Quote of Myth, Meaning, and Ministry

One of my students put a great quote in one of his papers for our Cultural Anthropology class.

“Myth is a perceived truth which is immeasurably bersgreater than concept. It is high time that we stop identifying myth with invention or simply human imagination, with the illusions of primitive mentality. The creation of mythis among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real than any concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people… it brings tow worlds together symbolically.”

<Stated by Nicolas Berdaev in “Freedom and the Spirit.” Quoted by Samantha Lichtenberg in “Experiencing Samoa Through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place.”>

I found that this particular quote has been used in a number of books and articles– and deservedly so. I appreciate the value of myth. Of course, when I say that, I invariably have to add the note, that the term myth makes no assumptions as to historicity or “truth,” An accurately described historical event can be a myth as much a work of imaginative fiction. To see this, though, one has to understand that the term “myth’ has many meanings. In common parlance, it often means “old stories about things that we know ain’t so.” Berdyaev here is using the term more as a literary or theological term.

However, I have come across many a theologican who will say that the term “myth” does not imply ahistoricity… and yet they act in their writings as if it does. Because of this, I prefer to use the term “mythic” rather than “myth.” A story, regardless of it being true or false, accurate or inaccurate, historical or ahistorical, can serve a mythic function— resonantly explaining and justifying core cultural values.

There is a clear link here, I believe, between Berdyaev’s view of myth and Ricoer’s view of metaphor.

Ricoer sees metaphor not as figurative or imaginitive language, but as a link between two terms— one abstract and one concrete. Meaning is found in the tension between the concrete and the abstract.

Berdyaeve sees myth not as imaginative fictuion, but as a link between abstract thought and concrete narrative. Meaning is, again, found in this tension.

I have heard it said that allegory is an extended metaphor. From a syntactical standpoint, that makes sense. However, from a functional standpoint, I think the argument could be made that myth is an extended metaphor. That also clarifies things in another way. The concrete object in a metaphor can be real or non-real, much as the concrete narrative of a myth can be historical or ahistorical.

Berdaev also connects myth with spirituality. If one identifies spirituality as the overlap of power and meaning (in line with Paul Tillich) this is certainly true. Myth empowers and is empowered by the culture within which it resides, and likewise is embued with meaning from, and provides meaning to that same culture.

In Christian ministry we need to create myths, and parables. We need stories that resonate with the respondent culture– affirming and challenging the values of that culture.

More stuff on Myth and Parables in my book “Theo-Storying

Theostorying as Creative Reflection

Excerpt from Chapter two of Theo-Storying:

Theostorying is “the act of creative reflection on God, and our associated relationships with Him and each other, crafted artistically into the medium of the story, so as to allow the listener to join in the reflection through experiencing the story, being challenged by the story, and inspiring further questions.”

Let’s work through the proposed definition.

1.  Creative reflection. Theostorying should neither be a rehashing of dogma, nor be (inherently) heterodox. It should, however, push and challenge our understanding of truth. It should look at theology from a different perspective. It should provide a new voice to old questions, as well as new questions.

2. Crafted artistically. Storying (both the creation of stories and the telling of stories) is an art. Storying in this case would normally be a short story or anecdote rather than a novel or epic. It should draw interest and entice the listener. But regardless of the form, creativity and imagination are required to create the story and transmit the story.

3. Medium of the story. The story is the medium but it is also inextricably intertwined with the message. If one ends with “the moral of the story is” or “the lesson we can learn from this is,” such a lesson would only be one prepackaged idea drawn from the story… not the total sum of all possibilities of the story. If the story could be adequately summed up in one sentence, the story, does not adequately inspire theological reflection.

4. Experiencing the story. We are given the opportunity to be drawn into the story. We tend to learn best through reflection on our own life experiences (and sometimes through the life experiences of others). A good story allows us to join into the story… often from the perspective of different characters. Doing so, we experience, reflect, and learn.

