Another Important Life Story

The last post I included the first life story I created. As I stated before, none of us have a life story. We have to create them… and there is a potential for infinite stories based on our experiences, thoughts, motivations, interconnections with others and the world, and meanings we come from the interpretation of these things. Some such stories are more important than others. Some may even be described as formational— key to how we view life, and live our lives. He is another one. It is not as old as the one I shared previously. This one only goes back to the time I was 9 or 10. Even then it was just an occurrence. Only gradually was it distilled into a formational story.

I originally shared this story on the webpage back in 2015, as well as in a book that I never formally published. If it sounds a bit trite… you are probably right. But it has been important to me even if not to others. That is the way stories tend to be.

ARKWRIGHT FALLS

When I was young, my father and Mr. Dyer were Sunday School teachers at our church.    The two of them took several of us boys, students in their classes, camping.    We set up tents on some state land a mile (more or less) from Arkwright Falls.    We had a great time hanging around the campfire roasting marshmallows, swatting mosquitoes, and doing other campish things.    We slept, tightly packed, in our little tents.    The night was cool, but not too cold.    In the morning, we ate our Spartan breakfast.    Learning how to make toast using a stick and a fire was interesting.    Then we prepared for our hike.

Arkwright Falls is not the largest falls around.    Fifty miles away is Niagara Falls, which is many times larger.    But there are no people at Arkwright Falls– just river, forest, and falls.    The Falls are on no map that I have seen.    People near it know where it is.    Sometimes the serenity and peace are more important than what are the biggest and the “best.”    We had a great hike.    We goofed around, as kids are prone to do.    Although out in the wilds, the dirt path there was smooth and straight.   

The water sure was ice cold, but the day was hot and bright.    So it felt great!!    We stayed and swam and splashed in the pool at the foot of the falls.    In movies I have seen, people seem to be compelled to go to the top of the falls and jump off into the pool below.    But since there was no movie being done there that day, we did not do anything particularly death-defying.    Besides, I doubt my dad would have let us.

One can only appreciate a waterfall, large or small, for so long.    Eventually, it was time to start going back to our campsite to pack for home.    We were all soaked now.    Our canvas top sneakers “squished” as our wet feet “squooshed” in them, sockless.   

Some of us started walking and jogging faster than the rest and in a friendly sort of way we became a bit competitive.    Competitive may be the wrong word, but gradually I came to the conclusion that I would win (who knows what?) if I made it to the campsite first.    So I started moving faster and faster.    Soon I was jogging along at a pretty good pace.    It became apparent that the return trip would not be as fun as the trip over.    The sun was high now in the heat of the day and the sweat generated from running soon attracted many happy little bugs of the forest.    I also was not one who particularly enjoyed running.    Years later, two years on High School track only further clarified my general dislike of running.

Weary, hot, and buggy I arrived at the campsite first.    I had won.    Looking back I discovered that there was no one else racing.    I had raced myself while everyone else was having a merry stroll along the path.    Worse, I discovered a problem with running sockless in wet canvas-top sneakers.    My ankles were heavily abraded and I was bleeding.    Eventually, everyone else came along happy and relaxed.    We packed up and left.

Yes, I know.    This was one of the most boring stories ever, right?    But for me it was not boring at all.    It was one of those life-lesson moments. I gave the story plot and meaning, and that meaning is still with me today.  

  • Success is not always being first
  • Success is not always “winning” (however you define winning)
  • Sometimes success is in the journey

Propositions Versus Stories

Some Christian seminaries really love propositional statements. A propositional statement is a statement that can be judged to be TRUE or FALSE. It can be objective or subjective. “The sky is blue” is often thought of as an objective proposition since it is a statement that can be determined (objective) whether it is fact or fiction. Of course, two people could argue all day and beyond what it means to say that the sky IS blue. Subjective (axiological) propositions cannot be determined objectively since it is tied to value judgments. A subjective proposition might be “The sky is beautiful.” That is a statement of aesthetic judgment. Another subjective proposition could be “Stealing is wrong.” That is a statement of ethical judgment.

