Escaping the Labyrinth: A Parable

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is well-known. In the story, Theseus volunteered to enter the Labyrinth— a maze-like structure created by Daedalus, in the Minoan capital of Knossos. Doing so was considered a death sentence. Either Theseus would be killed by the Minotaur, a creature who is half-man and half-bull who roamed the Labyrinth, or he would become hopeless lost in its twisted, confusing passages. However, the daughter of King Minos gave Theseus a thread that he could unwind as he traveled deep into its depths to give him a return path.

One can, perhaps, add a tiny bit to the story. One can imagine that Theseus had just killed the Minotaur. As he began to wind the thread to guide his way out, he saw some shapes begin to come out of the shadows. He soon found that there were several others who lived in the Labyrinth. These were other enemies of King Minos who were sent into the Labyrinth as their punishment. They had managed to stay out of sight of the Minotaur, only coming out when he slept, to gather food scraps for their own survival. Their lives were a daily misery, but now one of their great concerns, the Minotaur, was dead. One more remained, getting out of the Labyrinth.

After greeting each other, Theseus said, “Please join me friends. I know the way out.”

One responded, “I don’t know. There is a breeze I have noticed that comes out of the passage near the Minotaur’s sleeping chamber. I am sure that must mean that it is a safe passage out of here.”

Another said, “That passage is heading downward. Escape must be upward not downward. Above us light comes in. Now that we are safe from the Minotaur, I can tie together wood scraps to make a ladder to climb to freedom.”

Yet another said, “That’s dangerous. We need help from others. Now that the Minotaur is dead, all we have to do is leave a note in the lift mechanism that the King’s servants use to lower food to the beast. Once, they know he is dead, certainly they can be convinced to pull us up out of this pit.”

Theseus was frustrated and spoke over the bickering group. “Friends!” he said. “What you all are saying makes sense I suppose. Following a moving air, or light above, or maybe friendly outsiders may work. I don’t know. Maybe there are a hundred ways out of this place. But the one thing I know is that I have the thread and it connects this place to the entrance of this place. I will follow it, and I will get out. If you want out, I recommend following me. Otherwise, all I can do is wish you well and pray your plans work out for you.”

With this, he began following the thread again. How many followed him. I don’t know. Of those who chose their own way, we don’t know how many found their way and how many were trapped there until their deaths.

All we know is that Theseus was saved by a thin thread that led to his freedom..

“When Bill Caught Death”— A Reflective Story

Bill texted me early today. “I CAUGHT DEATH!! GET OVER HERE NOW!” Bill was not one to CAP LOCK his messages so I figured it was important.

I drove over and Bill opened his door even before I got out of the car.

“Get in here now! I got him… or it… or whatever!”

I followed him in and down the stairs. He kept talking but was a bit incoherent. His basement was unfinished. It had a ping pong table with dart board and couch as if an attempt to have a game room. Dust and general clutter had long taken over this space. Opposite the stairs was a solid metal door. I believe the room beyond was mostly used to keep food stuffs, especially preserves of fruits from their garden— before the divorce.

Bill walked over to the door and put his ear to it as if listening for something.

“Be careful,” he warned me. “I am going to crack the door open so you can look in. Be ready to pull it shut immediately if he tries to get out.”

Bill undid the padlocked hasp, and then unlocked the door, and with great care began to crack open the door. He motioned me over to look over his shoulder into the space beyond. The room was well-lit with a flickery fluorescent tube that brought back memories of the unpleasant lighting at our high school years back. However, one corner of the room had a shadow. It took me a moment to realize that there was no object that would create this shadow. It just seemed to exist there slowly undulating. I realized that beyond the hummmmmm of the light there was a strange whooshing sound coming from the shadow. Within the amorphous darkness, two lights glowing red suddenly appeared, Then a voice came out of the shadow and whooshing that sounded like three voices— one child, one adult, and one aged— speaking as one, “Release me… release me… release me…”

The shadow started to fill one end of the small room and move towards the door. Bill quickly shut the door and double-locked it.

“What in the world was that?!” I asked.

“Death I told you. I saw it following me around this morning. It was trying to avoid being spotted, but I knew my time must be over, but I am no fool. You know that I am not one to give up without a fight, right Bob?”