5. Challenged by the story. A good story doesn’t just tell us what we already know, or what we already believe, or what we already believe we know. It challenges us culturally, theologically, and personally. An example of a personal challenge: The parable of the ewe lamb, challenged King David. The story did not challenge him culturally or theologically… he knew theologically and culturally what should be done and the story did not question that. Rather, it challenged him personally when he was told that he was experiencing the story from the wrong perspective. He was experiencing it as the kingly judge, when he should be experiencing it in the role of the rich neighbor.

6. Inspire further questions. Good theostories don’t just give the full answer. They inspire questions. They might inspire questions because the story seems unfinished, or because the story doesn’t explain why things went in one direction versus another, or because it suggests conclusions that are personally uncomfortable.

What are some good questions associated with theostories?

  • What next? In the Bible, we don’t know what happens to Jonah after chapter 4 of the book. We don’t know (for sure) what happens to Japheth’s daughter. What did the Prodigal Son’s elder brother do next? In missions we often do case studies where the situation is set up but the ending is intentionally unfinished. We are supposed to place ourselves within a specified role in the story and say what we would do next and why. It is highly educational and far superior to memorizing a bunch of rules.

  • What if? What if pharoah had let Moses and the people of Israel go without a fight? What if Judas had confessed and asked for forgiveness? What if Job did curse God? What if Zedekiah had stood up to the power elite in Judah?

  • Why? Why did Judas decide to betray Christ? Why did God place enticing fruit in the garden and then tell His inquisitive creations not to eat it? Why did God save us through a blood sacrifice? (Was God “handcuffed” into doing it that way, or did He choose that way as a lesson for us?)tumblr_inline_mij0dqjvoi1qz4rgp

  • Who? Whose perspective do you connect to in the story. What if you placed yourself in a different perspective. What if you were not one of the Israelites invading Canaan, but a person living in Jericho desperately trying to protect your family? What if you were the Levite, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hurrying to your next appointment… perhaps afraid of being attacked, with no medical skills)… how would you respond seeing the dying (possible dead) man… honestly?

But there is more. Stories are part of the message. In this, one is going along with the popular Marshall McLuhan statement that “The Medium is the Message,” the idea that the message as it is received is an amalgamation of the medium used and the purposed content. There is a growing belief that theology is inadequately handled by propositional truths. Stories are not merely a vehicle to transmit a propositional truth. If stories were transporting truth without affecting truth or being a part of that truth, at the end of the storying process, the hearer or reader could simply extract that truth and discard the story, like the waxed paper that can be discarded from a fast food lunch. However, the story IS part of the truth. Narrative Theology and Asian Theologies place a greater focus on the story over just “facts.” Likewise, new ways of interpreting the Bible, to a large extent a book of stories, sees the story as part of the teaching.

Preaching and Teaching and Storying

Nice chapter/article in the book Preach the Word513spybqhtl-_sx397_bo1204203200_, edited by Greg Haslam.  The Chapter (28) is “Preaching from Narrative” by  Chris Wright. The chapter is fairly short but has good info in it… especially on the nature of narrative. Under How Do Stories Actually Work?, Wright puts some good notes. I will just give the main points here, with my own thoughts after.