Personally, I prefer stories. Some seminaries don’t really see it that way. I remember going to a Christian college and being told that parables have one (and only one) point. In theory, the story is then only a vehicle to carry that one point. To me, stories are rich and complex and overflow any container such as can be boiled down into a propositional statement.

Consider the ethical (subjective propositional) statement, “Everyone should get an equal share.” This is a perfectly fine statement, but it doesn’t really embed itself in our thoughts, feelings, or (in all likelihood) actions. It needs a story (with characters) to do this. So let’s try a story from Cordilleras in Northern Philippines (I am definitely not trying to tell it accurately).

———————————————–

Paulo and Tomas were brothers living in a community in Benguet. Their father had died a year before, and their mother struggled to care and feed them. Where they lived, they would have periodic watwats (community meals). Paulo and Tomas would be sent by their mother to the watwat to get food to help them make it through the week. Arriving at the gathering, they got into line to get meat to take home with them. The women distributing the food looked at the two boys, appraising them. “Okay orphans,” said one of the women, “Come up and get your share.” Where they lived, they were considered orphans even though their mother was alive. They were given no meat or organs. They got chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin. Paulo and Tomas expressed thanks and returned home.

During the week, the elders of the village came to the tiny home of Paulo and Tomas. One of the duties of the elders was to go from family to family to bless homes. They brought a chicken with them. After saying some prayers, they sacrificed the chicken to ensure the house was protected for the coming months. Then, as tradition dictated, the mother of the boys took the chicken and made it into a soup and then provided other foods to produce a good meal for the elders.

When it came time to eat, the elders were shocked and disturbed. The chicken was well prepared, as was the rice and fruits. But as for the rest of the dishes, it was all hooves, feet, and skin. The elders chastised the mother for how disrespectful this was after all they did for the benefit of the home. The mother apologized with tears. She explained that as a widow, she had so little to offer, but gave the best she had. As far as the meats, all she could give was what she received from the watwat— chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin.

The elders were silent for a moment and then talked quietly among themselves for a moment. Then the head elder spoke to the woman. “It is we who should apologize. We have allowed a great injustice to continue in our village. I am sure our ancestors must be angry that we have allowed— where those that need the most help, get the least. From now on, we will ensure that everyone gets an equal share.”

Paulo and Tomas grew up healthy and wise, and eventually because great elders in their community, ensuring that all in need are cared for.

—————————————————

The story expresses the concept of giving equal shares more effectively than the single statement, or “lesson or moral.” Why? Because we connect with the characters. Equal shares is no longer a concept, but a visceral experience. We connect with the two boys who are looked at as less deserving because of a status they have no control over. We connect with the mother who is humiliated because she has so little to give. We also connect with the shame the elders have for blaming a widow for something that was, to some extent at least, their fault.

Of course, other stories can explore other aspects of “Everyone should get an equal share.” The classic movie, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ humorously explores how difficult equal shares can be in a complex world. The more recent movie ‘Worth’ (starring Michael Keaton) not only explores the difficulty of equal shares, but even explores the challenging question, “Is giving equal shares always the moral answer?” Ultimately, more than the plot itself, it is the characters that we connect with that make the concepts connect on a visceral, even spiritual, level.

How Do You Know if a Story Does NOT Make Sense?

Many years ago, a missionary family visited our Bible study. This was several years before my wife and I went into missions. They showed us a children’s book they produced. It was based on a story of an Amazonian tribe with which they work. Just now I tried to look it up. I thought the tribe’s name started with a Y. The only tribe that I could find that might fit is “Yanomami.” But it doesn’t sound right. However, that was around 25 years ago. The story was populated with turtles and snakes and other animals from where they lived. These were the characters and they acted and talked and interacted in this story. The missionaries (I don’t remember their names either) said that they chose this story because “it was the least nonsensical” of the stories the tribe had like this. Truthfully, even that story did seem a bit random.

