Watership Down: A Lesson in Storytelling

I have announced that we'll be starting a new sermon series next week on the parables and we're calling it, "The Stories Jesus Told."  I don't know many preachers who don't like the parables.  We all, I think, have our favorites.  My favorite is "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" from Luke.  It always has been.  I see myself in it as the younger son and the older son, and sometimes like the Father.  I think it's pretty much the Gospel in Parable form.

But, more than just liking the parables, part of the education I received had a focus on the narrative nature of our faith.  Stories define us.  They shape us.  They provide context.  Indeed, they form the basis of our communities.  We are who we are because we share certain stories about each other and about ourselves as a group. Think of how stories defined your own family...perhaps the stories that were told when you gathered for Thanksgiving dinner or a family wedding.  They are what we talk about and laugh about and tell over and over and over again.  And if we don't have those stories?  Well, then we just have awkward silences.

And so, for us Christians, the stories we tell define us.  They shape our ministries and provide a context for our discussions.

If we forget the stories, then, in a real sense, we forget who we are.

When thinking about all of this, I was reminded of an essay I read of Stanley Hauerwas way back when I was in undergraduate school.  Hauerwas is Christian theologian and ethicist.  And I took a class under him when I was in seminary at Duke.  Hauerwas wrote "A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down" back in 1981.  I must have read it about 1990 while I was in undergraduate school.  It's a good read.  And from this we get a clearer understanding of the importance of narrative in our communities.  If we forget to tell the stories or if we forget to take them seriously then we run the risk of losing our identities.

Donna Farley of A Spell for Refreshment of the Spirit has a nice summary of this work...all the way down to three paragraphs long.  The important things to know is that Hazel is our hero as he leads a band of rabbits around.  Hazel and the others have left their warren out of fear for their lives and are left to wander.  They meet other warrens, particularly "Cowslip's Warren" that have become highly individualized and have forgotten the stories that are meant to shape them into followers of El-ahrairah.

Stories of the rabbit hero El-ahrairah are embedded in the main narrative, each one recounted at a time when the rabbits need to be buoyed up by the particular lesson of a particular story. These tales are by turns inspiring, thrilling, humorous, or frightening; and they model such virtues as cleverness, courage, and teamwork.
In contrast to the love of Story shown by the band of rabbits led by Hazel, another group of rabbits in the story have forgotten, downplayed and despised the traditional stories, instead steeping themselves in depressing modernist poetry. This rabbit warren, know as Cowslip’s warren, is living in self-deceit. They train themselves to accept death—because death is the price they pay for comfort. Their warren is surrounded by snares set by the farmer who feeds them and keeps off the foxes. Whenever one of their number goes missing, they pretend to forget that rabbit’s existence.
It is a chilling portrait. But the rabbits of Hazel’s group are by contrast the kind of characters the reader finds himself wanting to emulate. Inspired by the daring and cunning of El-ahrairah and his faithful helper Rabscuttle, Hazel’s rabbits dare to make a journey to find a new home. They learn new skills, make friends of other rabbits and even non-rabbits, and hold together against the attack of the martial warren of Efrafa. When the story of Watership Down is over and the warren at peace, Hazel and his friends have become part of the story tradition that is being learned by new generations of rabbits. What a thing to aspire to—to be part of the great Story of life in such a way that we, even we ourselves, can become the heroes of our children and grandchildren!
So, what does this have to do with our Parables?  Everything!  The Parables of Jesus (along with the rest of the Bible) is, indeed, truth.  But it is truth in story-form and was meant to be shared and passed on to our children and our children's children so that they can continue to define us.   For, if we fail to do this, we may end up like the poor rabbits at Cowslip's warren, lost and story-less.

(This analogy takes on added weight in an environment where our native brothers and sisters have lost many of their stories over the last 70 years as "white" culture has taken over.  How important are the stories of our Alaskan Natives?)