  • Stories express cultural world-views. To me, this is a strong point. Often worldview is described in terms of categories and propositions (I did that, in fact, in my book on cultural anthrology). But we really think in terms of stories, and the world-view that that guides our beliefs, and from that our behaviors and interpretation of experiences, is more about stories than facts. As such, to hit someone “deep” one is better off using a resonant, or at least relevant, story.
  • Stories are used to preserve people’s identities.  Each of us exists in relationships that go beyond simply I and You. Relationships also include We and They. To a large extent how “We” is defined is in terms of what stories are shared. That is part of the reason that a new person joining a close group feels alienated, at least for awhile. The new person doesn’t share the stories of the others. It is only after the person shares enough new stories with this group, that he or she feels truly part of the We identity.
  • Stories teach moral values and transmit group memories across the generations. Stories are often better at expressing moral truths than propositions. While a statement such as “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is pretty straightforward, it is actually in that straightforwardness that we get lost. What does it really mean to bear false witness? The answer generally comes in a story. The concreteness helps. Does, for example, bearing false witness include telling jokes, or expressing a story that fictional? No, but that is more obvious in a story. For example, story where an individual falsely accuses a person of wrong-doing or falsely alibis a wrong-doer makes it clear that this sin is not simply saying something that is fictional… it is tied to motive and malice. Also because they define groups, they help provide continuity in a group even as the group changes over time.
  • Stories engage our imagination.  I have talked enough about this elsewhere, particularly in Theo-Storying.  A good story draws us in, and we essentially experience something that, technically, did not happen to us.
  • Stories are dependent on having a well-constructed plot. You might think this is obvious, but it is not. Many a story (such as in a movie) has a weak plot, due to the apparent belief that having good special effects, sex or violence, humor (whether witty, ribald, or physical), or a twist ending can substitute. Economically, sometimes they are right. But a story with a poor plot tends to lose steam quick. It does not engage the imagination. It fails to have impact.
  • Stories need good characters. Characters need to have a stamp of reality to them. Even robots or aliens in science fiction stories need to have an authenticity to them. A failure often in the church has been to develop stories too much after the model of morality plays… with wooden saints and equally 2-dimensional sinners. This is strange considering how the Bible tends to present humans as 3-dimensional, both wondrously made and flawed.
  • Some stories have gaps in them. I would argue that ALL stories have gaps in them. For non-fiction stories  this is true since a plot essentially picks bits and pieces of what happened and seeks to combine them with causal relationships into a consistent plot. People don’t have stories… they have life, that can be rearranged into an infinite number of stories. For fiction stories, there are gaps because we only see and here what is “on stage.” Before the opening of the curtain, we don’t know much. After the closing of the curtain, we don’t know much. And off stage is a mystery. But that is a good thing. It gets us to think and imagine. In fact, filling in too many of the gaps may be detrimental to the story. For example, in many classic jokes, the story has three parts. Two parts to set the pattern, and a third to have a surprising break in the pattern. Two is enough to set the pattern… one does not have to list 50 parts supporting the pattern (even if such a high number may have an element of accuracy to it).
  • Good stories invite the reader to be the judge. It is often tempting for the storyteller to tie up all of the loose ends. But it is often better to allow the reader to judge for himself or herself. In fact, many stories in the Bible appear to be arranged for rabbinical purposes. That is, they are meant to be read an interacted with in a group setting for religious and moral education. The story of Jonah, for example has lots of questions unanswered, and many opportunities for hearers to question and come to their own conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes in church we are too quick to tell people how to read a story and what to think of it. This can be a mistake. For example, in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how he chastised Peter and Barnabas for eating with Jews when members of the church of Jerusalem were present. In church, this story is often relayed as if we must accept the story as Paul being right and the others being wrong. However, if readers take the time to bring themselves into the story, many might discover that Paul’s behavior was not above reproach here. Perhaps some will not see the story as primarily Paul versus Peter, but the problems of not discussing things properly.

I would like to add a quote from a different section of the chapter:

Avoid being too dogmatic.  We need to remember that a story can have many levels of meaning and new meanings will often suggest themselves as we take time to ponder and reflect upon them. Furthermore, other people will often see meanings that would never have occurred to us, and people from other cultures will often see a story in a totally different light, which can lead to a fascinating exchange of ideas. I think God gives us stories and says, ‘Well there you are. What do you make of that?’ Sincere there is such a tremendous richness in the stories of the Bible we should avoid giving the impression that there is one solitary monochrome meaning and, once you have explained that, you can go on to the next one.

Stories, like metaphors, have a wide range of meanings, although not infinite. When we say Jesus is the Good Shepherd, this metaphor has a rich diverseness to it that cannot be narrowed to a single meaning. If it could be narrowed to a single meaning, the metaphor would be unnecessary. The same is true with stories… as a rich collection of symbols and metaphors.

