What We Lose When We Stop Telling Stories
Sharing religious stories and engaging with scripture promotes continuity of values and traditions.
Last week, Jews around the world celebrated the holiday of Passover, with the centerpiece of the weeklong festival being the Seder: a family and community-focused ritual and meal designed to tell a narrative of God helping remove an oppressed people from the hand of oppressors and making them a vibrant nation. The Seder often takes hours, involves special food and wine, and includes various songs and traditions all designed to share the story of the Exodus and discuss the core Jewish values of peace, liberation, self-determination, and the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place for all.
The Passover Seder—in which communities sit around a table while trying to make sense of Jewish history and philosophy with a special book called the Haggadah—is the perfect example of how values are transmitted and understood when they are shared aloud with family and community. By asking questions such as, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and, “On all other nights, we eat chametz (leavened foods) and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?” participants in the Seder have the chance to speak to others and struggle to answer questions about life and history. Over the meal and ritual, participants study, debate, and ponder religious texts collectively which in turn contextualizes the present by teaching lessons from the past.
After two years of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this Passover was particularly meaningful to me because I finally had the chance to have a traditional Seder and share the story of the Exodus with my own children and guests. After everyone had left and gone to bed, I reminisced about my own childhood and realized that sharing stories is not something that I do all that often anymore.
I grew up sharing religious stories with many members of my family and loved reading The Midrash Says—a set of books that expand on the chapters in the Bible that I still have and look forward to giving to my own children one day. Certainly, religious storytelling has anchored socio-religious value dissemination for centuries. And while Jews have long passed down values and traditions through stories in books like the Talmud, I realized that I know of very few others who sit down and read religious texts and share stories with their families.
As a social scientist, I wanted to know more about storytelling, and I was so disappointed in what I learned. New findings from the American National Family Life Survey sadly show that the familial and communal storytelling that is the hallmark of the Seder is no longer a norm within the Jewish community today. Specifically, while Jews are undeniably a people of the book in terms of their strong and continued focus on higher education, the same cannot be said for their reading of religious texts or sharing of religious stories with family. Just 12 percent of Jews say they read scripture or shared religious stories with their families at least a few times a month while growing up.
While few Jews report having read scripture or religious stories with their families regularly growing up, it is apparent that these experiences are not central to their lives whatsoever. Instead, the Pew Research Center has found that Seders as unique acts and food are much more central to Jewish life today than religious books and stories are. In fact, when members of the Jewish community were presented with a list of various Jewish practices and activities, sizable majorities of Jews noted that they had held or attended Seder in the last year (62 percent) or cooked traditional Jewish foods (71 percent). Rates for other traditional activities, like attending religious services on at least a monthly basis (20 percent) or observing dietary laws at home (17 percent), were much lower. Jewish religious services are, incidentally, where books like the Torah are publicly read, scrutinized, analyzed, and interpreted, and it is clear from the data that few Jews regularly engage in these domains.
These data should be troubling for leaders and thinkers within the Jewish community for reading and engaging with texts and stories are far more than just religious acts; they are acts of communal identification and means by which to promote continuity of values and traditions. As sociologist Samuel Heilman observed in The People of the Book (1983), families and individuals study religious stories to become part of the Jewish people itself. In turn, these actions provide a “sentimental education” in which Jews gain a deep understanding of the values of their tradition.
This disappointing finding about my own community, made me curious about the rest of the nation, and I found some striking findings. For starters, there are some religious groups that are appreciably more likely to share religious stories within their families. When asked about how common it was to read scripture or religious stories with one’s family while growing up, 28 percent of respondents claimed to have done so once a month or more often. Sixty-one percent of Americans maintain that they seldom or never shared religious stories with their families.
Forty-one percent of Protestants along with 59 percent of those in the Church of Latter-day Saints say they frequently read religious stories growing up. Catholics are far lower, at just 18 percent. When self-described “born-again” or evangelical Christians are asked the same question, evangelicals are almost twice as likely to have shared stories compared to non-evangelicals (51 percent vs. 25 percent). As low as these numbers are, they still show that Jews are easily the least likely of the major faiths in the nation to have regularly read religious stories in childhood.
Further, generational differences— which are often the source of significant variance in attitudes and behaviors—are minor despite the general decline in religious engagement among millennials and members of Generation Z. Younger generations are marginally more likely to have engaged in storytelling growing up compared to their parents and grandparents, with 34 percent of Gen Zers and 31 percent of millennials reporting that they grew up reading religious material on a monthly basis. These figures are somewhat higher than the 28 percent of their Gen X parent generation who did the same. Today’s grandparents, Boomers and Silents, are actually marginally lower, with 23 percent and 24 percent, respectively, reporting having read such stories with their families growing up.
Moreover, there are only marginal differences that emerge when education is considered. Americans with high school degrees (30 percent) are almost as likely to have read scripture regularly growing up as those with either bachelor’s degrees (26 percent) or postgraduate degrees (26 percent). Educational effects in terms of secularization are not at play here.
Differences do materialize when race is considered. While just 22 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 27 percent of Asians read scripture weekly growing up, the figures are higher for Hispanics (33 percent) and much higher for blacks 49 percent).
Sharing faith-based stories and reading religious books in family settings are not central to the lives of most Americans and certainly not in the lives of Jews. The benefits of these practices can be significant for all Americans for they pass traditions and values down from generation to generation. For those in the Jewish community, a faith-based group which is seeing its numbers shrink, passing on practices and ideas is critically important today for Jewish continuity. Centuries of rich culture and tradition will be lost if only small numbers of Jews share religious stories with their families and propagate tradition. During the Seder, Jews are explicitly asked to think about why that night should be treated as different from all other nights. We often discuss the past and perhaps it is time that my fellow Jews and I should be pondering why we no longer read and discuss scripture, historic texts, and religious stories on a more regular basis as well.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.