Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

Storytelling, catholic edition

I’m from Bavaria, one of the hyper-catholic regions of Europe, and I grew up in a small village with a church at its physical and metaphysical center. When I was young, religion was a big part of my life. Nowadays I find myself wondering about its influence on me and my perception of story. Because church and religion were, as a kid, first and foremost story to me.

The church itself with all its paintings, statues and other representations was full of stories, and during mass, you got to hear at least one more, two if you were lucky. My penchant for epic, mythic storytelling must have been surfacing then already, because I preferred Old Testament stories above all others. Nothing much beats the Exodus, even Hollywood agrees.

The only equally big New Testament thing is the Passion of Christ, storytelling highlight of catholicism and nucleus of faith. And considering the Passion of Christ, you can’t deny the inherent grimdark streak of the catholic church. It’s not just that the story of the crucifixion is told in a very detailed and prolonged way, but there is a real inclination towards gruesome detail and dark, gritty depictions. I remember sitting in church every Sunday, above me a statue of the Mater dolorosa (which is basically Mary with a sword through her chest, as a symbol of her suffering), and from where I sat I could study another statue: Saint Sebastian the martyr, mostly naked and pierced by a significant amount of arrows – a whole lot more than Boromir. Bavarian sculptors and painters did not shy away from showing what wounds looked like; there was a fair amount of trickling blood, gaping flesh and agonizing sores to be seen.

When it came to my Communion, the ceremonial initiation into the catholic fold, I got a book about saints. I gobbled it up like I gobbled up every other book I could get my hands on (even math textbooks for school, but that’s another story), and, wow, there was a whole new range of suffering and dying to be discovered. Some of the stories about female martyrs are highly sexualized; they’re often virgins unwillingly claimed by powerful men, and are subsequently shown to their community naked, then publicly tormented and killed. Eight year old me didn’t feel all that comfortable reading those stories.

But the stories also cover power, wonders and the sublime. Religion, like story, strifes to tackle the big themes of mankind. There is, of course, a difference: In a very simplified way, you could say stories make us ask questions, while religion tries to provide answers. I think it is not a coincidence that some of the early defining voices of the epic fantasy genre were catholic, too. The catholic origin story of suffering and sacrifice, of paying a hefty price if you were to truly achieve something, is a powerful motif.

The concept of faith and believing itself invites story: it’s at a person’s core and can (and must) be challenged, and there is a whole string of cultural implementations attached to it, providing even more fodder for story. I always feel drawn to the decorum and grand gestures of catholicism and its compulsion to dominate people’s lives (both storytellingwise). It was all ingrained in my mind as a child and challenged me to reflect on it, the light and the dark, the sins and the saints.

Well, and then there is another thing the stories from church have taught me: They taught me about bad storytelling. Man, it was frustrating at times how bad the stories told in church were, compared to the stories I read at leisure. Sometimes they made no sense at all, had no proper ending, had a lot of “because I say so” going on, pieces didn’t fit, and, as an inherent fault of the genre, there was deus-ex-machina in abundance. But maybe they didn’t care about suspension of disbelief because it was assumed that you already handled this before you sat down in church.

There is, without doubt, also some good storytelling going on there. Some seriously rad imagery has trickled down into our language, and there are quotable lines galore. In German, even a lot of the words for inner processes and emotions stem from christian scholars trying to make up words for concepts that were never needed before. Part of this significance has to do with christianity dominating western culture for centuries. Its lore and legends even managed if not to kill, then at least to discontinue a lot of other powerful mythological traditions. But at its core, there must have been good storytelling (or at least the right stories at the right time), because at some time in the past, people were moved to flock together and listen. It can’t just boil down to a love of grimdark and “come back next Sunday to hear if the pharaoh really shot Moses”, can it?

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1 Comment

  1. Colophonius

    Ah, I’ve been looking forward to this article a long time! Such an interesting topic, and such a great read!
    It is adorable to imagine little Simone going to her weekly story time on sunday 😀

    The thing you wrote about stories of Saints is so true. I had a book about Greek, Roman and Christian mythology and god/saint stories, and I read this book maybe 3,4 Times when I was a child. But I never got to the end, because I’ve always had the Feeling that a) women couldn’t win in these stories and b) that they were always following the same pattern. (This was from a child’s point of view obviously. I mean, Greek stories also follow a certain pattern, but there were some powerful women, nice animals and I guess this exciting “foreign” feeling to it.)

    But you are right, there ARE great stories to be found, and there is some wonderful poetry in the Psalms. Religios content and personal believes aside, the “Hohelied der Liebe” is some nice and quite kinky stuff.
    And the stories from the old Testament are really Epic, as you said. Noah’s Arc, the whole story of Moses…Yes, that’s perfect Hollywood Blockbuster stuff.

    I was raised by protestant parents so I never got to see the gruesome statues in churches. No Boromir (I LOLed!). After reading your article I was reflecting in how my religious upbringing affected my writing, and I came to the (shocking) conclusion that my core values, all very protestant, are influencing my being and writing very very much. I guess uprisings and “Vergebung” are, not in a religious but in a zwischenmenschlich meaning, my most popular topics.

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