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My Relationship with Running

Sunday Musings: On Noah's Ark and the Difference Between a Real Story and a True Story

I don’t have many memories of going to church as a child, mostly because we almost never went, but the ones I do have are fairly vivid. During one of the stretches we were going to church, I remember sitting in my primary class listening to the story of Noah’s ark. As I listened to the teacher tell the story of the animals coming on board the ark, two by two, I had a thought that made me squirm in my chair a little, I wanted to share it so badly. As I was a shy girl who almost never said anything in any class at all, let alone a church class where I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at all, it was a scary thing to me, sharing my thoughts. But I was brave. After she told the story, I raised my hand and said “this story reminds me of the book I am reading right now, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Then I started to say why they felt the same to me—the animals I guess—but before I could get more than a few words out, the teacher stopped me.

“There is no similarity at all between those two. The scriptures aren’t fairy tales.” Her voice was heavy with scorn, and then she talked about something else. (You can guess how often I said anything in church after that.)

As I was only six or seven when this happened, I am interpreting the experience through my adult lens, of course. And there are quite a few ways that Sunday influenced me. But one of them was my stubborn insistence (silent, spoken only in my head forever after) that they are the same, because they are both stories. Of course there are no magic rings that take us to Narnia, just as there are no boats big enough to hold all of the animals. These are stories, with characters who have adventures and grow up and change. Stories!

And I liked both of them.

I thought about that experience a lot this weekend, when I was preparing my lesson for church today. The topic? Noah’s ark. And as I read and studied different things, it hit me: some Christians—many, in fact—believe that the flood was a literal event that happened just like it is explained in the Bible.

I finally had to stop my lesson preparation and talk to Kendell and a few friends, just so I could get some perspective. Do people believe that really happened? Wait, what? The answers I got varied; some friends said yes, some said no, a few said “hmmmm, I’ve never really thought about it.”

And I had some deeply anxious moments of questioning my own belief system. I often feel like this—that somewhere there exists a rule book of things that Mormons (and Christians in general) believe and don’t believe, do and don’t do. Except I’ve never read it—because while yes, I grew up as an LDS girl in a seemingly LDS family, we really very rarely went to church until after my grandpa died, so while we looked like Mormons I actually feel like a convert—and so I am constantly bumping into things I didn’t know about my faith.

Like the fact that some people believe in the realness of the story of Noah’s ark.

Even when I was that little, pagan-hearted shy kid, I thought it was just a story, because how could all of the animals fit? And how did Noah get all of the animals from all across the world? (If you are interested in reading the many, many reasons why the story of Noah's ark is a story, try this essay. It's really interesting.) I still liked the imagery of it, the storyness of the story. But I never questioned that it was anything other than a story from the scriptures. (For the record, I feel the same way about Jonah inside the whale.)

So for a while, I was stymied at how I could teach a Sunday School lesson about Noah’s ark. I can’t pretend I think it really happened in the way the scriptures tell the story. And I didn’t know that I could stand in front of a class without shouting REALLY? Don’t you see all the logical holes in this plot?

But I don’t think that would be a class anyone would learn anything from.

So I took a deep breath, put on my Big Teacher pants (which are similar to Big Girl Panties, of course, and perhaps related to Smarty Pants), and thought about whether or not it matters. Does it matter if Noah’s ark is a real story? (A story of something that happened in history.) or a true story? (A story that both entertains and relates human truth, knowledge, experience, or some combination of all three.) For me—a person who loves and quite often learns from non-real stories, it doesn’t. (At least…aside from my bafflement that we’re supposed to believe it is real.)

This is because a story really doesn’t have to be real to be true.

And that long-ago primary teacher was wrong: the scriptures are like fairy tales. (And The Chronicles of Narnia aren’t fairy tales, anyway; they are allegorical Christian fantasy.) There are truths in fairy tales, too, even if sprites, pixies, and goblins don’t really exist. There are things for us to learn from stories. Christ himself taught in parables, so why can’t the Old Testament do the same?

(And really: does thinking that the Noah’s Ark story is an allegory make me a bad, faithless Christian?)

So for my lesson, I taught about what we can learn from the story of Noah’s ark. (I didn’t even bring up the real/not real issue.) There are many truths to be found there if you look at the story through a metaphorical or symbolic lens. Just the concept of an ark itself, a thing that God tells us to prepare so that when our personal flood comes we have a safe place to be, is a topic we could’ve discussed the whole class period. But there was one truth I really wanted to remember from this experience with the story of Noah’s ark. Before the flood, God grieves over the wickedness of his children. He “repents himself” of making humanity in the first place; in other words, he grieves for their mistakes. Then he judges them, as is God’s prerogative, and starts over.

Through judgement comes utter destruction.

It made me think of the relationships I have in which I’ve grieved over the choices of others. Not because they were wicked or evil, but because they were painful to me in some way. There is a connection—God grieves, too, which makes me feel a strange sense of peace. I am not alone in that sadness. But at the same time, I am not God. I don’t have the wisdom to judge anyone. But I do, as I think about this story, have the wisdom to see how destructive and devastating judgement can be. So I will grieve, but I will not judge. I will not put to waste everything that I have made because it isn’t exactly what I imagined it would be. Instead I will just keep loving and trying and moving forward.

And I will consider Noah, who I am also like. He lived in a desert, and God told him to make a boat. He couldn’t have known why, exactly, or what would happen, but he still did it, still wrestled into shape an impossible and seeming illogical concept. I am often invested in a similar work, in making something that seems illogical because God (or, quite often, the experiences of my life) asks me to. I think as a religious (or am I simply spiritual? I am still working that out) person in contemporary society, I must do that more and more. I must try to understand what is not always legible, I must have enough faith to make something that initially seems illogical. It is difficult and I am often dumbfounded and unsure. But I will keep trying to make my ark, and if I know myself, and if God also knows me, it will be made of true stories.


Heather V

While I’m not Mormon, I was raised Lutheran, and your Sunday School story echoes so many of my own. I’ve never been good at safely hiding my reactions behind neutral facial expressions, and I know I often caught the eye of the Sunday School teacher or children’s message leader with my furrowed brow and look of disbelief. Thank you for the reminder to this simply spiritual adult that stories both real AND true shape us.

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