“Yes Bill. You are always ready to fight.” Not one of his better traits, I added to myself.

“So I pretended not to notice him and I nonchalantly went down to work in the storeroom. It followed me and settled into the corner where you saw it. I quickly dashed out and secured the door. It made such a ruckus. The house literally shook for a bit— but it was trapped.”

“Okay… so what are you going to do now? You can’t just keep it there, right?”

“Of course I can!” responded Bill. “I will just leave it in there. I am thinking as long as it is in there, I am immortal! Maybe everyone is.”

After this, Bill invited me to have some coffee with him. But he just kept going on and on about death. I didn’t need this, so I declined coffee. I gave my apologies and gave some excuse about having to take care of some chores for my wife, and returned home.

I returned to an empty house— the rest of my family were up and out running errands or visiting relatives. Maybe today is a good day to work on taxes. However, as I was preparing my morning coffee, I kept thinking about death. I rarely do— I am hardly a morbid person, but the dark shapeless shape with glowing eyes in Bill’s basement really left me unsettled.

As I sat thus, I noticed a shape moving on the edge of my vision. I turned my head suddenly and saw it. It looked like a gnome, or fairy, or leprechaun, elf, duwende, or some such small creature from folklore. (I never really learned the subtle differences of mythical creatures.) It looked so familiar like I had seen it many times before, but I had never really noticed it… like a poem that is framed on a wall that one knew was there, somehow, yet was never read.

I knew what it was. It was Death. It looked nothing like the horrifying creature at Bill’s house, but something in me just knew. This was Death.

I immediately turned away and shut my eyes hoping that if I did not notice it, it would not notice me. But that seemed stupid, every bit as stupid as locking Death in one’s basement.

I tentatively turned back and it was still there, smiling at me but silent.

“Uhhh… Hello Death,” I said as I realized how stupid that sounded. “I thought you were locked up in Bill’s basement.”

“No,” Death replied. “That is Bill’s Death in his basement. Everyone has their own Death. I am yours.”

“So this is my time? I am dying today?”

“No,” said Death again. “I mean, not as far as I know. I don’t know when your time comes, anymore than any other Death knows when their living one’s time will come. I am always with you until you die.”

“That’s creepy,” I thought, but knew better than to say out loud.

Apparently reading my mind, Death responded, “It is not creepy at all. I am here to help you. When you need me I will be there.”

“No offense,” I countered, “but if there is one thing I don’t need or want is help in dying.”

“I have never understood this. Everyone needs help with dying. Most humans love life and hate or even deny death. Some love death and hate life. Both attitudes are equally disturbing in my opinion. Life and Death are the two greatest gifts humans have been given. Why not be thankful for both?”

I could not think of a response to this. Instead I said, “Why have I not seen you before? No one else has seen you or any other ‘Death’ as far as I know.”

“Oh you have seen me before. You have even listened to me on occasion. But like most people, you look away, consider my words a random thought, and most commonly just block me out of your perception. For most people, Death is the ultimate blind spot. It’s okay. Even today, you left Bill rather than talk about death, and now you are trying to change the subject.”

I had to admit that Death had a point.

“Okay then, tell me this. If you are Death, and Bill’s Death is also Death, why do you two so different.”

“Well, like I told you, my job is to help you with what you need, even when you don’t know what you need. Bill needs Death to be something that he can fight and conquer. Most likely as his time comes closer, his attitude will change. Is that what you need? Do you need me to be a monster to fight and conquer?”

“No,” I admitted. Reflecting for a moment, I added, “I suppose I need you to be with me helping me to value the life I have and accept what I need to let go of.”

“I can do that,” said Death as we sat there sipping coffee on a Saturday morning.

Ollie and the Meaning of Life— A Story

Ollie hatched and drifted up to the surface of the pond. As his eyes adjusted to the surrounding landscape. He saw a dragonfly clinging to some grass growing from the edge of water. Of course Ollie did not know what a dragonfly was, or grass. All he knew was his name and he did not even know why he knew it— it just seemed right.

Ollie greeted the dragonfly, the first living thing Ollie talked to, so he had not mastered the art of chitchat.

“Why am I here?” asked Ollie. “What am I supposed to do?”