Of course, this provides a hermeneutical challenge. Centuries ago, scholars saw the Bible as have several layers of meaning, such as literal, spiritual, and allegorical. Present thinking is to see the Bible as having only one meaning… the literal. So when one reads a passage of Scripture, one must seek that one single meaning. While recognizing the dangers of allegorical interpretation (among others), stories, like metaphors, resist a single interpretation. Even focusing on “author intention” may not be enough. When I tell a story, I often have more than one message or interpretation… even for fictional stories. For non-fiction, my selection of the events I use and connect may limit the range of possible interpretations, but non-fiction has a special “muddiness” to it that even more so draws us into the story with important different perspectives. For example, why did Judas betray Jesus? Was he seeking to “force Jesus hand?” Was he disenchanted with the lack of direction of the “revolution?” Was he possessed by the devil? Was he simply greedy? The fact that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us why may (as Walter Wangerin pointed out) in fact point out to us some acts are just inexcusable and unjustifiable.

Or maybe not.

 

 

 

 

Book Updates and Introspection

No… this is not my desk…

I have been trying to write books, when I am not teaching or supervising, and when I am not doing administrative work for Bukal Life Care (our counseling center) or CPSP-Philippines, our chaplaincy certification board. My book writing gets slow sat times.  But I may as well give a bit of an update.

1.  Theo-storying.  I finished this some time ago. However, some of the reviews suggest incorporation of “story” even more into the work. Also, I felt the need to add a bit more from my research. So I added three more chapters. I also reformatted it. I am now repaginating it. I also need to have a different cover. My present cover is BORING!!! But I like boring (I am, admittedly, a boring kind of guy). But I grudgingly agree that the cover should be a wee bit more interesting. Still not aiming for anything exciting… sorry. Will be tracking the final product in my other blog.  https://theostorying.wordpress.com/

2.  Cultural Anthropology Book.  This book has been BASICALLY done for several months. It was written for the Philippine context. I test drove it with my students during final term. It went okay… except that I found the need to drift away from the structure more at the end. The students also gave some sage advice. I will play with it some more and try to publish it closer to the end of the year.

3.  Pastoral Care Book.  This book is about 2/3 done. However, talking to a friend who writes here in the Philippines, I have decided to follow the wisdom I was given. I will break it up into two volumes. The first volume, then, is mostly done. It will focus on “Intro to Pastoral Care” as well as “Clinical Pastoral Orientation (CPO)”. The second volume will be “Intro to Clinical Pastoral Education and Supervision.”  It really does make more sense to separate the two… but it also makes sense for them to be linked since the second builds off of the first. Hope to have Volume 1 ready for publisher here in the Philippines by August.

Introspection

You may think that it is a bit weird the diversity of these three books. Add to that my first book… on Medical Missions in the Philippines, and I could be charged with being a “jack of all trades, a master of none.” It is certainly true that I am a master of none. However, the books are part of my ministerial journey. Two books tie more directly to my job, and two to my passion.

JOB

1.  My Medical Mission book was based on my several years doing medical missions when I got here to the Philippines, as well as my dissertation on this topic for my ThD.

2.  The Pastoral Care books are tied to the fact that I now administrate a counseling center, and my wife is a certified pastoral counselor (CPSP).

PASSION

3 and 4.  The other two books are tied to my own academic passion— contextual theology. I believe ALL theology is contextual— whether good or bad. Cultural Anthropology helps us understand the context. Theo-Storying helps us understand the theology of metaphor, symbol, narrative, and genre, over proposition.

I guess there is some disconnection here… but I have found value in looking at different specialties and finding connections. I have heard “genius” is tied to the ability to find connections that others have not seen.

I may not have “genius” nor may I have “a genius,” but I do enjoy at least TRYING to find connections.

Adventures in Typing

I have had to cut back a little in blogging. Part of it is because of a lot of stuff going on this Summer. We have a Disaster Response Symposium that our group (Bukal Life Care) is putting together in partnership with Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary and Virginia Baptist Disaster Response. We also will be doing our first medical mission in two years (definitely out of practice). And we have 16 CPE trainees at our center right now and for the next several weeks.

