We are a storytelling people. Our Sunday lessons are as often built around a scriptural episode as around an abstract principle. Our General Conference talks and magazine articles are brightened by stories. Our family reunions are celebrations of family stories. We want stories from our returning missionaries, not exhortations on repentance and baptism. This trait goes back to the beginning: as early as the 1850s, if not before, our sermons retold our earliest history as a way of solidifying us as a people and establishing our credentials as heirs to the prophetic tradition.
This creates an enormous need for stories, especially those that illustrate gospel principles. We surpass all other â€œpeople of the bookâ€? in the richness of our scriptures as a source for stories; we have a dramatic two-hundred-year LDS history from which to draw; we have a worldwide congregation from which to mine modern personal experiences. We can draw on secular history and literature.
So, why is it that we so often fall back on the same relatively limited repertoire? You know what I mean. Youâ€™re listening to a speaker, in your ward, in your stake, at Womenâ€™s Conference, at General Conference, and you hear the first few words of a too-familiar story, and you arenâ€™t sure whether that deep rumbling you hear is the sound of your own groans or the melodramatic tones of an imaginary organ warning you that the villain is about to strike.
For me, itâ€™s the story of Toscanini and the Wyoming sheepherder. You know the one â€“ I know you know it: Wyoming sheepherder writes to Arturo Toscanini, telling him that his only consolations are a violin now badly out of tune, and a transistor radio with a dying battery over which he listens to Toscaniniâ€™s broadcasts. If Toscaniniâ€™s orchestra will sound a â€œCâ€? during the next concert, Wyoming sheepherder will tune his violin and have music to keep him company once his radio battery dies. Toscaniniâ€™s orchestra sounds their perfect â€œCâ€?, Wyoming sheepherder presumably tunes his violin, and the speaker goes on to explain the moral of the story.
Only Iâ€™ve heard the story so many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, manâ€“ er, so many times, that Iâ€™ve tuned out by now and never can quite remember what life-affirming lesson I am supposed to draw.
There are multiple reasons for repeating worn-out stories, ranging from the worst excuse (too lazy to prepare far enough in advance to find a new story) to the most charitable (the stories are repeated precisely because they are so dramatic and make the point so well). Perhaps one of the motivations for the “Teachings for Our Times” lessons was an attempt to draw on fresh material; these are, however, primarily expository rather than narrative.
Still, I have a fantasy about taking any church lesson manual that draws on episodes from Mormon history and replacing all the tired, over-exposed tales of a handful of faithful-but-too-well-known pioneers with fresh new ones that make exactly the same point. That is one potential use for the womenâ€™s stories Iâ€™ve been posting here; obviously, women arenâ€™t the only ones with suitable stories. Everybody has one â€“ we just have to find them.
PLEASE NOTE: Letâ€™s not turn comments into a roll-call of bad stories or bad lessons. I would like to hear your ideas about storytelling in the church, and what kinds of stories you would like to hear, and especially what you might be doing to preserve the stories of your own life and family. DONâ€™T TRY TO OUT-DO EACH OTHER BY REPEATING YOUR MOST-HATED STORIES!! That was my prerogative as author of this post â€“ I do not extend the privilege to you. ;-)