Many years ago, a missionary family visited our Bible study. This was several years before my wife and I went into missions. They showed us a children’s book they produced. It was based on a story of an Amazonian tribe with which they work. Just now I tried to look it up. I thought the tribe’s name started with a Y. The only tribe that I could find that might fit is “Yanomami.” But it doesn’t sound right. However, that was around 25 years ago. The story was populated with turtles and snakes and other animals from where they lived. These were the characters and they acted and talked and interacted in this story. The missionaries (I don’t remember their names either) said that they chose this story because “it was the least nonsensical” of the stories the tribe had like this. Truthfully, even that story did seem a bit random.
Were the stories of that tribe truly nonsensical? I really have no idea. The tribe lives in the Amazon basin and although I have been in Southern Brazil, I have never been anywhere near this tribe.
But I wonder if the stories were nonsensical to the members of the tribe. It is possible. The tribe is throughout most of its history an oral-based group— transmitting their stories parent to child by talk and perhaps by drama and song. Sometimes, stories become broken. I had mentioned a Scandanavian poem in a past post that was passed down orally from parent to child for many generation, even for those that moved to North America and lost the language of the poem. The version that was passed down to me was partly corrupted. But some other versions were worse. In our version, a dog goes “Woof Woof Woof.” However, a different corrupted form of the poem I found online had the animal that made that “Woof Woof Woof” sound was a crocodile. Why? Basically, it was a multi-generation game of telephone that had the added problem of people passing it on without understanding the language they were trying to speak.
Another possibility is that the story is not corrupted but that it lost its context. Many English language nursery rhymes today or joke poems from the 18th and 19th centuries fit into this. “Little Boy Blue” seems nonsensical but it makes a lot of sense if one knows what each character represented and what the context the poem was written for. “Ring Around the Rosie” is another example of this.
It is also true that there can be other things that make a story seem foolish. One is that oral stories are often told as serials. Because of this, they often have repetitive elements. Imagine someone telling the stories of an episodic series like the TV show “The Simpsons.” A lot of the stories seem foolish, but they become even more foolish as elements repeat for no reason or characters change qualities and motivations for no apparent reason. We may accept that in an episodic comedy show… but don’t know how to respond to it in an epic legend. Some early Christian writings, like the Infancy Gospels appear to hardly better than a word salad with a bunch of weird stories with weird morals lumped together. Perhaps kept as separate vignettes they may be instructive, or at least entertaining— but put together it is a uninspiring drudgery to go through.
Another issue is that we don’t always know what symbols mean over time. It has been noted that the book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) probably made a lot more sense to the 7 churches it was written to than it does to us today. There is the temptation of many to think the opposite. We can now imagine the ‘mark of the beast’ as being an RFID or an infrared tatoo. Or we may see 666 as clearly being a code, like a credit card number or National ID. Or maybe the locusts are actually attack helicopters. Probably, however, 2000 years has made us worse at understanding the book than better. The same can be with the stories from the tribal group. Perhaps if we have a good understanding of the role of a turtle or a snake in their stories, the stories would make a lot more sense.
Finally, sometimes things don’t seem to make sense because the lessons don’t connect with us now. I like listening to the podcast “Myths and Legends” and a lot of the lessons in a lot of old stories are pretty bad. Not all of them of course, but we sometimes the issue is not that we fail to understand them, but that we do understand them, but don’t like what they are saying. Conversely, in some cases our reading of these stories centuries later may totally miss the point. So, picking another Biblical example, perhaps when we read about Elisha calling down two bears to maul a few dozen young men, we SHOULD NOT see it as a reminder not to pick on bald prophets, but rather see it as the danger of rash anger when we are God’s representative.
Regardless, if a missionary hears a story from a people and it makes no sense… that should not end an investigation… it should be the beginning.
One famous Creation story in the Philippines speaks of the first Man and Woman (named Malakas, meaning strong, and Maganda, meaning beautiful). They came out of a bamboo plant that was split open by a great bird. The actual story is much longer… but stopping here for a moment. If we focus on the bamboo and why humans would come out of this sort of plant (or any plant at all) may miss the point. Perhaps it simply uses the items around them to let us know that Man and Woman are separate but always meant to be a unity. They are both independent and dependent. Both created by the gods and having qualities that are worthy of admiration.
The short answer to the question in the title is that in most cases we probably are not competent to identify whether a story is nonsensical or not. And if one is able to truly identify a nonsensical story, that doesn’t mean that one could not give it a valued meaning, just as one could misunderstand a story and make it nonsensical.