Month: March 2009

In praise of storytellers

staplerMost Christians would agree with me if I were to assert the the Bible is The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), and most would agree that Jesus was a divinely gifted storyteller. But I suspect some would begin to wonder about the ongoing need for storytelling (other than re-tellings of TGSET) this side of the cross. Maybe a case could be made for history or biography, but what place can fiction have?

I love stories — real or imagined — and I have great respect for good storytellers. One of my favourite story-tellers, Ursula Le Guin (1), writes of the opportunity science fiction affords her:

An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to work out certain traits and destinies… Those images [of space travel, imagined technologies, etc] used by a serious writer are images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot be said about us, our being and choices, here and now. What science fiction does is enlarge the here and now.

Le Guin argues that this is not fundamentally different from any other form of fiction:

All fiction offers us a world we can’t otherwise reach, whether because it’s in the past, or in far imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven’t had, or leads us into minds different from our own.

So, fiction allows us to explore in our imagination what is impossible in real life. Yet, at the same time, it is about real life — relationships, character, growth, failure — and helps provide insight and clarity in brief glimpses. Brief glimpses, like those described by Tessa Hadley recently in a short story in The New Yorker:

Sometimes, when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.

Jesus’ parables do a similar thing don’t they? They are fictional accounts that reveal our own circumstances with a renewed clarity (if we let them). 

Despite the fact that people are messy and finite, and our stories will never be characterised by the same razor-sharp insight of Jesus parables, I think story-telling is a pretty key part of our divine image-bearing. I can testify to the fact that fallen people have created stories that are beautiful (or sublime), that teach us about ourselves and provide insight into the worlds of those around us.

So, over the next few weeks, I hope to share some reflections on the story-tellers I admire, who have helped provide me with moments of renewed clarity.

(1) Introduction to Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Harper Paperbacks, New York: 2004). As an aside — I reckon this article, which heavily refers to Jane Austen, could have been an influence behind The Jane Austen Book Club. I haven’t been able to find any hard evidence on-line but the author, Karen Joy Fowler, was a Nebula winner before she wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, and if you’ve read the book/seen the movie you’ll know Le Guin’s books play a critical part in the plot.
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theotokotokos?

We’re doing mission this week out at St Anne’s, Merrylands. And it’s got some of us wondering…

As tradition would have it, Anne was the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus (the BVM, as they call her — Blessed Virgin Mary). And we all know the big debate — settled by some friendly gang warfare between the competing groups of monks at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. — resolved that it was better to describe the BVM as theotokos, ‘God-bearer’. She was giving birth to God the Son after all!

But does that mean that Anne, her mother, should be referred to as theotokotokos, ‘God-bearer bearer’? It really makes you think … doesn’t it?

the full-blooded Christian hope

I’ve just finished polishing up a sermon on Mark 5.21-43 for College Mission. And I’m really pumped. It’s such a glorious passage. It gives us front row seats as Jesus defeats death. Twice.

  • In power, and seemingly without even realising it, he crashes through the living death of the woman with chronic bleeding.
  • In compassion, he interrupts a Middle Eastern funeral in full swing, raising the twelve year-old daughter of a local synagogue leader.

But it’s much more exciting than just seeing death robbed (temporarily) of two of its victims. It’s one of the first fat drops of rain announcing the imminent storm of refreshment as one of the great yearnings of the Old Testament — the yearning for that day when God will tear away ‘the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations’ and will ‘swallow up death forever’ (Isaiah 25.7-8) — is finally satisfied.

It makes me think of John Donne’s sonnet:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

That’s the full-blooded Christian hope. Not that death is somehow good or a doorway to what’s better (although God can sovereignly make good flow from it). But it doesn’t get the last word. It may well be the last enemy. But it’s been defeated. And will be destroyed.

Count on it.

HWJE?

edelmann_palace_relief_3You’ve heard of WWJD — What Would Jesus Do? Now I present to you (actually, I pinch from Bill Hybels and repackage for you) … HWJE — How Would Jesus Evangelise?

