CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Sacred stories in religious biographies

by Lea Altnurme (University of Tartu, Estonia) - A paper presented at CESNUR 2000 international conference in Riga, Latvia, August 29-31 2000. Please do not reproduce without the consent of the author

In this presentation I will introduce and analyse the sacred stories that occur in Estonians’ religious biographies.

The religious biographies were gathered in the period from 1997 to 2000 and were written or spoken by people aged from 20 to 80. There are roughly one hundred biographies, and these tell of the everyday life of religious people in the second half of the 20th century in Estonia. This collection contains the biographies of Christians of different confessions, the members of religions of Oriental origin (Buddhism, Hare Krishna) and people with New Age backgrounds.

Sacred stories

In reading religious biographies, one notices that each person has some significant stories that he tells or refers to. These stories are often important in an emotional sense and may occupy a central position in biographies, since they have been of decisive importance in the religious development of the authors of the biography. These stories may tell of pivotal events that have influenced a person to set out on a religious or spiritual path and evaluate his life before and after that point, or help to give meaning to life and form the person’s identity, providing answers to the question "Who am I?" These stories include myths, stories from previous lives, mythical experiences and descriptions of a conversion experienced, stories from clinical death situations, etc. In such stories it is believed that things are or were just as they are described in written or oral form.

All of these stories are characterised by an emotional power, since in many cases these involve experiences undergone by the person recounting the story. The question arises as to why one should speak of the story and not of the experience. The answer is that in the case of religious biographies one may notice that the person is subsequently influenced not so much by the experience undergone, but instead by the description and meaning that he assigns to it. Description and religious meaning are created through the influence of beliefs, traditional notions, myths, etc. In addition, myths and beliefs or the pressure borne by religious expectations may also influence the occurrence of an experience.

Since the stories described express either contact with the supernatural or unusual, they are emotionally important to the people recounting them and help them to order and make sense of their world, in this presentation these stories will be referred to as sacred stories.

In this presentation neither the form nor even content of these stories will be analysed, but instead the function of these sacred stories will be examined, i.e. the effect of these stories in the context of religious biographies will be investigated.


One could consider myth and its appearance in religious biographies to be the first of sacred stories.

Myth has been defined in several ways. In this presentation the definition stating that myths are stories or belief systems that help people to understand the nature of the cosmos, the purpose and meaning of life or the role and origin of evil and affliction will be used.[1] Myth carries an emotional power and acts here and now, for which reason it is connected with religious experiences and belongs among the sacred stories described in this presentation.

In religious biographies one encounters the influence of myths mostly in the case of Christians. In the biographies of persons who have embraced the New Age movement these are almost completely absent, which is also understandable, since in New Age there are no generally valid myths such as those that may be found in Christianity. There is indeed a myth of the Aquarian Age and a Gaia myth, for instance, and there are likely others, yet these are not much reflected in the biographies. It is quite common, however, for people to introduce themselves on the basis of the astrological birth map.

Christian beliefs are based to a considerable extent on myths of the creation of the world, man’s fall from grace, Christ, the Virgin Mary and Armageddon. The entire New Testament is saturated with mythical matter.[2] Christian myths and the text of the scripture as a whole to a greater or lesser extent help to give meaning and a purpose to the lives of Christians, and shape their religious biographies.

Of course no one retells myths in their biographies. Mostly reference is made to biblical stories when there arises a need to make sense of particular important events in one’s life or explain one’s attitude towards a situation or person. There are, however, also individual biographies that are shaped altogether through the influence of biblical texts, so that the biography itself becomes a kind of sacred story, as everyday events are elevated to a sacred level through the influence of biblical texts. This indicates that the author of the biography continuously inhabits a subjective mythical reality that governs all of his life. He has created a world that ignores or is even at variance with the surrounding reality. The authors of such biographies are often persons whose lives do not offer them that which they desire.

Let us consider, for instance, the case of Harald, who grew up in poor circumstances, has an incomplete education and is handicapped. His unfulfilled dream is to become a church minister. His biography is entirely encompassed by the idea that he is a prophet selected by God or at least the proclaimer of the holy scripture. Harald compares himself to Christ and claims that he follows Christ’s example in all things, and has even grown a beard for that reason. His life is one long succession of tribulations, which he gives meaning through the suffering of Christ and explains the resolution of each situation as being divine assistance. Harald writes the following after a failed attempt to join a congregation: my worldly contact with the congregation may be obstructed, but no one can prevent one from having contact with heaven. There will come a time when many will regret having to give account of how they have driven away those who are not to their liking. One must regretfully acknowledge that those who have done so out of ignorance have unknowingly driven away Jesus through these despicable persons. Yet Harald decided to be patient, and to attempt to speak with the elders of the congregation and thereby permit them to choose, in his own words, between co-operation with Satan or him.

In the collection of religious biographies, there are few (3) biographies like that written by Harald. Generally biblical stories are not continually relevant during the narration or writing of the biography, but only when momentous or decisive events in a person’s religious development are described, an attempt is made to make sense of suffering or support is sought in shaping one’s understandings.

