Bahá’í Storytelling as Both
Art & Worship
Storytelling as an art and as an act of worship - Let's talk about this idea!
Art As Worship
The Bahá’í concept of art as worship is very powerful. Baha’u’llah (1976), has made it clear that in this day the arts, crafts, sciences, and professions - when done in the spirit of service - are acts of worship.
It is made incumbent on every one of you to engage in some one occupation, such as arts, trades, and the like. We have made this - your occupation - identical with the worship of God. (p. 195)
This statement is unequivocal. Furthermore, there is no distinction made in this Bahá’í teaching as to one style of art or craft, science or profession being of greater intrinsic spiritual value than the others. Within the Bahá’í context one profession is not exalted over another, just as one form or style of art is not exalted over another. For instance, one would not arbitrarily designate opera as spiritually uplifting and rock music as spiritually degrading when there can also be degrading opera and uplifting rock music. The distinctions lie in the intent and execution of the art form, rather than in the art form itself.
Once, when speaking of music, 'Abdu'l-Baha said that one style of music is not more or less spiritually valuable than another style of music. He also made it clear that any style of music can be used to uplift or degrade. The result lies with the intent of the artist. This statement about music could be extrapolated to the other art forms and professions with the conclusion that it is not the art, craft, science, or profession that is, in itself, spiritually valuable. It is the artist, who manifests the art form and reflects the nature of creation in the material world. Therefore, it is the artist who brings spiritual qualities to the practice and creation of art.
'Abdu'l-Baha further elucidated this concept of work as worship, and connected it to the idea of art or work offered as service.
All humanity must obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion, at the same time seeking to lift the burden of others, striving to be the source of comfort to souls and facilitating the means of living. This in itself is devotion to God. Bah'u'llah has thereby encouraged action and stimulated service.
Clearly storytelling is an art form and if - as the Bahá’í Writings teach - creation of art in the spirit of service is an act of worship, then it follows that storytelling - as a creative endeavor or a profession - is a devotional act. Storytelling, when offered to humanity in a spirit of service, is a sacred act.
Storytelling As Worship
This concept of storytelling-as-sacred is already quite familiar within some non-Bahá’í traditions, particularly among indigenous peoples such as the many Native American nations. In the word of Kiowa author, storyteller, and educator, N. Scott Momaday, "The storyteller is one whose spirit is indispensable to the people. She or he is magician, artist, and creator. And, above all, a holy person. Hers/His is a sacred business".
Within many indigenous traditions, the storyteller is seen as the bringer of the sacred gift of stories. This gives the storyteller a great responsibility to bear. For example, Ojibway storyteller, Keeshig-Tobias speaks of the weight of responsibility connected with the role of the storyteller within Native American traditions, "Stories are not just for entertainment. . . the storyteller and writer has a responsibility ... to the people, a responsibility for the story, and a responsibility to the art". If stories are seen as sacred, then the transmission of such stories - through oral storytelling - can surely be seen as an act of worship.
According to the Bahá’í teachings, it is the intention of giving service to humanity which is the key ingredient in the transformation of an artistic act, such as storytelling, into an act of worship. One might ask, in what kinds of ways could Bahá’í storytelling be rendered as a service to humanity?
Within the Bahá’í context, there are many potential ways to give service to humanity through storytelling, not the least of which is the actual rendering of a story for listeners. Beyond that, storytelling-as-education offers a valuable service. Furthermore, another means of rendering service through Bahá’í storytelling is through the use of storytelling to teach the Bahá’í principles both within and without Bahá’í gatherings and venues.
To a Bahá’í, "teaching"often means the intentional sharing of information about the Bahá’í Faith with people who are Bahá’í' as well as with those who are not. Teaching is not proselytizing, as teaching is only offered when a Bahá’í is asked to speak about the Bahá’í Faith. As the Bahá’í' religion has no clergy, teaching is regarded as a privilege as well as a sacred obligation. To that end, a Bahá’í storyteller may well be able to teach the Bahá’í Faith through the artistic medium of storytelling by sharing stories which demonstrate the Bahá’í principles. Shoghi Effendi talked about the potential effectiveness which the arts might have in teaching the Bahá’í precepts.
The day will come when the Cause [e.g.: Baha'i Faith] will spread like wildfire when its spirit and teachings will be presented on the stage or in art and literature as a whole. Art can better awaken such noble sentiments than cold rationalizing, especially among the mass of the people.
This matter of Bahá’í Storytelling as service and therefore Bahá’í storytelling as worship must be considered by each individual, as the Bahá’í Faith strongly supports individual initiative. The message is clear, however, that one must prepare for one's art carefully and render it most thoughtfully if it is to be considered an act of worship.