Monthly Archives: June 2009

A Little More on Story…

Christian worship is principally neither an affirmation of general truths nor an interior state of communion of the soul with God…but is rather a social meal- and word-centered communication informed by the key events of the Christian story.    – David F. Ford

One way to understand ourselves as part of the story is to worship in that manner.  Yet, corporate worship happens for most of us just on Sunday mornings, and the rest of the week we often fail to capture the idea of story in our lives.  A few thoughts:

We often refuse to see ourselves in the story, strangely, by trying to take the story apart.  I’ve been reading a book called Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys (I’m actually reviewing it…it’s not that I’m finally trying to become a man).  The author simply tells stories of courage and daring.  No explanation or how-to-apply-these-truths, no five main points from each story.  Just a story about what it means to be a courageous man.  I find them incredibly refreshing, and clarifying.  They inspire me in ways that the author never could if he boiled three main points out of them after reading the story.  I just want the story, and to see the possibility of myself in it.

By picking the story apart and saying its essence is in five truths, we’ve lost the power of the story.  If the most important thing was the five truths, that’s what the author would have written.  

The task of soteriology is, then, to show how the reader is included in the story and how the story is or can be the story of that reader’s redemption.   – Michael Root

My brother wrote today on views of the cross, and although the work on the cross and a person’s response are different, perhaps they stand on either side of redemption.  But we strive so hard to communicate how the cross works because it comes from a story, and that story doesn’t fit neatly into one idea.  It encompasses many.  Thus, we see why various writers of the New Testament (and after) have gotten at the cross in myriad ways, explaining the story in a way that makes sense, or stirs, them.  

And I’m somewhat of an existentialist when it comes to this story.  As Michael Root wrote, we must present the same story in different ways for different people.  Redemption comes when we understand ourselves as part of the gospel story.  The church has presented the story in many different ways.  We read the same gospels and pick out various aspects with which we identify.  And Jesus offers identification to all of us.  For on the cross, he identifies with anyone lonely, or abandoned, or suffering, or abused, or shamed, or betrayed, or oppressed, or falsely accused, or mocked, or…anyone.  A political prisoner would resonate with one aspect of the story, a wife who had been cheated on another, a lonely high schooler another.  This is the power of story.  It points at one central truth, but can offer inclusion to so many people.

So, we don’t pick the story apart.  So, we find the aspects that inspire us, and let others be inspired by other aspects.  Not that we can never pick the story apart (study is a good thing) or never check to make sure we’re still all talking about the same story, and haven’t strayed to a gospel that only aims to liberate political prisoners.  

But getting back to my daily point: in my experience, there’s no easy answer to understanding our role in the story of redemption.  Just as there’s no easy answer to living out this role.  Yet, we must read the stories, the large chunks of the Bible that we often skip over, focusing only on the palatable truths of the New Testament (and those we often water down).  We must sit with them, and see ourselves in them, or at least see that we are part of the same redemption story.  We must let them stir us.  God has acted in unbelievable ways, and if we really began to believe that he’s done some of what the Bible claims, then I think we have some praying and acting and loving to do.  

When we begin to do this, to see God’s grand story, then we begin to see it everywhere.  In stories we read, even horrific ones, we see glimpses of redemption.  In the short stories that we tell when we catch up with friends.  In movies we watch, we may see a parallel to God’s story.  In our own lives, through thinking and journaling and talking, we see how God has been moving and perhaps what role he has for us to play.


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So, perhaps understanding some of the functions of the Bible-as-foundational-story will help understand more of my meaning.  Here are a few rather random outcomes of this idea.

1) The “Christian” book or “non-Christian” book: these labels are not necessary.  Never particularly helpful, now we can see story in a new light.  A book’s value, therefore, is based on how well it lines up with the Biblical story.  Christians can embrace all story, especially that which has its essence nearest to the story of creation, fall, redemption, restoration (to put it very, very succinctly).  We can reject certain books on the lines of it’s not a good story because it doesn’t tap into the true essence of story.  And, we can embrace so many “secular” books on these lines, because time and time again writers have intuited that the Biblical story is the story that our souls lines up with, even without putting those words to it.  

1b) Breaking down story this way means that Christians can best understand any story, because we best understand the full story of human history, and what makes a story either true or good.

2) For the Christian-who-is-a-writer, then, his or her duty is to re-create reality as he or she sees it.  That is, he sees reality in the context of the true Biblical story, and he recreates this reality in his writing.  Just as you may not be able to tell a Christian from a first meeting, or even a fourth, you may need a variety of writings by one author to tell that he is, indeed, a Christian.  But, over time, you see that the full Biblical story has precedence in his writing.  Thus, by reading The Heart of the Matter you may not know Graham Greene is a Catholic writer, but the scope of his work gives you a fuller picture of his belief, because his stories match the essence of the Biblical story quite closely.