Linda, for instance, describes how she became a Christian: I was unable to understand who Christ is, why he is between me and God, and the nature of his role in our lives. I asked the pastor until I reached the understanding that Jesus Christ is my way, light and pure spring water. A phrase from the Lord’s Prayer attained the greatest importance for me: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. I repeated that phrase each morning. I attempted to drive away evil thoughts. I understood that if I did not think evil of anyone, evil would not come to me. From that point on everything around me began to improve. I became free. I was filled with joy

Another example is offered by Jane, who describes how she found her meaning and aim in life: In my youth I thought that only talented people can be happy. That became the idée fixe of my life. I considered artists and actors to be happy. Since I was not talented, this created a feeling of inferiority in me. Now I know that that was because I did not know God, and also did not know that God loves us, since he is the Creator of us all. Now, regardless of my age, I attempt to be of some use to my fellow men, leading them to God.

In the case of the latter two examples one can also notice that sacred stories help to explain not only problems connected with suffering and injustice, but also strengthen the bonds of love and friendship with God and fellow men.

One may generally note that the stories of people with conservative Christian backgrounds are clearly influenced by Christian myths, be that in visible or concealed form, and they make sense of their life and religious experiences in that light. People with liberal Christian backgrounds make sense of their lives more in the light of general humanist ideals. In their case one may speak of a weakening of Christian myth and a decrease in its influence [3], which does not necessarily mean the disappearance of faith.

Tõnu, for instance, explains his attitude towards biblical stories: That which is written in the bible is valid for me, although many things are written in a figurative manner. This is a poetic description of the world, which differs from the physical description, and is one way of explaining things. I am very sceptical, however, of those who say that only they correctly understand the bible. God has taught me tolerance.

Stories of previous lives

As mentioned above, in the New Age movement there are not generally valid myths comparable with those of Christianity that are reflected in the religious or rather spiritual (as one may be aware, they draw a distinction between religious and spiritual, and prefer the word spiritual) biographies of New Agers. People influenced by New Age are often characters in their own sacred stories. Sacred stories are created on the basis of significant experiences, using popular ideas and motives common in the New Age movement. The content of the stories may indeed differ, but in terms of pattern and the ideas used they are often similar.

One most frequently encounters stories of previous lives. These are simple stories created on the basis of the ideas of karma and reincarnation, yet these nevertheless cannot be treated as fiction, since these stories are believed. The stories of previous lives that may be encountered in religious biographies have mostly arisen through the intermediation of information provided by media (channelling), as visions (during Reiki sessions) or have been dreamt. In these stories people recount where they lived, who they were, what they did and what their position was. It is of importance, however, that in this topic the moral arising from the idea of karma is applied, i.e. that advantage or instead problems experienced in this life are legacies from previous lives. I will provide four examples. These stories are presented in shortened form:

Mari describes her life as a Tibetan monk: I was a monk, and had no family. I died of a stroke at quite an advanced age. In this life I learned my skills of observation and was involved with the transcription of sacred texts. I did this is calligraphic script. The ink was like iodine. These skills have somehow been preserved in me, as in this life I have earned a living as a print and design artist and have contributed to newspapers. One might add concerning this example that a previous life as a Tibetan monk seems to be the most popular motif among Estonians. I am even aware of one group practising Reiki members of which believe that they were once a brotherhood of Tibetan monks and have now been reunited.

Another example from the same Mari, who writes: I was the leader of a gang of criminals in Malaysia. My aim was wealth and I was indeed a profusely wealthy man. I harmed a great many people, and was murdered. Among those judging me was my present daughter. From that life I learned that avarice and the power of money are baneful. In this life all my large-scale transactions involving money fail.

A third example is offered by Anna, who had a complicated relationship with her mother. She said: I wished to obtain clarification as to why my mother and I have so many conflicts. I then found out that in one of my previous lives, which was in China, I was a soldier and killed her in a cruel manner. That was quite a shock for me. I think it will take time until stability can be achieved in these matters. I have tried to be gentler with my mother, and attempted to earn forgiveness for that deed.

A fourth example, also from Anna: I lived in Mongolia. I was a woman who loved a particular man. That man’s brother took him into war, and we were separated. We never met again in that life, as I was unable to wait for him and committed suicide. In this life we will meet again, and therefore I must learn patience in this life.

In conclusion, in the case of the examples provided one may say that it is believed that talents, character traits, acquired skills or unfulfilled tasks, unfinished relationships, guilt, etc. are transferred from previous lives. The above-mentioned examples also prove the fact that the New Age movement is not at all a way of spending free time or made up only of pleasant things as some think, since the problems of suffering and guilt and the need to make sense of them also exist in New Age.

In the case of these stories it is important to direct attention to the circumstance that they function as myths, since they help people to explain the meaning of life and shape their purpose in life. These stories explain the role and origin of suffering, guilt and injustice. Naturally the effect of these stories is not the same as that of myths, since these stories lack the social effect characteristic of myths.

