Stuck In History


Stuck In History

© Donna Jacobs Sife

This month is a busy one for storytellers in Sydney. Being Book Week, or more accurately Book Month, I am scheduled for scores of performances in schools. As always, I will be telling stories from many different traditions. The one tradition I will probably not be telling from will be my own. The Department of Education is particularly squeamish about anything Judeo-Christian. Stories from the bible are a no-no. Stories, however, from African, Eastern, Tribal, Indian and indigenous sources are welcome. They have explained to me that they do not want anything ‘religious’ to be presented. They have not explained however, why they do not consider Buddhist, Dreamtime or Hindu sources to be ‘religious’.

Our relationship with our own mythology, (that is our Great Story upon which we base our understandings of the world), is naturally far more complex than the relationship we have with someone else’s. When I am giving workshops, the participants rarely have any difficulty interpreting a story in metaphoric terms.

They can transform the specifics of the story into something universal without too much trouble at all. As soon as I tell a story from the Bible and ask them to do the same thing, something else starts to happen. No matter how I set it up, the exercise gets polluted with emotion and rigidity – anger, rejection, concrete thought, literal interpretation – suddenly all the work we did with the other stories becomes terribly hard with this one.

It makes sense of course because we have been forming a relationship with this mythology for a life time. The imposition of memories and culture, of attitudes and prejudices are seemingly impossible to overcome. People begin to remember the feeling of being manipulated, the discomfort they felt with such an angry God, their fear of destruction, their horror of the violence, the sense that it’s just not true. Or they hear the bible as history and can simply not imagine that this story speaks to all of humanity and not just to them. Taught as history when children, they are offered only one possibility – acceptance or rejection. It happened or it didn’t. The stories are judged to be politically incorrect, emotionally questionable or the cause of much suffering and violence in the world. Even the Department of Education does not think it is possible to tell these stories, without trying to manipulate the audience. Their cynicism overrides their faith that a child knows the difference between coercion and a story.

I feel certain that if we could only approach the stories from our own tradition with the same lack of judgment and the largess of spirit that we have for other traditions, then our culture would actually shift. Subliminally, we act out the literal understanding of our mythology with calamitous result. Some of us try to own the story, fix it in time and space, attribute it to here and now – rather than see that the story of Abraham is about every man and woman in search of truth and the Promised Land – the place we arrive at when we transcend the material world and reach spiritual maturity. The field beyond right and wrong – of which Rumi spoke.

Surely literalism has no place in Sacred story. It inevitably finds us engaged in battles between what was Divinely given to me and not given to you. Or ‘if your sacred text says this, then your people must be that.’

Rather – the question has to be – what is the purpose of this story? In this way we tell the story of Humanity, of our inevitable common quest and the difficult holy struggle that is required of us all to get there.

For the storyteller, one of our most glorious tasks must surely be ‘turning stone into water.’ Turning the dry mythical ground of our culture and making it fertile.


Donna Jacobs Sife is a writer, award-winning storyteller and peace–worker. Her considerable international reputation is built on her capacity to bridge difference – be it within our societies, our communities or ourselves. For nearly two decades she has travelled widely throughout the world teaching and telling stories. She uses her talents to enlighten and enhance acceptance and understanding within and between the people she touches. In 2012 she was awarded Ambassador for Peace through UN, and received the Living for Others Award. Her CD Living in Harmony won the World Storytelling Award 2010. In 1997 she won the National Storytelling Award at the Australian storytelling Festival.

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