The dragonfly was not offended. Dragonflies only rarely are asked such things. “Well youngster, you are blessed. You are in part of a huge world— a place of limitless experience. I am getting old and so don’t have much more time. But for you, all things are possible. So many choices. So many opportunities. Grab every moment to live life to the fullest. You are truly fortunate little one!”

Ollie did not understand all of it, but it sounded exciting… and a little scary.

A turtle was basking on a log and jumped in. “What foolishness. Don’t listen to a bug. Flitting around. That is no way to live. You are here because you are supposed to be here. You need to figure out your place in this great web of life. Once you have found your place in the world, life becomes simple. You know your purpose and you live your purpose.”

Ollie thought this made sense… but it certainly did not sound simple.

While he was thinking of these things, a bullfrog who was floating on the surface nearby stirred and bellowed a “BRRRRRRRRUP!!”

Ollie now understood…moving over next to the frog. Settling in, Ollie responded with a contented “brrrrrrup!”

Is the Bible a Legal Drama or a Love Story?

Some see the Bible as a disconnected set of stories, poems, history, letters, and more. I do believe, however, that it should be seen as a big story with lots of chapters.

But what type of story is it. An obvious possibility is that it is a legal drama. And there are strong reasons to view it that way…

A legal drama would typically have a Law, a Judge, the Defendant, the Prosecutor, the Defense. And in the Bible these roles are made pretty clear:

Law: Mosaic Law or New Covenant (This can be looked at in terms of covenants or dispensations)

Judge: God

Defendant: Mankind (individually or corporately)

Prosecutor: Satan (the “Accuser”)

The Defense: Jesus Christ (Mediator)

If one looks at the Bible this way, perhaps the book of the Bible that best fits this form is the Book of Job. God acts as Judge. Satan is the Accuser, the Defendant is a man, the Law is vaguely described but seems to be godly righteousness. The only thing missing in Job is a clear Defense. Job really spends much of the book trying to defend himself.

There are problems with this. For one, there is more than one Law. Focusing on different covenants or different dispensations does not help. It kind of comes off as more than one law drama. Also, although Jesus is described as a mediator, more commonly Jesus’s role is different. It seems like Jesus as defense is more of a metaphor to make a point rather than a model. Also, these roles within the story sort of suggest that Jesus and Satan are equal and opposite, while God (the Father) is more interested in the Law (His Law) than He is in mankind. God the Father is ultimately more Just and Loving.

The Love Story is more vague. There is the two people and the relationship. In this the two “people” would be God and Mankind. The relationship would be found in the pursuer and the pursued. As such, the book of the Bible that fits the overall story the best is probably Hosea, with God as the faithful lover, Israel as the unfaithful loved one, and a marriage, adultery, and restoration providing the story.

The love story sounds vague, but I feel it works better in a number of ways.

  1. It puts Satan in his proper place. Satan is not the “anti-God.” He is not equal and opposite. He is more tempter than accuser.
  2. In this model, God is not schizophrenic— a Holy Judge and a Son seeking to undermine justice. It works better in terms of a Trinitarian understanding of God. The Christian understanding of God is not Tritheism— three different gods working with and against each other. One God may express Himself in multiple persons/players, but are united in purpose.
  3. It doesn’t require stressing out so much over different laws/covenants/dispensations. Each section of salvific history is a different strategy or chapter in the dance that is the relationship between God and man.
  4. It has a stronger anthropological aspect to it than the other. For the legal drama, the expectations of God are found in terms of the Law (whether Mosaic Law or Law of Grace), but the expectations of Man are ignored… only the failure to meet the expectations of God. However, as a love story, God not only has expectations for Man, but Man has expectations for God. That is a reality and it is best to acknowledge that— much as the Bible does not ignore Man’s dissatisfaction with God at times.
  5. It avoids some of the (I am sorry to say) “silliness” in terms of talking about God being “infinitely just” and “infinitely loving” so the blood atonement was the “only way” that God could work out how to fix things and pay the price. Rather, the sacrifice of Christ is primarily an act expressing the depth of love that God and for mankind. With this understanding, God is more loving than He is just.

So Why Don’t They All Do It?

My daughter asked me a great question… “So… why don’t they all do it?”

