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The Nature of Religious Narratives

The Nature of Religious Narratives


This lesson discusses some of the common features present in most religious narratives, and introduces some of the more common types of religious narratives.

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Welcome to this tutorial on the nature of religious narratives. Narratives are a way of conveying both information and stories to believers and non-believers alike. Narratives place people within a certain perspective and time, a certain perspective in history. And religious narrative in particular have a certain set of characteristics that are near universal.

Most religions around the world have certain features in their religious stories. They generally have some kind of account of human origins, stories about the establishment of civilization, how civilization got here, what civilization has to do with divinity, and what the relationship between human beings and that divinity ought to be.

Think about the story of the Tower of Babel, how people came together, they tried to become like God. They built this tower up to heaven, and God struck the tower down and sent the people scattering in the four directions. And that gives us both the origin of human civilizations and different languages around the world, and also tells us an account about human sin. So really, these stories are about the relationship between God and human beings.

Moving on, narratives or stories give meaning and purpose to believers. The story of the exodus, for example, is quite central to the faith of Judaism. It brings the people together. It gives them community. It gives them meaning and purpose and continuity in time. In fact, we could say that the narrative creates the people of Israel. They are the people who identify with this particular story of Moses taking the people across the Red Sea.

We can also have a number of secular narratives. You've probably heard the one about Sir Isaac Newton. He was sitting under this tree, and an apple fell down and hit him on the head, thereby, right away, he came up with a theory of gravitation, universal gravitation. We can have lots of questions about the historical authenticity of such a story. In fact, the story didn't even come about until after Sir Isaac's death. But in effect, you know, whether or not the history is historical is not really the main point of the story. But it sums up in a nice, tidy way the way that Sir Isaac Newton was able to come up with a theory of universal gravitation. The historicity of the story is, in a way, not really the main point.

We might also think about the American Revolutionary War. It tells us this story of these brave, independent colonists who are fighting against this overbearing monarchy that wants to tax them and press them into servitude. And what does that do for our nation, for the United States? Well, it says, we are this brave and noble people with these wonderful forebearers who made our freedom possible by fighting against the yoke of oppression. So secular narratives-- that is, stories that are worldly rather than spiritual-- serve much the same purpose as their religious counterparts in uniting people together and allowing them to have this story about their own origins. Regardless of whether we're talking about a secular narrative or a religious narrative, the purpose is much the same.

We said that narratives share information and stories with believers and non-believers alike. We also said that religious narratives share certain content with near universality. These common items would include an account of human origins, an account the beginnings of civilization, the role played by God or divinity in human affairs, and the nature of the relationship between God and human beings. We talked about the exodus from Egypt as an example of religious narrative. And we used the American Revolutionary War and other stories as an example of secular narratives.

Terms to Know

Worldly, not spiritual.