Additionally, though, trying to do some book writing.

90% Done. “Ministry in Diversity.” Book on Applied Cultural Anthropology, for Missions. Technically, it is done. I used it for my Cultural Anthropology class. I have to finish footnoting and indexing., Also the students wanted more examples (I can get too focused on information at times). This book is for Bible schools… particularly in the Philippines or Asia.

70% Done.  “Foundations of Community and Clinical Pastoral Care.” This has been a slow one. I had it listed at 30% for ages. Many of the chapters are done. Still a fair bit of work in the Pastoral Supervision section. Actually hope to finish it before the anthropology book. To be used by Bible Schools and CPE centers, especially in Southeast Asia.

5% Done.  “Adventures in Theostorying.” The title may change. Have 2 or 3 chapters kind of done. But still a ways to go.

My two fully complete books are:

Theostorying   and   Principles and Practices for Healthy Christian Medical Missions

Feel free to check them out on Amazon… if you have time.

Books Status (Statuses? Statii?)

Have had some nice progress in the last few weeks:theostorying cover 1

  • THEOSTORYING.  I finished Revision C on it and decided to self-publish. I am rather proud of this short little book although I had the disquieting (and common) discovery of new errors in the book as soon as it went up on the Web.  It is now available on Amazon.com
  • MINISTRY IN DIVERSITY:  Applied Cultural Anthropology in a Multicultural World.  The first draft is done and is being reviewed by my Cultural Anthropology students at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. After that, some corrections and updates, add the endnotes and such and it should be ready to go.
  • FOUNDATIONS OF COMMUNITY AND CLINICAL PASTORAL CARE. I really need to prioritize this. It is maybe 1/4 done. But we do Clinical Orientation and Clinical Pastoral Education here and there is no book that seems to fully satisfy in this area. The hope is to integrate (honestly) theological and psychological principles. Hopefully will have it done by… May?????
  • THEOSTORYING II.  I have plotted a little out on this. Some nice ideas but not sure when I can fully invest in it. Maybe I should work on it after the next one.
  • INTRODUCTION TO MISSIOLOGY. I have been asked to write this. A lot of good books that introduce missiology… but not necessarily from a Philippine perspective. Additionally, a lot of the intros have rather silly definitions for missions, and sloppy underlying theological principles. Can I do better? I don’t know… but maybe.
  • Updating the past.  There are three books that I have written in the past. One is book form of my doctoral dissertation on medical missions. It is a good book with good research, but it still has a lot of the annoyingly stilted language of most dissertations. Maybe I should update it.  I also have two books, one on wholistic interpretation of some Biblical passages and one that is a semi-autobiographical look on missions. Both have their moments but neither is anywhere ready for primetime. Maybe neither ever will be.

The Lost Book (or “Why Do We Write?”)

