Friday, July 03, 2009

On the Use and Power of Stories

I've never been a fan of that apple-pie-and-porch-swing rendition of the Bible known as The Message, but if there's one utility it does serve, it's converting the sometimes archaic wording and images of the Bible into modern-day terms.

Sometimes the fact that the world of about 26 AD is so foreign and puzzling to us that we lose sight of the fact that Jesus appealed to incredibly contemporary and commonplace images like farming, taxes, shepherding, lamps and fruit trees for illustration. It takes scholars who studied the era to tell us that the "weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth" descriptions of hell were analogous to the burning trash heap outside Jerusalem, or to underscore the significance of the prodigal son's father running to his son (IE, socially inappropriate for men to run like that).

Of course, Jesus "cheated"; being one with the omniscient Designer before time, these analogies for life were built in before humans walked the earth to see them.

Sometimes I wonder how that ordinary would translate over into today. Did the angels of the Bible carry swords because that was their preferred method, or because that was the weapon of the day? Would angels today carry guns if they appeared today? It sounds a little goofy, but it's a fair question. (And I believe angels do still appear today, though perhaps not to where we recognize them.) It sounds anachronistic, but that's the whole point; Christ was entirely modern for his day. And really, while being deep and profound, He was also extremely ordinary, which is what kept some from believing, because they had sensationalist images of their messiah that held them back.

Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would be if He came in today's world rather than two thousand years ago. Would there be parables about cars, eBay, Wal-Mart?

In his book "Eli", Bill Myers attempts to dramatize an alternate world in which the messiah comes in a modern-day world. He is born in the back of a laundromat rather than a stable, and worshiped by hippies rather than shepherds. In his introduction, Myers makes no apologies about exploring this notion with the firm knowledge that nothing in our world would be as it is now without Christ's arrival as it was. And the whole question is really a moot point anyway, because we are told that Christ came to earth "in the fullness of time", meaning that an omniscient God saw all possibilities, factors and variables and elected that point in time to enact His plan of redemption. Some who look back at the timeline of history note that with Rome's expanded highway system, the prominence of Jerusalem in merchant travel, and civilization being just prior to an expansion across continents, it makes perfect sense to start the seeds of salvation at just the right time.

Returning to the notion of stories...some time ago, I was talking about one of my favorite topics, the Lord of the Rings series, and a friend suggested that it and the fantasy genre was not altogether useful, and perhaps even harmful. I disagreed, asserting that a story is the most powerful and instrumental of teaching tools. I base this in part on the methods that Jesus Himself used, but also in my own experience.

People love to hear stories, or to read them, or to watch them, and without necessarily trying, we can learn and be taught so much by them.

"In order to comprehend the experience one is living in," wrote author Walter Wangerin, "he must, by imagination and by intellect, be lifted out of it. He must be given to see it whole; but since he can never wholly gaze upon his own life while he lives it, he gazes upon the life that, in symbol, comprehends his own. Art presents such lives, such symbols. Myth especially - persisting as a mother of truth through countless generations and for many disparate cultures, coming therefore with the approval not of a single people but of people - myth presents, myth IS, such a symbol, shorn and unadorned, refined and true. And when the one who gazes upon that myth suddenly, in dreadful recognition, cries out, "There I am! That is me!" then the marvelous translation has occurred; he is lifted out of himself to see himself wholly."


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