Were the stories of that tribe truly nonsensical? I really have no idea. The tribe lives in the Amazon basin and although I have been in Southern Brazil, I have never been anywhere near this tribe.

But I wonder if the stories were nonsensical to the members of the tribe. It is possible. The tribe is throughout most of its history an oral-based group— transmitting their stories parent to child by talk and perhaps by drama and song. Sometimes, stories become broken. I had mentioned a Scandanavian poem in a past post that was passed down orally from parent to child for many generation, even for those that moved to North America and lost the language of the poem. The version that was passed down to me was partly corrupted. But some other versions were worse. In our version, a dog goes “Woof Woof Woof.” However, a different corrupted form of the poem I found online had the animal that made that “Woof Woof Woof” sound was a crocodile. Why? Basically, it was a multi-generation game of telephone that had the added problem of people passing it on without understanding the language they were trying to speak.

Another possibility is that the story is not corrupted but that it lost its context. Many English language nursery rhymes today or joke poems from the 18th and 19th centuries fit into this. “Little Boy Blue” seems nonsensical but it makes a lot of sense if one knows what each character represented and what the context the poem was written for. “Ring Around the Rosie” is another example of this.

It is also true that there can be other things that make a story seem foolish. One is that oral stories are often told as serials. Because of this, they often have repetitive elements. Imagine someone telling the stories of an episodic series like the TV show “The Simpsons.” A lot of the stories seem foolish, but they become even more foolish as elements repeat for no reason or characters change qualities and motivations for no apparent reason. We may accept that in an episodic comedy show… but don’t know how to respond to it in an epic legend. Some early Christian writings, like the Infancy Gospels appear to hardly better than a word salad with a bunch of weird stories with weird morals lumped together. Perhaps kept as separate vignettes they may be instructive, or at least entertaining— but put together it is a uninspiring drudgery to go through.

Another issue is that we don’t always know what symbols mean over time. It has been noted that the book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) probably made a lot more sense to the 7 churches it was written to than it does to us today. There is the temptation of many to think the opposite. We can now imagine the ‘mark of the beast’ as being an RFID or an infrared tatoo. Or we may see 666 as clearly being a code, like a credit card number or National ID. Or maybe the locusts are actually attack helicopters. Probably, however, 2000 years has made us worse at understanding the book than better. The same can be with the stories from the tribal group. Perhaps if we have a good understanding of the role of a turtle or a snake in their stories, the stories would make a lot more sense.

Finally, sometimes things don’t seem to make sense because the lessons don’t connect with us now. I like listening to the podcast “Myths and Legends” and a lot of the lessons in a lot of old stories are pretty bad. Not all of them of course, but we sometimes the issue is not that we fail to understand them, but that we do understand them, but don’t like what they are saying. Conversely, in some cases our reading of these stories centuries later may totally miss the point. So, picking another Biblical example, perhaps when we read about Elisha calling down two bears to maul a few dozen young men, we SHOULD NOT see it as a reminder not to pick on bald prophets, but rather see it as the danger of rash anger when we are God’s representative.

Regardless, if a missionary hears a story from a people and it makes no sense… that should not end an investigation… it should be the beginning.

One famous Creation story in the Philippines speaks of the first Man and Woman (named Malakas, meaning strong, and Maganda, meaning beautiful). They came out of a bamboo plant that was split open by a great bird. The actual story is much longer… but stopping here for a moment. If we focus on the bamboo and why humans would come out of this sort of plant (or any plant at all) may miss the point. Perhaps it simply uses the items around them to let us know that Man and Woman are separate but always meant to be a unity. They are both independent and dependent. Both created by the gods and having qualities that are worthy of admiration.

The short answer to the question in the title is that in most cases we probably are not competent to identify whether a story is nonsensical or not. And if one is able to truly identify a nonsensical story, that doesn’t mean that one could not give it a valued meaning, just as one could misunderstand a story and make it nonsensical.

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.