Of course, the translation from Jesus to us isn’t straightforward.

He proclaimed the kingdom of God ‘at hand’, we proclaim him crucified and risen — the expectation-shattering way in which the kingdom has been inaugurated. His achievement is unrepeatable. There’s no foundation apart from that which has been laid.

And yet we are to build on that foundation. We are to imitate him (even if that’s not all we’re to do). His life and ministry is to provide the pattern and template for our lives…

Continue reading

labour in the Lord?

I’ve been watching with interest the unfolding discussion around some of my posts about art. One of the crucial issues seems to be how to understand the New Testament teaching about the value of work and the relationship between Christian obedience and secular work.

Whatever we finally conclude about the meaning of verses like 1 Cor 15.58, we have to say that we — especially here in Sydney — have an image problem. We’re seen to devalue secular work by our strong emphasis on ‘labour in the Lord’, giving up careers etc to pursue full-time work that directly contributes to building Christ’s body — preaching, evangelism, teaching Sunday School, etc…

I’m not saying we actually devalue secular work. Only that that’s what we’re seen to do.

And so we need to hear Lesslie Newbigin’s warning (am I the last person in the world to discover Newbigin? I feel like he was saying stuff thirty years ago that I want to say today):

It must be confessed that in some of our thinking about the task of missions we have taken a wholly unbiblical view of the world. We have spoken as though the affairs of secular history concerned us only when they either assisted or impeded the work of the Church. We have often made it appear as though we believed God to be interested only in religious questions. Thereby we have repelled from the Gospel the artist and the scientist and the lover of men, because we appeared to be insensitive to the beauty, the truth and the goodness that they found everywhere about them; because it appeared that we tried to assert the uniqueness of Christ by denying the splendour of God’s work in creation and in the spirit of men. We have made it appear that we have regarded the man who gives himself to the service of God and men in politics or social service or research as having a less central part in God’s purpose than the man who gives full-time service to the Church. (Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, p 27)

Ouch. Stings, doesn’t it?

a little bit of Knowing can do a lot of damage…

 knowingposter08…end of the world kind of damage — as it turns out.

Having seen a preview of the new Nicholas Cage movie Knowing last night (courtesy of Sam), I’ve got almost too many things to complain about. The Onion says, ‘The draggy, lurching two hours […] will make you long for the end of the world’. And they’re not wrong.

A Gnostic parable — actually, that credits it with way too much subtlety — about secret knowledge and salvation from the world (not of it), my personal highlight was the symbolism of the rabbits at the end: ‘Now you kids go breed frolic like…’

Seriously. Don’t see it. 

It’s down there with Event Horizon.

to go or not to go?

cabinwindowAt the youth/university ministry stage of life, one of the toughest pastoral issues to tackle is travel.

It’s almost expected that at some point you’ll take a ‘gap year’ — or month — and travel overseas, probably to Europe and/or the UK (Natalie has often pointed out that it’s funny that the UK feels like the ‘ancestral homeland’ for so many Australians — no matter what our actual ethnicity). And there’s lots to embrace about this — travelling can be fantastic. And, apart from increasingly prominent environmental/peak oil concerns, with our unprecedented resources and opportunities the question is often, ‘Why not?’

Still, I’ve often struggled to know what to say to someone who bounds up to me and says, ‘I’m going overseas!’:

  • On the one hand, my problem is that I’ve seen, sometimes at painfully close proximity, how heading off on your big adventure can be spiritually disastrous. Really. I’m not kidding.
  • But on the other, I’ve discovered that there are few better ways to harden someone in their resolve to disappear overseas than hitting them with, ‘Oooh… Really? Travel can be really bad for your spiritual health. Maybe you should reconsider’, or words to that effect. People usually just want you to share in their excitement.

Justin’s recent series really nicely balances sharing the enthusiasm and raising the real concerns.

And if you’re already heading off overseas, it’s definitely worth checking out Craig and Walshy’s site. It’s got some great resources — and stories!