Is there a prohibition or taboo against fictitious storytelling in any religion or religious tradition that you know of?
May 3, 2012 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Is there a prohibition or taboo against fictitious storytelling (written or spoken) in any religion or religious tradition that you know of?

I'm mainly talking about overt fiction rather than something like a parable that is not necessarily fictitious, but edge cases like parables still count. Also, do you know of any examples of the opposite - where fictitious storytelling is encouraged or spoken of positively?
posted by cairdeas to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if this is true, but I was taught that fictional storytelling was generally frowned upon in Amish culture. You were only supposed to talk about things that were true. I'm having a hard time finding a cite for this, though.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:38 AM on May 3, 2012

Certain strains of Puritanism in the USA felt that fiction was a distraction and, since it was untrue, dishonest. I'm having a hard time finding firmer sources on this, but that belief is touched on in this Salon article about this book on the history of books for children. The 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony was kind of crazy in its heyday.
posted by deanc at 7:43 AM on May 3, 2012

The Pirahã reportedly don't have myths or fiction (though they do tell lies) - the way Dan Everett tells it it's not so much a taboo as they don't see the point of talking about things that are far outside the here-and-now. They give rich descriptions of the spirits that surround them in the natural world, but these are treated as being as concretely real as anything else. The idea of Jesus, on the other hand, was a complete absurdity to them, because not only had Dan never met him, Dan's father hadn't even met him.
posted by heyforfour at 8:12 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as positive examples, you mentioned parables. Storytelling is also part of the Jewish midrash tradition(s).
posted by jquinby at 8:25 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this answer would stand up in court or academia, but I vividly remember the character of Aunt Elizabeth in L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon (a children's novel) forbidding her young niece Emily to read novels, and being horrified when she finds out that Emily is writing stories of her own. In the sequel Aunt Elizabeth agrees to pay for Emily's high school education if she gives up writing stories (as Emily's cousin explains, "she thinks they're lies"). I even found the quote in Project Gutenberg:

"But writing stories was a very different thing and Aunt Elizabeth was horrified. Fiction of any kind was an abominable thing. Elizabeth Murray had been trained up in this belief in her youth and in her age she had not departed from it. She honestly thought that it was a wicked and sinful thing in any one to play cards, dance, or go to the theatre, read or write novels, and in Emily's case there was a worse feature--it was the Starr coming out in her--
Douglas Starr especially."

The characters in these books were Scotch Presbyterian in late 19th-century Prince Edward Island, Canada; the books were published between 1923 and 1927.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:42 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ooh. Trying to find a reference to back up the taboo against fiction as part of Presbyterian theology, I ran into Charles G. Finney, called "the father of modern revivalism." His seminal text is Lectures on Revival of Religion (1834) and I found this passage, within a list of signs that a revival of religion is needed:

"When there is a worldly spirit in the church. It is manifest that the church is sunk down into a low and backslidden state, when you see Christians conform to the world in dress, equipage, parties, seeking worldly amusements, reading novels, and other books such as the world read. It shows that they are far from God, and in great need of a Revival of Religion."
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:50 AM on May 3, 2012

Hah. This is fabulous: 1869 diatribe against novel-reading by Methodist Episcopal minister J. T. Crane, who advocates "ABSTINENCE FROM NOVEL-READING HENCEFORTH AND FOREVER. Surely, there is abundant cause for the rule of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which warns all her communicants to abstain from 'reading those books which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.'"

All the more fabulous, because this fellow is the father of Stephen Crane, author of acclaimed novels The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

(The entire site above has great links to moral treatises on fiction and its influence on children and adults.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:04 AM on May 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am not sure if this counts, but Hinduism is an example of the opposite - it encourages fictitious story telling, with literature dating back to the BC period. Parables were especially popular, as they were the means to impart morals in a simple and easy way for the common people to understand.

Panchatantra (5 principles) and Hitopadesha (Beneficial lectures) are two major works in the parables category.
posted by theobserver at 9:10 AM on May 3, 2012

I did an electronic human relation area files search and while I couldn't find any out-and-out prohibitions, I did find some discussion about time- or person- based prohibitions:
Seasonal: 'not in summer' among the Papago, 'only in winter' among the Delaware, not during certain parts of the planting season and ritually restarted with riddles before full stories during harvest among the Toraja of Indonesia.
Time of Day: mostly night-time only, among some North American populations and the Dogon of Mali.
People: a few references to women can tell stories to women and young children only, men to men only, but this inevitably turns into a discussion of complex kinship patterns and who counts as related to who and that's getting away from your story (this is the case for the Dogon, for instance.) I found one reference to the Nivkh of Siberia who state that only shamanic storytellers can tell certain types of stories, myths, and have spirits who restrict them from inventing new ones (and ergo falsifying the history of the people) but allow them to improvise 'correctly'.

The only notation I found that specifically had named religious reasons for prohibition: Calame-Griaule's "Words and the Dogon world" with a field-research date period of 1946-1960, page 513:

"As “speech of the night,” oral literature is forbidden in the daytime. Telling stories in the day constitutes an offense against Amma and against Nommo, who will avenge himself by drowning the guilty one in the next rainy season. For, to speak words in the daylight which is Amma's domain when they are meant for night and associated symbolically with the Fox and his problems, is to inverse the established order. The propitiatory formula is thus first of all equivalent to announcing one's intention not to offend Amma and to address the Fox instead; and second to [state a change from] day into night and thereby proving one's respect for the progression of time."
posted by cobaltnine at 9:11 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Also, do you know of any examples of the opposite - where fictitious storytelling is encouraged or spoken of positively?

Mullah Nasr Eddin
posted by Burhanistan at 9:27 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Puritans had a pretty sour relationship with fiction in general but especially with the theatre, which was most seventeenth-century Englishmen's primary encounter with works of fiction, few of them being able to read. Theatres were basically banned during the Commonwealth/Interregnum.

But though there was some skepticism about the fiction involved--the distinction between fiction and lying is subtle, but both involve saying things that aren't true--partly per se but also out of concerns about idleness, much of the actual problem was with the fact that the theatre in particular was considered a hotbed of immorality. Given that cross-dressing and outright prostitution were not uncommon artifacts of theatre culture at the time, this is not entirely unsurprising.

Still, the ban on theatres was never all that widespread in Christianity, and though there have been periodic leaders who take a dim view of it, storytelling has always been pretty important to the tradition. Large parts of Scripture are narrative, and allegory has long been an important part of Christian literature.
posted by valkyryn at 9:37 AM on May 3, 2012

Ah, to valkyryn's point with respect to theater, the morality play might also count.
posted by jquinby at 10:44 AM on May 3, 2012

Just FYI, although Montgomery's characters suffered from this "fiction is an abomination" thing, and though her Scots Presbyterian grandmother would have disapproved of story-writing, Montgomery herself made her bread and butter from writing short stories for Sunday school circulars. So by the time she was writing -- her first novel was published in 1908, her first short story dated 1896 -- it was no longer common to eschew fiction, even amongst devout Presbyterians. Rather, there was an effort in place (one that already existed in the days of Louisa May Alcott) to inject religiosity into fiction, or to create fiction that was acceptable in religious circles. And our dear Lucy Maud was one of those writers, not unlike our modern Christian boy bands and rock bands and hip hop artists.
posted by brina at 1:00 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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