Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Whatever happened to stories?

What I miss most about Christianity is its stories.

Back when I was a teenager, and then just after I became a Christian, I loved to read the Bible. It had great stories, like the one where Joseph gets thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. Then, just when he's the number-two guy in Egypt and thinks he's put his past behind him, his brothers show up unexpectedly and he almost decides to get even, but he breaks down in tears and just can't do it. Then there was the story of David, whose family was so ashamed of him they made him take care of the sheep, but he became such a great king that there are two whole books of the Old Testament about him and all the other kings got compared to him, and usually pretty badly. Those were great stories.

Somewhere along the line, the book of Genesis became a science textbook about origins, the book of Revelation became a cryptic account of the events leading up to Doomsday, and everything in-between became raw material in lessons in clean living, how-to manuals for spiritual growth, and textbooks on building sound doctrine. I don't read the Bible anymore. I study it instead.

I'm a poorer man for it. Once, when my daughter was feeling sick on a camping trip and none of her storybooks were handy, I started reading her the gospel of John from start to finish. I was amazed to discover that it wasn't disjointed like I had come to believe. It was a weirdly cool story with mystical-seeming themes about Christ's identity that moved and flowed through the text when I read it. Reading it that way taught me far more than I had ever learned through the analyze-it-to-death approach I learned in my college Christian fellowship years ago.

I miss reading good stories with a faith angle. Here's the plot of almost every book you'll find in the fiction section of your local religious bookstore: Someone had a problem; but then they became a Christian, prayed, or stood fast and quoted lots of Bible verses; and God took their problems away. They found love, they found happiness, they solved a crime, or their territory expanded, and everything was happy-happy.

Lord knows, we used to have some good stories, from "Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" to "Crime and Punishment" and "Les Misérables," with other stories like "A Christmas Carol" thrown in for good measure. (Of course, we find ways to drag them down. I've known Christians who believe that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis weren't "real" Christians, and I heard a few years ago about some church presenting "A Christian Christmas Carol," as though James 2:14 isn't as central to the gospel as John 3:16, and if Ebenezer Scrooge doesn't say the sinner's prayer, the evening's been a complete waste.)

I love stories that have never gone out of print, or that have survived for hundreds of years and have been published in dozens of languages all over the world. The Tom Clancys and John Grishams of the world may show a well-turned phrase or two, and their books may be a quick, easy read, but great literature survives because it meets our ancient need to tell stories that help us to understand ourselves and our relationships with one another, with God and the rest of his creation.

Stories that do those things survive the years and move across cultures because we all recognize some truth in them: the palpable aura of guilt that hangs on Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, who had considered himself above the common burden of morality; or the self-sacrificing spirit that drives the life of a reformed Jean Valjean.

The Greek farmer Aesop used stories to teach homilies to little children. Jesus used them to teach profound truths to children and adults alike. He told parables about outwardly decent people who couldn't stand to see a brother welcomed home after disgracing himself and the family. He told stories about business managers who cheated their masters in order to make friends and guarantee their own futures, and stories about people with bad theology being better off than people who thought they had God figured out. He talked about kings being kept from their kingdoms, tenants who wouldn't make good on the lease, and fathers feeding snakes to their children.

It must have been infuriating to talk with Jesus when he got off on a storytelling kick. Ask him a simple question about who your neighbor is, and suddenly he's talking about people being beat half to death on the road to Jericho. Ask him why his disciples didn't wash their hands before eating, and before you know it, he's talking about people fasting during a wedding and pouring new wine into old wineskins.

In Mark 4:12, Jesus said that he spoke in parables so that people wouldn't understand what he was saying. That seems kind of odd, at first glance. It certainly doesn't seem like a good way to get tenure in the New Jersey public school system, at any rate.

On the other hand, we still remember and talk about Jesus' stories two thousand years later and all over the world. That's a lot better than I can say about the sermons my pastor preached last month, whatever they were.

Unlike sermons, which tie everything together with all the excitement and personal involvement of a board presentation, stories are open-ended and leave lots of room for discussion afterward. They stir the soul, and leave you plenty of room to draw your own conclusions and debate them with other people. What's there to discuss about a Sunday morning sermon? You can take it or leave it, but unless the preacher was in poor form, the sermon said what it said. It's no wonder that the world views Christianity as a narrow, dogmatic religion with no room for discussion.

I wonder what it would be like to attend a church where the services, from time to time, consisted of plays — good plays, mind you — performed by a drama ministry; where the pastor sometimes took a break from preaching just to read a Bible story from start to finish; and we all lost ourselves for a while in a good story.

If that ever happens, it'd be a tale worth the telling.

Copyright 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Anonymous said...

You wonder why Christians won't tell stories?

Well .. lemme give ya one concrete example why not. As you may know, a new movie version of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" is being released in a couple months ... and of course the guardians of the True Faith actually have to read the books and instantly see -- gasp -- universalism! Pagan deities! Magic!

So naturally the guardians of the True Faith have to right long apologetics explaining why reading C.S. Lewis will send you to Hell. They even throw in the Bible verse about another gospel.

So you see .. that's one reason we don't have stories. Because if we're even the slightest bit Theologically Incorrect, the Truth Police will descend upon us and blacken our names for all time.

1. Have you ever tried to write a story that is 100% TC? Can't be done.
2. Assuming you could, it's unlikely you could write a story that would satisfy 100% of everyone's theological problems -- many of them people who couldn't write a book, or even a short story, to save their lives.

Which means books on "The Dangers of the Brothers Grimm", denounced from pulpits, radio shows, boycotts, and seeing yourself prominently featured in Jack Chick tracts.

Modern Christianity does NOT encourage creativity. I note that some of our most creative types -- like Lewis -- have been converts of one sort or another. Very few people who grew up in church have amounted to much as writers.


Brian P.

Anonymous said...

Have you read this?

I find it highly topical, not to mention interesting, and agree in a big
way. I thought it might strike a chord within you.