As in the biographies of individual Christians, which gave evidence of the author continuously inhabiting a subjective mythical reality and ignoring the surrounding reality, there is one case among people influenced by the New Age mentality in which one can argue the same. Sirli has created a complete world on the basis of the ideas widespread in the New Age movement, and her entire religious biography is shaped into a story of recollections from previous lives by the idea of karma. From this story there arise advantages, tasks, things to be learned, the righting of mistakes, predestined human relationships, etc. for the purposes of this life. This is through and through a personal story, which leads into the distant past. Accused of excessive imagination, this is not considered a serious source by other persons researching biographies, yet one must understand that the events that take place in Sirli’s biography are a matter of belief, not memory, and thus this is a sacred story as a whole.

Stories of conversion and stories of experiences in clinical death situations?

As one can see, both myths and stories of previous lives help people to make sense of their lives. Yet such an effect can also be noticed in other sacred stories that are told in religious biographies. Such stories include, for instance, descriptions of mystical experiences and conversions that have been experienced, or accounts of events in conditions of clinical death, etc. The events recounted in these stories may be of prime importance in a person’s religious development, during which he assigns new meaning to his preceding life, assesses it and obtains a new outlook. These are accounts of experiences in which religious beliefs and traditions become topical.

Let us examine, for instance, stories of conversion, which are found among Christians belonging to free congregations. These are based on personal experiences, yet are cast in a particular mould. In addition, in these stories one may assume a previous psychic or religious expectation of such an experience taking place. The pattern of conversion stories is briefly as follows: the perception of the emptiness and darkness of life, the touch or call of God, the awakening of the awareness of sin, conversion. These stories often tell of the person’s life before conversion, an appraisal is given of this and as a result of this experience the person sets a new purpose for his life.

Stories of experiences in clinical death situations also have a similar effect. Whether the narrators are Christians or not, in the case of these experiences surprise and the unreality of the events are expressed. Yet they confirm faith or act as a stimulus for religious and spiritual searches. And in these stories one can also, in some cases, notice that people give assessments of their preceding life through the influence of that experience and formulate their new perspectives for the remainder of their lives.

An excerpt from a story told by Buddhist Jaan serves as an example of this: I went in for mountain climbing. Once I slipped in the mountains and found myself hanging from a rock ledge. I saw my backpack torn to pieces as it fell. I thought that if I fall nothing will remain of me … and then I fell. While falling, my life up to that point passed before my eyes. Relations with other people and the birds I had shot as a boy were particularly strongly emphasised. Jaan fell, but remained alive. He lay unconscious and wounded for a couple of days before his companions found him. As a result of this experience he reassessed his life, regretting that he had ever harmed other creatures, and began to take an interest in Buddhism.

Comparing stories

There is a fundamental and essential difference between stories told by people with Christian backgrounds and people with New Age backgrounds.

In comparing stories told by Christians and New Agers, it becomes clear that both are involved with making sense of and explaining evil and suffering, and in the case of Christians sin is also an issue. Christians, for instance, may believe that they were led to their spouse by God, whereas New Agers may believe that they were already close at any earlier time and recognised themselves again in this life. Yet whereas the Christian is a participant in the cosmological and soteriological drama, and his story is a part of the larger story, the New Ager is a wanderer in time and space, where the impellant powers are the ideas of karma and reincarnation, and the protagonist is the individual himself. Explanations of suffering, evil, love, etc. also differ accordingly.

A problem has been seen in the fact that the Christian myth is losing its power, and faith is disappearing as a result of rationalisation. In reading religious biographies, one can indeed note that more liberal and educated Christians are less influenced by myth. In their biographies one may also encounter emotionally significant stories, yet the role of Christian myth in forming and making sense of them is small, or else experiences are referred to without speaking of them in greater detail, since as a result of the cultural situation it is not possible to manage them or they are not devoted particular attention.

In the case of New Agers, however, one may notice that since there are no generally valid myths, they create stories that function as myths.

Sacred stories also support the religious identities of their narrators and give them a feeling of importance. These stories transmit a person’s conception of himself and understanding of the world. A sacred story can become a life-shaper, which begins to influence a person’s decisions, choices, attitudes and behaviour. On the basis of the above examples, one may say that sacred stories may change a person’s attitude towards one’s parents, fellow men or even animals. Drastic changes in lifestyle can also be undertaken under the influence of these stories.

Milton Yinger has said that giving meaning to life is one of the basic human needs.[4] Sacred stories help to do that. It seems that for Estonians giving meaning to life has always been a particularly important question, considering that among Estonians there are few religious people yet at the same time many suicides.


  1. [back] Keith A. Roberts. Religion in Sociological Perspective. - Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990, p.77.
  • [back] Rudolf Bultmann. Mythos im NT. — Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , Bd.4 - Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1960, S. 1278-1282.
  • [back] For example see: Mattei Dogan. The Decline of Religious Beliefs in Western Europe. - International Social Science Journal. Vol.XLVII, No.3, 1995. — Blackwell Publishers, p. 406.
    Keith A. Roberts. Religion in Sociological Perspective. - Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 94-95.
  • [back] Milton Yinger. The Scientific Study of Religion. - New York: Macmillan, 1970, p. 7.

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