3)  In our postmodern age, we can communicate the gospel via story.  Story, as Jesus taught with parables, let’s the individual find his or her own truth: our propositional truths about the gospel, so offensive to society today, aren’t necessary to lead with.  Yet, understanding the full story of the gospel, each individual will come, eventually, to quite similar basic truths: the story of creation, fall, humanity’s hopelessness, Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection (eucatastrophe) and our hope today both in restoration now and full restoration in the future.  By communicating the gospel in this way to culture today, we avoid the propositional truths that many reject, and we let each person get caught up in the story.  Not only this, but in many ways the story offers a fuller picture of the gospel than the propositional truths that often have made the gospel an issue only about the future of an individual soul.  While it is this, it is much, much more.

3b) Thus, a person who seeks liberation finds it in the Biblical story, but also eventually finds more.  A person who seeks healing finds it; a person who seeks love finds it; a person who seeks meaning finds it; a person who seeks hope finds it; a person who seeks community finds it; a person who seeks…you get my drift.  Story meets people where they are in an effective way that ideas cannot necessarily, and brings them to a higher place.  Story also doesn’t allow half-gospels: liberation theology sees it is only part of the story, as well as the saving of an individual soul, as well as the theology of creation, etc.

Finally, I’m not saying to throw out propositional truth.  Rather, propositional truth has its place, but can no longer be given the highest perch if we want to both a) connect to society and b) understand the Biblical story in its fullness.  That is, there is a reason why the Bible is primarily story and not propositional truth.

In the next few days, I’ll try to post on “what does all this mean to me, today?”

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Story Addendum

A quick note on my last post:

As the foundational story for humanity, the Bible informs all other stories.  I previously use the word “embraces” because it lends itself to the idea that the Biblical story is bigger, overarching all other stories.  Informs works at a different level: more logical, yet less true in a certain sense.  

We see how the Bible informs stories in our culture today (and throughout time) by examining the Biblical tropes that continually repeat themselves in stories throughout time: the Christ figure, the idea of redemption, the restless wanderer (which at one point, a whole nation gets into this one), the conversion experience (happens once or twice), the spurned lover, the misunderstood hero, the existentialist searcher, the …well, you get the point.

Sure, some stories were written before the Bible, or without knowledge of the Bible.  But they’ve stuck around because they tap into the way that God designed our lives (and therefore story) to work.  In that sense, looking at the Bible as this design, this foundational story: the Bible still informs (or embraces) these other stories.  

Capturing the essence of a story is difficult and ambiguous.  But perhaps it is better to put that the Bible embraces these essences.  The deeper truths behind a good story.  Yet, even more than the truths which can be pulled out and easily spoken, the Bible embraces the plot, the beauty of a good story, the turn of phrase, the paradoxical nature, the mystery behind everyday objects.  

As a story involves more of these ideas, labeled so banally as a tight plot, or developed characters, or beautiful language, then the story’s essence matches closely the Biblical story.  The Bible embraces it, so to speak, more tightly.

And we call it a better story.  

We call it this because it matches the foundational story which defines humanity.  Some humans may reject the story, just as some humans reject their family.  They may go so far as to avoid the family reunion, or even change their name.  But the same family blood runs through their veins; the same story is true and foundational for all.  Which is why writers have an impulse towards it, without even knowing.

This does not mean that all writers are Christian writers (I may get into that later…we’ll see).  But it does mean that those who can best understand stories are Christians.  We have the full picture, the full story.

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Story (Part Deux)

Yesterday I looked at story, and the concurrent breakdown of story and morality.  Today I’d like to wander around a bit, asking continuing to examine story and it’s place in our lives.

I start with J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote Lord of the Rings, and much more anonymously, worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for some time.  

Tolkien loved both story and words.  We see this is LOTR: he invents whole languages.  He also employs language differently depending on the situation.  The hobbits, for example, use a sort of late 19th century English (with added words, and made-up words that would fit such a time period).  Yet, during an important and “high” meeting such as the Council of Elrond, speakers use an older syntax and words with older roots.  Such detail gives the casual reader a sense that the council is quite a hallowed meeting.

But that’s neither here nor there, just an interesting note about LOTR.  What’s more pertinent is that Tolkien, with his understanding both of language and story, pens a new word: eucatastrophe.  We’re familiar with the word “catastrophe,” which traditionally means the denouement of a drama.  Since the denouement of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, is not usually good, catastrophe has in our language taken a rather negative tone.  Tolkien adds the prefix “eu” (meaning good) to this word, thereby inventing a word that means a sudden turn of positive events at the end of a story.  

Eucatastrophe is a sudden happy turn, but one that fits within the story.  You may say, in hindsight, you could see this happy turn all along.  

Though Tolkien talks mainly about fairy tales and eucatastrophe, he also says that the gospel is a eucatastrophe:

The gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.  And among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.  The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-eminently the inner consistency of reality…God is the Lord of angels and of men, of men and of elves; legend and history have met and fused.

