Yesterday evening we went to a celebration of the eucharist in a thousand-year-old church in rural north Buckinghamshire. As a freelance writer – both writing for a living and writing for myself – and listening to the readings, I was struck, yet again, by all the multiple levels of storytelling, analogy, metaphor and meaning there are in both the Old and New Testaments. Why do some of them sound so alien to our own experiences?
This time the Old Testament reading was the story of Elijah and his sacrificial fire contest with the priests of Baal. To me, the story is crude, distasteful and absurd: why is God shown to be, as it were, some kind of huge tap or flamethrower, to be turned on and off as a human being wills it? And what do we now think of a tale which gloats over the idea of a visionary sneering, more or less, that ‘my god is better than yours – na na ni na na!’?
Clearly we see it now as a power play: a story designed to demonstrate the right of one group to lord it over the other (in the Holy Land!) and show triumphalist allegiance to one deity over against another. It’s leavened with a moment of raw humour, when Elijah yells sarcastically at the priests, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). No doubt it all worked well for those who were the first to hear this story and who relished the pastoralist detail with which they could set the scene but which we now find incredible.
And that’s the point, of course: what works for one audience won’t work as well for another, different one. Familiarity with certain analogies or ways of describing will resonate powerfully with some and not at all with others. We all know that, but as a professional writer I know I have to keep this communication fact of life as the basis for everything I do for clients. Whom do you want this promotional material aimed at? What’s the key message you want to get across? What’s the PR need here? What’s the big story really about?
Good questions. Elijah just knew how to grip the feelings of the mob at the original scene, as well as those who heard the story thereafter. It doesn’t do it for us, and the idea of parts of the Bible being unreliable propaganda has been around for hundreds of years, so let me ask one obvious question: what do we now want to hear whenever anyone mentions God, and how do we want it put? What’s the story that does it for us?