Rumi (13th century), you can take a look at a version of "The Merchant and The Parrot" by Ibrahim Gamard.