“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin!”
How many of us remember this litany – the opening line from a long-running BBC radio program for children – from our younger years? It’s still said today as we introduce young people to the power of stories.
Whether you love books or films, fact or fiction, television or radio, you will know how captivated we can be by a good story.
And because stories are everywhere we can easily lose sight of the power that they have over us and the influence that they can bring to bear on people, communities and nations.
The most powerful stories are those that contain characters with whom we can easily identify.
To see ourselves as the victim (or even the villain!), the one struggling against the odds, the one who falls in love or who suffers unbearable loss – these are the stories into which we are drawn and in a very real sense we become part of that story.
As Christians, the story we are most familiar with is that which is recounted in the Bible. From Genesis through Revelation, there is a narrative, a flow of events that take us on a journey. From creation to fall, and fall to redemption, well – you can almost hear the producer cry “Action!”
This is the story that invites our participation. In fact, all stories invite participation. That’s how they work.
Why else do you stay awake at night to get to the last page of a novel? The events never even happened, so why do we well up in tears or gape open-mouthed at a turn of events we didn’t anticipate? That’s the power of the story.
And that brings me to the Quran. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the Quran doesn’t follow a narrative style.
It isn’t story in the way that the Bible patently is. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end. It neither has an overarching meta-narrative nor within it a series of accessible mini-narratives.
Further, the Quran is nonlinear. For example, the first verses revealed to the Muhammad are not at the beginning of the Quran but in Surah 96:1-5. The final revelation comes not at the end but in Surah 5:3.
I believe the significance of this is enormous, and it’s getting greater before our very eyes.
If stories draw us in, then the absence of story demands an alternative dynamic of engagement. The question is: What is that alternative?
Let’s go back to the Bible again and consider the story of the prodigal son. It requires just 22 verses of Scripture in Luke 15. Translate it into any number of languages or dialects. Go for a literal translation, a dynamic equivalent or a paraphrase.
As long as you’re not too cavalier with the translation, it won’t matter. The story retains its ancient power – the power to shock, to challenge, to grieve and to move people to feel saddened, appalled, angry or resentful.
But it also has the power to move, to uplift, to restore and to impart emotions of forgiveness, joy, restoration and agape love.
Don’t worry about the words. It’s the narrative that carries the impact.
The Quran, on the other hand, because of its style and structure, demands an alternative means of engagement. There isn’t a narrative to draw us in, lift us up and cast us down.
What there is, Muslims will point out, is the conviction that the Quran in its original Arabic is the actual dictated words of God, the ipsissima verba of Allah himself.
For this reason alone, there is strong encouragement to memorize the Quran. And while most Muslims cannot understand Arabic, a point to which I will return, there is a sensuous beauty in its calligraphy and in its lyrical recitation. These too are means of engagement.
But there is largely an absence of narrative, especially in the vernacular language of the people, for while the Quran can be translated, the translation is not the Quran, but a mere representation of it.
And so we must ask ourselves about the relative power of narrative over and against the artistry of a script and its aural qualities.
And with the utmost respect, this is where I sense Islam is struggling. The last 20 to 30 years or so have arguably been the most tumultuous upheaval in the Islamic world since the early days of the faith itself.
In the space of a few decades, Islam has crashed headlong from a largely premodern world into modernity – and then from modernity into postmodernity – almost in the blink of an eye.
In the space of these few years, the world has changed beyond all recognition for all of us. The advent of technology, from satellite televisions to cheaper air travel, has brought Muslims face to face with different worlds in a way that previous generations had not experienced.
Mass migrations from South Asia to the West have done the same, with a particular challenge for second- and third-generation immigrants.
The Internet has made the global village a present reality, even if your home is still in Pakistan, Indonesia or the Middle East.
Everyone – be they Jew, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim – everyone looks for resources to cope with this brave new world. Believers of whatever kind will look to their faith.
The absence of this compelling narrative has arguably found expression in different phenomena. On the one hand, it has contributed to an almost counterintuitive retreat to a supposed idyllic age where Islam could isolate itself from the world.
The failed experiments of Iran and Afghanistan bear testimony to this, as do other regressive regimes based on Sharia law.
In others, it has resulted in the anger we see in those who feel alienated from the world, resulting in terrorism of the worst kind. Of course, as in all cultures, the majority are in the middle, untouched by these extremes, but the extremes are those who impact most on others so they are the issues we find ourselves dealing with.
I believe the narrative structure of the Bible commends itself to men and women searching for help in a confusing world.
In fact, as we see increasing numbers of men and women becoming “followers of Jesus” within their own cultural tradition, it’s the stories of Jesus that impact them the most.
For that reason alone, we should treasure our Scriptures, know the story they tell, and be ready to bear witness to the Christ they reveal whenever we have the opportunity.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column is adapted from his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.