Tolkien argues that the Bible tells a story: the story of God’s relationship with humanity.  And the essence of every fairy story fits within the larger story of the Bible.  Northrop Frye, a literary critic who wrote The Great Code goes a step further: he asserts that the Biblical story is the basis for all western literature.  It’s quite a claim.

Yet, if we think about it, those who have stepped into the reality of the story the Bible tells, we see that this is the story of humanity.  We see that the Bible begins a story that everyone participates in, whether she knows it or not.  Thus, the larger story of the Bible embraces all true stories: autobiography and history and the like.  Yet, as Tolkien as Frye assert, doesn’t it also embrace the world of fiction?  

Doesn’t it embrace the essence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?  We see a similar eucatastrophe, a fully realized world with the forces of good and evil?  Or the essence Shakespeare, and the psychology and cunning and evil and joy?  

Perhaps you may say: I’ve read some bad stories.  Some poorly constructed stories.  Some stories that aim primarily at devaluing the Bible.  Some stories that aim only to corrupt my thoughts.  

Then let me put it differently.  The Bible tells the one all-embracing and true story of human history.  It tells from whence we came.  It tells where we are now.  It tells what hope we have, and what the ultimate future holds for us.  It is the foundational story of humanity.  And, if the Bible is the foundational story, we cannot get away from it.  We cannot tell a story that in no way relates to the Bible.  If we are defined by this story, then it defines all we do.  

We’re not coming up with new stuff, unrelated to the Bible.  (I can go on about what I mean by “embrace” or “essence” but I’ll stop here.)

Thus, I believe that we can judge a story by how it relates to the Bible.  Lord of the Rings?  So many people judge it highly because it relates so closely to the Biblical story.  It has good vs. evil, hope vs. doubt, a small people against a larger empire, etc.  The same goes with Shakespeare.  The same goes with Faulkner or Hemingway or Dan Brown.  How it mirrors and matches the True Story lets us know a story’s merit, its worth, its value.  That’s partially why we like page-turners (a tight plot, closely related to the tight plot of the Bible) but, ultimately, they don’t hold up over time.  They don’t have the psychology: characters are either all good or all evil.  We know from the Bible, and from observing ourselves, that people are more complicated that that.  So, the story has moderate value.

Or it tells why the Christ-figure turns up again and again and again in literature: there is a truth about such a figure.  

Now here’s the catch, where I will leave us today: if this is true of literature and stories, is it not true of our own, individual stories?


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Story (Part One)

So, I’ve been listening to some lectures on story, and I have some thoughts (I know, surprising).

First, the lecturer talks about how difficult it is for us to understand our own, individual stories.  A couple of the reasons are that the beginning of our story is fairly vague to us: we may have a few shadowy recollections, growing stronger as our childhood progresses, without any real chronological understanding to the events, unless it was given to us by someone else.  Thus, the beginning of our stories comes from the fog, slowly becoming clearer as we get closer to the present day.

And, so it is with the end of our stories: none of us knows much beyond the next few moments what we will really be doing, and we may have five or ten-year goals, but those can quickly change.  We don’t know how our story will end, whether it will be happiness or success or failure or disappointment.  We don’t even know how today will end.

We are inexorably “middled.”  (Not my phrase, but I quite like it.)

With the breakdown of the metanarrative over the past 100+ years, we find an increasing population of people who don’t know where they came from or where they’re going.  When people can’t tie their own story into a larger story (metanarrative), they can’t even make sense of their own story.  We try to (think of how ancestry websites have become so popular as of late — people want to know their story) but ultimately find answers that are largely meaningless.  We’re middled.  We don’t really know where we’re going.

When my story doesn’t have meaning, then my actions don’t matter.  Morality, the reasoned action that I have a place and can do good to others, that my actions matter, gets thrown out the window.

As we lose our metanarrative, our place in the whole, we lose our morality.  And, as we lose our morality and values, we lose more story.  As the agnostic Robert McKee wrote, “the erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of stories.”  To paraphrase, he argues that the writer uses values to shape a story, what is good and bad, what is worth fighting and dying for.  When the writer loses these values, she loses her ability to tell a good story.  

It is a vicious circle.  Whichever ultimately came first doesn’t matter much, but we lose values, we lose the power of story, which makes us lose more values, which makes good stories all the rarer.

Think about it.  How easily do we pass by a stranded motorist, or a person asking for money?  How well do you know your neighbors?  We don’t see that our stories intersect with other stories anymore: my story is about me getting where I’m going on time, or having the money in my pocket for what I want.  It is, above all, MY story.  

We fail to see that we’re part of something larger.  We fail to understand not just a larger context of our lives, but a larger story.  Not just a set of rules, but a way of life.

We need, desperately, to be un- “middled.”  But how do we get there?

(more thoughts coming soon.)

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