Okay, we need some background. My daughter was watching a Youtube video by a creator named “Saberspark.” The Title is, “What Ruined Veggietales: The Tragic Fall of Bob and Larry.” The Youtuber, if I remember right, has described himself as being brought up in a rather conservative Christian environment, but as he got older, he lost his religion, and would now describe himself as an agnostic. (Again, this is by memory. I could be wrong.)  He likes to review things, especially animated films. He has reviewed a number of religious animated movies, VHS, and TV shows.

As the Youtuber was telling the story of Veggietales and Big Idea, he gave a surprising compliment. He said that even though Veggietales was clearly religious in content, it was clever and entertaining enough that many non-Christian families would watch it and be happy if their children enjoy it.  That is actually pretty unusual. Most of the Christian animation out there is pretty horrendous. It is commonly lazy, on-the-nose, and preachy. As a Christian, I would have strong misgivings of many of them, and if I was a non-Christian, I would work, very strongly to keep my kids away from them.

Bibleman: The Animated Adventures (2016-)

<Not Veggietales>

That is why my daughter asked me, “Why don’t they all do it? Why don’t other Christian producers do this as well. If Christians really want to spread the message of Christ to non-Christians, why would they NOT try to make the works appealing to non-Christians?”

Great question!! I am not sure I fully know. I am not in “The Biz.” But I think there are a few no-brainers here— and I am just the guy to do no-brainers.

  1.  The Engineering Triangle. I used to be a Mechanical Design Engineer. Back then I learned about the Engineering Triangle. The three points on the triangle are QUICK, CHEAP, and HIGH QUALITY.  The understanding is that one can have ANY TWO of these. A design can be cheap and high quality, but it will not be quick… it will take time. A design can be quick and High quality… but it won’t be cheap. One will have to have deep pockets. And a design can be quick and cheap, but the result will be low quality. It seems as if the decision for Christian producers is almost without exception to embrace Quick and Cheap. The result is Low Quality. But why would that be the choice? Often the money that is available to invest in religious productions is not great, so Cheap is often a given. But why Quick? I am not as sure of this one. In some cases perhaps there is the view that if one pops out something quick and brings in some money, one can afford to do high quality work later… maybe. However, in Evangelical Christian missions, quick and cheap are often part of the mantra. One must get more “bang for the buck.” Christ is coming ANY DAY so methods that are more developmental, rather than relief, are often frowned upon. A lot of methods of sharing the gospel are heavy and pressuring a quick (and superficial?) decision, rather than focusing on developing a relationship. Quick, easy, and efficient just seem so right, that quality and excellence seem to be irrelevant, or even a delay to real ministry.
  2. Religious Jingoism. Most Christian producers know who their audience is. Their audience is Conservative, Evangelical Christians. And there is a tendency for many to have a certain… toxic form of militarism when it comes to faith. Paul utilizes the war metaphor, as well as dualism (dark versus light, Sarah versus Hagar, etc.) to contrast Christians from others. Many Christians embrace a strong Us vs. Them. Often Christians are seen as just really really awesome, and non-Christians are seen as pretty awful, caricatures with less nuance than a Charles Dickens novel. Producers end up coddling these people because they are the ones who are going to buy their materials. I know that some like to suggest otherwise, much like with “God is Not Dead” where it is suggested, ‘Bring your unsaved friends.” But what unsaved friends would want to go, much less be impressed by the strawmen to be knocked down by dubious plot devices. Christians often want to hear “We are on the side of right, and God is on our side.” I have heard that 700 Club has long held the policy that it would never share a story that has a “non-victorious” ending, for Christians. That is worthy of some pretty serious condemnation, since it leaves Christians ill-prepared for real trials that often do not have ‘feel good’ endings. But that is what people want. They want to see Christians “dunk” on the (incompetent) “enemy,” rather than explore truth through thoughtful dialogue. Paul may have described the Christian life in terms of war, but he also spoke of becoming like the person he is reaching out to— to be effective. He also speaks of “adorning the gospel” through loving and faithful behavior to non-Christians. Peter speaks of sharing one’s faith not with a Ben Shapiro (make the other side look bad rather than seek truth) form of debate, but dialogue built on gentleness and respect.
  3. Preservation over Creativity. Creativity is hard. For some people it seems easier than for others, but it is a challenge for everyone. But in religious circles, it can be even more difficult. Years ago, some Muslims decided to make a movie about the life of Muhammed. They put a lot of work into but it, but then they couldn’t really show it, because the dominant view of the more traditional side of Islam is that one should never show an image of their ‘final prophet.’ Christians struggle with that as well. There is certain coding that one must do, or it may not be seen as “Christian enough.” I remember years ago when Amy Grant decided to create a ‘secular’ music album. I remember people acting like she was going over to “the dark side.” I seems like it is easier to go from the other side. If one is a ‘secular artist’ and then decides to act on their own Faith to produce a religious creation, that person is given much greater freedom. For “Christian materials” there is often a strong pressure to say certain things and not say other things. I remember on a “Christian network” a person being interviewed who said that slavery in the Old Testament, and the execution of homosexuals were pure, good, and just. I understand why this person may say this. If the person says there are problems with these things, some people may think one is saying that God is unjust. If one says that there are cultural and historical issues that one must consider, some people will think that one is saying that God changes. One could point out that Jesus said to love our neighbors and express compassion regardless of whether they are like us or different, and regardless of whether they are friends or enemies. Jesus also described Himself as one who liberates and frees those in bondage. Further, the New Testament says that we are not bound by the Mosaic Law. That means that being kind and compassionate to homosexuals, to oppose slavery in all its forms, and rejecting the Law are also absolutely pure, good, and just. But this is pretty subtle, and Christian media is rarely so subtle. It may be easier to be creative as a Christian in a secular setting than within the bounds of Christian arts and media. In essence, Christians may want their media to reinforce their own beliefs and prejudices, rather than make them think. One of my favorite Christian movies is “Silent.” However, I think there is absolutely NO CHANCE that it would have been made by a Christian media company. Its message is too challenging and ambiguous to make it into film within “Christian circles.”