Thought #1           Our Purpose
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”                    –Graham Greene
Is it possible to write a book and forget that you wrote it? A few months ago I was digging through my old data CDs and found a file titled “Bob Mission Book.doc”. I had no idea what that was so I opened it, and found a book that I had written back in 2008. I did not remember writing it. Technically, that is not true. When I opened up the file, most all of it looked familiar… things I had written at one time or another… but how could one forget putting it all together into a book that is over 200 pages long? Essentially, I guess, I wrote it for catharsis of sorts. The end product was not the goal, the process was the goal. Looking at the book, I was pleasantly surprised that it had a lot of good insights… even if it is wholly unpublishable (I do have a copy of the book… still rather rough… under My Books.  It is called “Mission Living”). It is an odd mix of blog type mission insights interspersed with biographic sections.
The point is, there is in writing, potentially at least, a healthy role in bringing one’s thoughts through self-reflection and self-review, into the open.
 Thought #2               Our Person
“I don’t like the taste of other people’s words in my mouth.”
                                        -R. Munson
I used to do a fair bit of writing when I was in the Navy. Some of it went on Compuserve. Some were handwritten in notebooks. Little of it I am highly proud of, and most of it has disappeared, even from cyberspace. But about 5 years into my marriage, I was looking over some old handwritten papers that I had not thrown out. One of them was a bit of experimental writing— some fiction. It was just over a page long… meant to be much longer, but I had stopped for some reason. Looking at it, I realized that I really wanted that to be destroyed. Was it really that bad? No, I don’t think so. But I realized that the writing was not me, it was me being someone else. I want to feel that whatever I write, good or bad, is me. Perhaps that is why I stopped on that one story so many years ago. Anyway, I tore it up, and now 15 years past that, I can’t even remember what it said. Maybe I would feel different now. Don’t know.
I have never wanted to go into acting. A lot of people want to, apparently. Not sure why. For me, when explaining why I don’t want to act, I say, “I don’t like the taste of other people’s words in my mouth.” Essentially, that is true… and even for actors, I think that is true to some extent. Most of us want to feel that what we write and what we say are connected to who we are… at least on some level. It is part of who we are as persons.
Thought #3.                 Persona
Most people are not like Emily Dickinson who seemed to be willing to write and write and write (high quality) poetry for, pretty much, herself. Few are able to offer their best to themselves, or to God, without it being observed and critiqued by others. While others’ advice may be good or may be bad… the very potential of critique can drive one to take writing more seriously.
Blogging has that quality since people read, or potentially read, what is written. Tweets can be thoughtlessly and foolishly and sloppily sent out, but a blog post needs to be better than that. In fact, I accidentally pushed “PUBLISH” on this post before it was done. So now I am scrambling to finish this post because I don’t want people to open my blog and see a rough, messy post. (I suppose I could have deleted it and corrected things later.)
We want our writing and communication to express our person, but also our persona. We want people to think of us certain ways based on what we write. Judgments are made (intentionally or otherwise) by what a person says, writes, and reads. The very act of deciding what will be on my blog, and how it will be, helps me grow… and helps me to determine who I am in the world… or who I hope to be.
Thought #4.             Passion

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”          -Winston Churchill

It does seem to me best that writing is first of all self-therapeautic. But writing is still an art. And it can still be a profession. Last week for the first time, I put up a book for sale. Self-published through Amazon   (Here if you want to see the page. It is the latest revision.) Will it sell many copies? Doubt it. I will most likely sell more copies to myself for giving copies to friends and supporters.
But the process of intentionally writing for others does definitely change the dynamic of writing. The need to write and to congeal one’s thoughts in the form of written words, moves from person, to persona, to passion as one writes to impact the world… to change the way people think. That is exciting, but also frightening. I will be teaching three classes very soon (starting today, in fact). One is Cultural Anthopology, one is Church History, and one is Introduction to Clinical Pastoral Care. I have written a rough draft of a book on cultural anthropology, and am part way through one for Intro to Clinical Pastoral Care. I will leave the Church History to the experts. But as a text to instruct and guide, one is forced to put an even higher investment into it. It is not just about self… it is not just about money (or lack of it). It is about passionately expressing what one believes is important and seeking to express those ideas to others for change.
Thought #5.         People
As he (Jesus) was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”                  – John 8:3-11
Public speaking is quite similar to writing since it also takes thought and purpose, expressing the person and persona of the person with passion. My son won a national award here in the Philippines for oratory (public speaking). He is very good at it. I can also tell you it takes a LOT of work… it is not chitchat, it is not chicka.
Jesus crafted stories and preached sermons… that takes work. There is, however, only one place in the Bible where it said that Jesus wrote something. Some have argued that Jesus was illiterate. While it would be okay if He was… His family’s job and the educational priorities of devout Jews suggest that He probably could read and write. The John 8 passage says that Jesus wrote in the dust. Many like to ask “What did Jesus write?” Some like to speculate, conspiratorially, that Jesus was writing down infidelities of the religious leaders (trying to add a miracle where none is actually apparent). But… if anyone else other than Jesus was doing this, we would know exactly what he or she was doing and why. In the US, we see this behavior at some college sporting events. When the home team comes out in the field, all the hometown fans cheer. When the visitors come, some will pull out a newspaper and pretend to read. The idea is that one is so uninterested in the visiting team, that it is time to do something completely different.
The John passage shows Jesus being asked what to do about this legal case. Jesus starts doodling on the ground. When pressed to make a judgment, He says, All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!  Then He goes back to doodling. It is not until the religious leaders wander off that He gets back up and says the first important thing in the story. “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” I believe Jesus’ was not writing a message. Rather, the act of writing of itself was the message— that His concern is PEOPLE, more than Law or Judgment… or the written word.
Purpose, Person, Persona, and Passion all are good. But more important in what one says and what one writes is… People.

