Recently I’ve seen lots of people are describing themselves as storytellers. The term is applied to film directors, authors and journalists (with some justification) but I’ve also seen it commandeered by marketing firms and a company of “change consultants” who actually named themselves The Storytellers. Facebook calls stuff you post “stories”, even if it’s just an automatic post created because you click “like” on a page about poodle shaving (not a euphemism). Storytelling is a popular concept. The reason for this is that it is powerful stuff and in skilful mouths it can change the world. The most famous book in the world is a book of stories and the most famous person in all history was a storyteller*. Here’s an updated version of a tale that appears in one and is attributed to the other:
An ordinary man was driving through Manchester on a main road. He stopped at some traffic lights and a gang of thugs car-jacked him, beat him, stripped him of everything of value including his clothes and left him on the pavement. As he lay there bleeding and barely conscious a tabloid journalist walked up but, on seeing the man he crossed the street and went on his way. Soon after, a peer of the realm also skirted round the fallen man. Next an East European immigrant came along. Seeing the battered victim he stopped and called an ambulance, then stayed with the man by his hospital bed, helping the nurses tend him until he had regained consciousness and his relatives had been found.
You probably recognised the story about half way through and are maybe wondering about the adaptations. The parable of The Good Samaritan has become somewhat diluted by time and use, it’s meaning nowadays often being seen as little more than “be good to strangers”. The part played here by a journalist was originally a Judaic priest, someone who the predominantly Jewish audience that Jesus was speaking too would see pretty much every day, and by whom they would be given constant instruction on how to live their lives. Even if you strenuously avoid the tabloids the stories they choose to tell become the lead stories for the television news and the subject of conversations with friends. In modern Britain we have no cognate for the Levite (the original second passer-by), a hereditary position with the responsibility for reading certain passages and services in the temple; the only hereditary positions of power in our society reside in the House Of Lords. At the time of the first telling of this tale the Jews had a pretty poor view of the Samaritans, who were very closely related being Israelites who had not gone in to exile in Babylon and followed their own version of the Torah. There were plenty of candidates for the role of the Samaritan.
So in the telling of this tale Jesus was making a series of points, challenging prejudices and assumptions. The main thrust being that goodness rests not in who you are but in what you do and whether you are prepared to do it for everyone, even those who may despise you. It is a masterful piece of storytelling, extraordinarily compact with hardly a word more than the bare minimum necessary and packed with meaning. The bit that is often overlooked from our modern perspective is that he was having a massive dig at the established voices of moral behaviour in his society, essentially calling them hypocrites… but indirectly through the story.
The thing that the 21st century would be storytellers have in common is that they are trying to influence us, to change our behaviour. How much effect they have depends on how many of us repeat their yarns. We have to be careful how much of the tattle of the tabloids we pass on and which facebook memes we share, editing out anything that is filled with prejudice and hate. Having filtered those that might do good we must be skilful in passing them on so that they remain potent. It can be a tricky business, this storytelling; Jesus was such a powerful storyteller that the establishment killed him for it.
* Though I did find an online poll that put Michael Jackson ahead!