There may be more things, but this is a good starting place for the discussion I think. I have hopes for Christian media, but I do think that media that effectively engages the non-Christian culture(s) will have to work against the system, not with it. May their numbers increase.

Defining Myth for Missionaries

The term “Myth” is very hard to define because so many people have investment in the term. It is used in anthropology, it is used in religious studies, it is used storytelling and literature. It is used by the scholar and the layman alike. But the meanings often differ. I teach in a seminary and I am very careful how I use the term myth. I like to use the term from an anthropological understanding. Many however prefer a theological or general public understanding of the term. So if I say that something is a myth, I have to make sure that people don’t think that I mean that it is a very old sacred story. I also have to make sure that I am not being interpreted as saying that “It is a false story.”

Lauri Honko’s definition of myth is well-received by many

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

Honko, Lauri (1984). “The Problem of Defining Myth”. In Dundes, Alan (ed.). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press. p. 49.

It can been seen as a useful definition for some forms of myths. Here too is a bit of a problem, to me at least. I colored the single definition in red and green. That is because the first part is the definition in terms of “what it is.” The second part is “what it does.” For me, then, I see this as two definitions… and two definitions limited to religion. When we add culture to the mix, the definitions must broaden.

A definition for myth must include its various usages. Many people use the term as:

  • -Widely held belief without a strong basis in fact.
  • -Things that are not true.
  • -Really old story.

I like mine because it is grounded in culture, not in religion or in antiquity. The Spiderman origin story can act as a myth if it has a strong role in shaping or reinforcing key aspects of a culture.

Stephen Larsen (in “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” Chapter 1) talks for four general theories of where Myths come from— how they develop. Larsen also lists Campbells four functions of myths. I have modified the wording a wee bit and the order of things as well.  I wanted the rows to line up.

Where do Myths Come from? Campbell’s Functions for Myths
Distortions of Real Events/Things (Euhemerism) Mystical Function (Instill awe and gratitude in the mysteries of life)
Explaining the way things are (Etiological) Scientific Function (Explaining the way things are that makes sense at that time)
Describing the world as it is wanted rather than the way it actually is (Wish Fulfillment) Personal Function (Serve as a guide for the individual in how to live in each stage of life)
Echo of Social structure (Social Emanation) Sociological Function (Validate, support, and indoctrinate in the social and moral order)

The last row is the one that I tend to go by. It is sociological/cultural. However, myths are far too broad to assume that one function covers all myths. And it is likewise true that myths are too broad to assume that they all have one source.

