Tag Archives: story

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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Ramifications…

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 (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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Les Misérables and the Weekend…

I finished Les Misérables this morning.  It was a beautiful book, showing the lightest and darkest parts of humanity, both horrific and hopeful, filled with longing, and at its depth: bright.  Even this morning I was pulled from the heights of Jean Valjean saving Marius at the barricade to the shallows when Jean Valjean admits he is a convict and Marius patiently and consistently drives Valjean from his life and Cosette’s.  If you have not seen the play or movie (I imagine most have) you must; if you have seen either but not read the book, you must.  

This afternoon I mowed the lawn.  Actually, I weed-whacked the lawn.  Our lawn is not big enough to demand a mower and we don’t have one.  I bought an extension cord and cut the lawn.  Now, I’m in the guestroom/office and our cat, Daly, is asleep on the bed.  The curtains are down and the room is dark, light only comes in at the edges and I can make out a few leaves from the tree outside our upstairs window.

This weekend will be a rush.  We have friends coming out for the week on Monday — which will be tremendous fun — but Brooke and I will be cleaning and finishing odd jobs around the house in anticipation.  We need to paint the stairwell and get a carpet cleaner and get rid of our futon and wash the sheets on the guest-bed and go grocery shopping and clean out the car and I’m sure I’m forgetting something else.  Honestly, Brooke will probably do more of it than I, but we both sense the busyness that is coming.  

So I sit this afternoon.  Thoughts of Jean Valjean dawdle in my brain.  It does not matter whether he is fictional or real: a fictional man is real somewhere else.  But I think of his devotion, his devotion to the orphan Cosette, his ability to sacrifice himself — again and again — in order to bring her happiness.  His life is something to be used, not saved.  He thinks of himself only briefly in the story: at the beginning before he is redeemed by the bishop, and once more when he feels Cosette’s heart changing its devotion to Marius.  The rest, of course, is time to live for Cosette, the orphan child that he brings up.

And before the rush of the weekend, between ‘mowing’ the lawn and getting other work done, I am reminded of this.  The heroes are the ones who live for others, who use their own lives rather than save them.  The best stories are about such heroes risking all they have for the sake of another: these are the stories that move us, the stories that we want to live, the stories that tap into the deep reality of the universe.

May I live out such a story, even in the rush of the weekend.

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A Story in Two…

I’m interested in story: how we tell stories that happen everyday.  This is an attempt to tell the same story twice, with dramatically different effects.  It’s my yesterday afternoon.

Part I:

Yesterday afternoon, I decided that it was time to assert my manhood over the lawn.  A good lawn, of course, is one of the truer tests of a husband’s manhood: if you can spring healthy, soft green grass from the ground it shows that you are obviously a solid provider for your family, and more importantly, a man.  The lawn-converted-from-patio behind our townhouse, roughly the size of a VW Beetle, has about 3 patches of healthly-looking grass.  The rest is either: A) sickly-looking, pale green impish grass, or B) bare patches of dirt.

I went into our back storage space and found: an electric trimmer, a spade, potting soil, a hand-rake, grass seed, and a rusty, old pair of scissors.  I add the rusty scissors because, unfortunately, I did not find a necessary EXTENSION CORD that would make the electric trimmer have any use whatsoever.  Thus, I found myself standing, rusty scissors in hand, in the backyard while debating how long a trip to Lowe’s would take.  

Lowe’s is about a 1/2 mile from our house.

After cutting a blade of grass with the scissors, though, I realized that immediate gratification was better than driving to Lowe’s.  My wife agreed with me on this, as I could tell from her laughter when she saw me squatting down, cutting clumps of grass with an old pair of scissors.  Yet, I managed to triumph over the grass due to my determination and commitment.  Also helpful was the fact that only three clumps of grass were actually over 3/4 of an inch high.  

Having successfully ‘mowed’ our backyard, I then raked the bare patches and put potting soil on them.  This seemed like such a good idea, I decided to spread potting soil over all the impish grass everywhere else.  Soil is good for plants, right?  So isn’t more soil better?  

I then started to water the soil.  Of course, it makes more sense to water AFTER you’ve put the grass seed down, but I wanted to give the grass seed a nice bed.  A water bed, if you will.

Very carefully after watering the dirt, since everything was quite muddy, I threw grass seed down.  By this point, I had somehow managed to get dirt all over my arms and somehow large amounts of grass seed in my hair.  Undeterred, however, I watered once again, this time WITH grass seed down.  

I walked back into the house covered in dirt and grass seed, blister on my finger from cutting so much grass with rusty scissors, triumphant.  As Brooke pointed out different places that had dirt or seed on them (how’d you get all that in your hair?!) I knew deep down she was thinking what a great provider I am.  Her laughter told me all I needed to know.

Part II:

Late yesterday afternoon, I walked outside into a hot, mid-May sun.  The tiny lawn behind our townhouse was sad: a few healthy clumps of grass were surrounded by limp, yellow-green grass, which was patched with bare dirt.  I looked into the back storage closet.  We had an electric trimmer, potting soil, grass seed, and a couple small gardening tools: a spade, a hand-rake the size of my fist.  

There was no extension cord for our trimmer.  

My wife Brooke was upstairs and she didn’t know where the extension cord was.  I thought of driving to the store to get one; we would need one soon enough.  Yet, we are re-doing our guestroom and have spent enough money in the past few days.  In the storage closest next to the hand-rake was an old pair of rusty scissors.  I stood on the lawn for a few moments, deliberating.  I cut a blade of grass with the scissors.  Then another.  This was the better way, I decided.  Besides, we only have a few clumps of grass that are healthy.  The rest wasn’t even high enough to cut.

Brooke came down and laughed when she saw me, stooped over and cutting, alone in the sun of the backyard.  My finger quickly blistered from the friction of the scissors, and the grass was still uneven.  I wonder why I make the decisions I do.

After cutting, I raked the bare patches and spread potting soil on them.  I spread extra soil over the pale grass as well; since I wanted to thicken the sad grass with extra grass seed, it made sense to spread a little soil there, too.  I watered it all, so that the grass seed would take better.  Then, I spread the grass seed.  I had to do it by hand and the lawn was wet.  The wind blew it into my hair and my feet grew muddy.  

I showered after my work, alone with the heat and steam, washing the lawn and dirt and seed off myself.  I hope the seed takes.

There it is, the story experiment.  Don’t worry, my attitude was along the lines of the first one; I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon.  Yet, this discipline is meant to remind myself both of the stories inherent in everyday, quotidian activities and the importance of language as we tell them.  I tried to stay away from emotion-language — actually telling emotions I felt — yet the two stories have very different emotions in them.  I’ll do more like this in the future, as it’s helpful to develop my understanding of words and word-choice.  

Tomorrow: more thoughts on language, without any boring stories…

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