Theostorying: Reflecting on my Reflections

I wrote a little book called “Theo-storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.” It wasn’t for formal publication. It was just an exercise in my own theological reflections. I put it up on this site (under “My Books”) and on Scribd. I reread it in the last couple of days and was pleasantly surprised that I still liked it. It has some misspellings and some awkward grammar at times. Some things I would change if I decided to revise it. Generally, I feel it stands up fairly well, however. The book is now available on Amazon… HERE.Cover 1

But it got me thinking. I used (sort of coined) the term “theostorying” but what does the term mean? In chapter 2 I play with the idea of definition, but never really come up with one. Further, the more I think about it, the more inadequate what I wrote in chapter 2 seems. So here are some thoughts at least for the moment.

Theostorying is “the act of creative reflection on God, and our associated relationships with Him and each other, crafted artistically into the medium of the story, so as to allow the listener to join in the reflection through experiencing the story, being challenged by the story, and inspiring further questions.”

Let’s work through the proposed definition.

1.  Creative reflection. Theostorying should neither be a rehashing of dogma, nor be heterodox. It should, however, push and challenge our understanding of truth. It should look at theology from a different perspective. It should provide a new voice to old questions, as well as new questions.

2. Crafted artistically. Storying (both the creation of stories and the telling of stories) is an art. Storying in this case would normally be as a short story or anecdote rather than as a novel or epic. It should draw interest and entice the listener in. But regardless of the form, creativity and imagination are required to create the story and transmit the story.

3. Medium of the story. The story is the medium but it is also inextricably intertwined with the message. If one ends with “the moral of the story is” or “the lesson we can learn from this is”, such a lesson would only be one prepackaged idea drawn from the story… not the sum purpose of the story. If the story could be adequately summed up in one sentence, the story does not adequately inspire  theological reflection.

4. Experiencing the story. We are given the opportunity to be drawn into the story. We tend to learn best through reflection on our own life experiences (and sometimes through the life experiences of others). A good story allows us to join into the story… often from the perspective of different characters. Doing so, we experience, reflect, and learn.

5. Challenged by the story. A good story doesn’t just tell us what we already know, or what we already believe, or what we already believe we know. It challenges us culturally, theologically, and personally. <An example of a personal challenge: The parable of the ewe lamb, challenged King David. The story did not challenge him culturally or theologically… he knew theologically and culturally what should be done and the story did not question that. Rather, it challenged him personally when he was told that he was experiencing the story from the wrong perspective. He was experiencing it as the kingly judge, when he should be experiencing it from the perspective of the rich neighbor.>

6. Inspire further questions. Good theostories don’t just give the full answer. They inspire questions. They might inspire questions because the story seems unfinished, or because the story doesn’t explain why things went in one direction versus another, or because it suggests conclusions that are personally uncomfortable.

What are some good questions associated with theostories?

A.  What next? In the Bible, we don’t know what happens to Jonah after chapter 4 of the book. We don’t know (for sure) what happens to Japheth’s daughter. What did the Prodigal Son’s elder brother do next. In missions we often do case studies where the situation is set up but the ending is intentionally unfinished. We are supposed to place ourselves within a specified role in the story and say what we would do next and why. It is highly educational and far superior to memorizing a bunch of rules.