The problem ultimately is that when a term has such a broad range of definitions, sources, and functions, the word can become useless.

One presumption in all of these definitions is that the myth is not true. This makes no real sense. If a culture has a myth… is it impossible that such a story is historically or factually accurate? A historical story can have a mythic function.

So what do we do as missionaries? I would suggest that a functional understanding is more useful. If we are attempting to express the Gospel message in a culture in a manner that is understandable and relevant in that culture, we are ill-advised simply to focus on propositions. We are better guided by utilizing stories. And if we are using stories we have two main strategies:

  1.  We can use Biblical stories (stories that have a strong “mythic function” in Christianity. There are clear advantages to using stories from canon. But it has two risks. It can be misinterpreted/misunderstood in the new culture. It can be understood but seen as irrelevant to that culture.
  2. We can use stories within the culture that have a mythic function already. There are at least two risks here as well. First, we may not understand the story and its context well enough to use it effectively. Second, the story may not succeed in drawing people to God’s message but reinforce the original worldview of that culture.

The most well-known example of the second strategy in the Bible was Paul utilizing Greek legends and poetry to point people to the God of the Jews. There are other examples as well. And of course, the stories of the Old Testament were not disregarded as the church expanded beyond the Jewish culture. The stories of Jesus, likewise, were used to express the message far beyond its original setting.

Either strategy, however, points to the importance of knowing myths in the culture.  For strategy #1, we may be using Biblical stories, but we need to understand their myths to know how our stories can be made understandable. For strategy #2, we need to know their stories to know how they can be used ministerially.

Either way, we need to know their stories to be used missiologically and ministerially. For missionaries, the functional understanding is more important than a source or process understanding of myths. So I believe one should embrace a functional understanding of myths. It should be centered on its role in culture rather than whether it is true or false.

My definition: Myth: A story that has power within a certain culture because it resonates with the culture’s deep-seated values.  (in “Theo-Storying:  Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.”)





Robert Alter Extended Quote

I recently been reading Robert Alter’s book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative” (Basic Books, 1981). A few years ago, I wrote a book, “Theo-storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.” A friend of mine, who has since passed away suggested that I might benefit from Robert Alter’s work on narrative in the Hebrew Bible. I finally got around to it. The following is an extended quote from near the beginning of chapter 3.

One of the chief difficulties we encounter as modern readers in perceiving the artistry of biblical narrative is precisely that we have lost most of the keys in the conventions out of which it was shaped. The professional Bible scholars have not offered much help in this regard, for their closest Robert Alter's 'The Art of Biblical Narrative' and Qur'anic ...approximation to the study of convention is form criticism, which is set on finding recurrent regularities of pattern rather than the manifold variations upon a pattern that any system of literary convention elicits; moreover, form criticism uses these patterns for excavative ends— to support hypotheses about the social functions of the text, its historical evolution, and so forth. Before going on to describe what seems to me a central and, as far as I know, unrecognized convention of biblical narrative, I would like to make clearer by means of an analogy our dilemma as moderns approaching this ancient literary corpus which has been so heavily encrusted with nonliterary commentaries.

Let us suppose that some centuries hence only a dozen films survive from the whole corpus of Hollywood westerns. As students of twentieth century cinema screening the films on an ingeniously reeconstructed archaic projector, we notice a recurrent peculiarity. In eleven of the films, the sheriff-hero has the same anomalous neurological trait of hyperrefexivity— no matter what the situation in which his adversaries confront him, he is always able to pull his gun out of its holster and fire before they, with their weapons poised, can pull the trigger. In the twelfth film, the sheriff has a withered arm and, instead of a six-shooter, he carries a rifle that he carries slung over his back. Now, eleven hyperreflexive sheriffs are utterly improbable by any realistic standards— though one scholar will no doubt propose that in the Old West the function of sheriff was generally filled by members of a hereditary caste that in fact had this genetic trait. The scholars will then divide between a majority that posits an original source-western (designated Q) which has been imitated or imperfectly reproduced in a whole series of later versions (Q1, Q2, etc.— the films we have been screening) and a more speculative minority that proposes an old California Indian myth concerning a sky-god with arms of lighting, of which all these films are scrambled and diluted secular adaptations. The twelfth film, in the view of both schools must be ascribed to a different cinematic tradition.

The central point, of course, that these strictly historical hypotheses would fail even to touch upon is the presence of convention. We contemporary viewers of westerns back in the twentieth century immediately recognize the convention without having to name it as such. Much of our pleasure in watching westerns derives from our awareness that the hero, however sinister the dangers looming over him, leads a charmed life, that he will always in the end prove himself to be more of a man than the guys that stalk him, and the familiar token of his indomitable manhood is invariable, often uncanny, quickness on the draw. For us, the recurrence of the hyperreflexive sheriff is not an enigma to be explained but, on the contrary, a necessary condition for telling a western story in the film medium as it should be told. With our easy knowledge of the convention, moreover, we naturally see a point in the twelfth, exceptional film that would be invisible to the historical scholars. For in this case, we recognize that the convention of the quick-drawing hero is present through its deliberate suppression. Here is a sheriff who seems to lack the expected equipment for his role, but we note the daring assertion of manly will against almost impossible odds in the hero’s learning to make do with what he has, training his left arm to whip his rifle into firing position with a swiftness that makes it a match for the quickest draw in the West.   (pages 47-49)

A narrative understanding of the Bible is useful, but challenging since, as Alter has noted, we are disconnected from the conventions. In some cases we can reconstruct them, but in others we must struggle tentatively forward. Jesus told great parables by not only connecting them to classic tropes in his day, but also knowing how to break the patterns. Unfortunately, it is too tempting to fall into a historico-critical perspective or simply to get lost in the words and miss the underlying story… and the story behind the story.



Mary at the Feet of Jesus

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a woman named Martha, along with a number of his disciples. The disciples sat on the floor in the main room, and Jesus began his instruction. Martha and her sister were not rich. They could not pass on the duties of preparation to the servants— servants they did not have. So Martha and Mary began to prepare the meal for their very special guests. It was a great honor, but also a great amount of work.

Mary, however, had heard second-hand some of the strange and exciting stories and teachings of Jesus. Thus, she would strain her ear to hear what Jesus and His disciples were saying inside the house. She would find reasons to linger by the door to listen. Jesus began to tell a story, and Mary did not want to walk away in the middle and not know the ending, or what the story means. She stood in the doorway for the entire story. But as the story ended the discussion began and she did not want to leave. She knew, however, that there was work to do. Regretfully, she began to back out to continue preparation; but Jesus looked at her and with a subtle motion of His hand beckoned her to sit down.

She was nervous to do so, but she did want to listen if she could, and it certainly seemed right to do as their special guest requested. So she moved toward the corner of the room farthest from Jesus and prepared to sit down. Jesus responded, “No Mary. I want you to join the group, not hide in the back.” He motioned His disciples to make room in the circle, and Mary, feeling out of place, sat down in the circle. This was foreign to her— other rabbis would not have allowed her to join in such a way. It was exciting to hear the words of Jesus directly and listen to the discussion and explanations and questions. She started to have questions of her own but was unsure if it was appropriate to speak up.

Before she had resolved this in her mind, her sister peaked into the room and attempted to wave her to come out. Martha gave her an exasperated look and tried to mouth silently to her to leave the guests alone.

Jesus looked up at Martha and said, “Oh, don’t be worried Martha. I invited her to join our little group. I hope you don’t mind.”

Martha responded, “I apologize to disturb you Lord. But don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Could you tell her to help me?”

Jesus then said, “Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things. If we eat now, or two hours from now doesn’t matter. If you truly need help, we all can help prepare the meal. None of that is vital. I am here not to eat or to sleep, but to teach and proclaim. That is what is most important and Mary has chosen the more important thing. I will not send her away, and I ask you not to pull her away either. In fact, if you want to join us, there is room in the circle for you as well.”

Update to Theo-Storying

I finally got around to revising Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture. I expanded one chapter, and added an entirely new chapter. The new chapter is on the use of stories for theological reflection. I alsotheostorying fixed a number of little errors from the earlier edition. Curiously, I was able to keep it the same number of pages because I adjusted the formatting slightly. This allowed me to keep the same cover. I don’t know why… but I like the cover.

For some reason I had a bit more trouble with Amazon this go-around. For the E-book version, it wasn’t accepting my .doc file. I ended up sending my .pdf file. Amazon Kindle doesn’t really recommend using .pdf because the results apparently can be a bit “wonky.” However, I saw no more “wonkiness” with this version than the normal e-book result. But hopefully later we can solve that problem. With the paperback version, it was different. Everything went in smoothly, but then Amazon said I need to verify that I hold the copyright. I don’t think I gave them any reason to doubt that, so not sure the problem. Then I found that the Edit button is disabled… so I can’t (yet) fix things. However, when I went onto Amazon, it looks like the new version of my book is there. So not sure what is going on… but it seems like it doesn’t really matter to the end user— just me.

In some ways, Theo-Storying is my favorite book. That is because it is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to write it. This is not strictly true. It is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to THAT I FINISHED. Other books I finished I wrote because of it being my dissertation, or because my wife or I are teaching a course and we wanted a book for students here in Asia that covers the topics in a way that is appropriate for the trainees.


The Curses— A Reflective Story

I wrote a story, a midrash of sorts based on II Kings 2:23-25 — the story of Elisha and the bears.

He was a man among men– gone now or so they say. Some said he was sucked up in a gust of wind some said he was taken off by horses into the clouds. That would have been amazing to see.

It is sad that he is gone. I resisted the idols, the groves, the fertility rites, but I cannot say that it is due to holy character. I have to say that it was because of the great prophet, who stood up to king and country, challenged hundreds, preaching fearlessly the message of Adonai. Baal and Ashtoreth had no one to compare to him. He was the man I aspired to be… at least sometimes.

But he has gone and another has taken his place. The great prophet, a fierce hairy man who could intimidate by his stare alone even before saying a word, is gone and replaced by one who seems so much less. The new is hardly a shadow of the old. I am not sure this is a man who would have inspired me to follow Adonai.

This new one came to our place. Some of the troublemakers came out to mock him, as troublemakers always do. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I joined them. It was so evident that this was not the man who took hundreds of Baal’s priests to task. And yet, this new prophet wears his mantle and rumor has it that he sought twice the blessing and twice the power of the older. How disrespectful! The disrespectful should expect disrespect.

Different jeers were thrown at him, but it moved toward a rhythm— “Go on up, O bald one, Go on up.” Where are those horses who would draw you into the heavens like they did your master?

This young prophet (although quite a bit older than all of us, I think) was becoming red in the face, and he shouted a curse in our direction. Nothing happened. Some of us threw curses back at him, while others laughed. But the laughter died with the roar— the roar of two raging bears that burst from the treeline. They began to trample the group, crushing them underfoot and tearing at their flesh. Over 40 were soon dead, and many more were injured. I was more fortunate, being among just a few that made it up into the trees. I have never seen bears behave like that. They do not attack unless provoked, and even then would soon look for an escape route rather then stay around to do more harm to the injured.

It has been many days now, and the dead are now buried and only those who can afford the time to grieve are still in mourning. It has given me time to think. Clearly, only a prophet of Adonai could command wild bears. That is obvious.

But I alone in my village, perhaps, feel sorry for this prophet. A prophet is a servant of Adonai. They speak His message to the people. Sometimes He gifts them with special powers like the great prophet– to heal the sick, change the weather, to fight evil spirits, or maybe even raise the dead. But this new prophet has the power to curse. Now that I think about it, the great prophet also had the power to curse… as did Moses. Our father Abraham, did he as well? I don’t know. God blessed him to be a blessing to all nations, but also a curse to some. Did that mean he could actually call a curse on a nation? I don’t know. But what a horrible power to have!

Having the power to curse and have the curse come true— who can handle such temptation. Even the great prophet could not fight off that temptation. He killed 50 soldiers by his word who were treating him disrespectfully. I cannot condemn him for it, because it is a temptation that few could resist. Moses could not resist it. Even the great kings David and Solomon in all of their righteous wisdom could not always resist the temptation to destroy their enemies through the power of the sword and state. I get angry and I say regretful things far too often. I thank Adonai that my curses float in the air and then dissolve to nothing.

To have one’s curses come true— that is a curse in itself. This new prophet, I think he sees how true this is. I could not look at the carnage below me, and so I looked at the prophet. I watched as his eyes were fixed on the dead and dying– his face filled with horror.