B. What if? What if pharoah had let the people of Israel go without a fight? What if Judas had confessed and asked for forgiveness? What if Job did curse God? What if Zedekah had stood up to the power elite in Judah?

C.  Why? Why did Judas decide to betray Christ? Why did God place enticing fruit in the garden and then tell His inquisitive creations not to eat it? Why did God save us through a blood sacrifice? (Was God “handcuffed” into doing it that way, or did He choose that way as a lesson for us?)

D.  Who? Whose perspective do you connect to in the story. What if you placed yourself in a different perspective. What if you were not one of the Israelites invading Canaan, but a person living in Jericho desperately trying to protect his family? What if you were the Levite, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hurrying to your next appointment (perhaps afraid of being attacked, with no medical skills)… how would you respond seeing the dying (possible dead) man… honestly?

Redemptive Analogy

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Don Richardson has done a lot of work with Redemptive Analogies, in Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts (among other places). Redemptive Analogies are important in faith, but are also problematic.

Consider some of the redemptive analogies in the Bible. This is not a complete list.

1.  The Vine. Those who are part of God are joined to Christ as a branch is part of, and dependent, on the main vine.

2.  The Two Ways. People are on a path. Either they are on the narrow path to life, or on the wide path to death.

3.  Redemption. We are as slaves who are up for sale to the highest bidder. We are bought by God.

4.  Justified. We are on trial… clearly guilty on all charges, but God declares us innocent on all charges because of Jesus.

5.  Ransomed. We are like one who is kidnapped, but Christ has paid the ransom for us.

6.  Saved. We are like people in a dangerous place about to die, but we are rescued from certain death by Christ.

There are newer analogies. The most well-known one is probably the Bridge Illustration. We are on one side of a deep deep ravine while God is on the other side. Only through Jesus, the bridge, can we be united with God.

There are a few dangers with redemptive analogies.

A.  Analogies always break down at some level. For example, if we see ourselves as ransomed or redeemed, the questions are Who was our kidnapper? or Who was our owner. With the two ways/two gates analogy, one can get the impression that to go from one path to another would be impossible (since real paths diverge). Taking an analogy too far can easily lead to error.

B.  Related to “A”, there is a tendency to theologize analogies. Therefore, terms like justification and redemption lose the idea of being an analogy and become terms of propositional truth.

C.  Related to “B”, analogies require commentary. It is dangerous to give an analogy without explanation. Without commentary, analogies are as likely to lead to confusion as much as enlightenment.

D.  Related to “C”, it is not always clear to the extent that an analogy is useful. In Biblical times, the Christ as the Good Shepherd is useful. However, in the Philippines, very few tupa (sheep) are raised so the reference is quite obscure. In the US and Australia, sheep are raised in ways that are very different than in Biblical times. When too much time is spent trying to explain the usefulness of an analogy, it may not be useful. Biblical analogies of Jacob versus Esau or Isaac versus Ishmael requires such high level of understanding of the Biblical history, it is doubtful that it would today be useful for many.

E.  Related to “D”, analogies that may be useful for one group and one time may be useless in another. Jewish believers in Biblical times would understand the Isaac versus Ishmael. However, most people today would not understand. Muslims could be deeply confused because their belief system is built around a revisionist historical view that gives preeminence to Ishmael. Many others today would might confuse the story with a sort of divine racism (problem of taking an analogy way too far). Bruce Olson in the book Bruschko, gives another example. He pointed out that the analogy/ parable given by Jesus about the wise man (building on a solid rock) and the foolish man (building on sand) would not be useful in some places. In the tribal group Olson worked with, they built using bamboo technology. For them building on rock would ensure instability while driving their bamboo frames into deep sand would provide stability.

Analogies are useful (or useless or counterproductive) depending on the culture of the respondent. Redemptive analogies are important, but they must be chosen wisely, carefully explained, and cautiously used.

<Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture>