On Story and Christianity

I’ve written before about the possibility that some, or even much, of the Bible is myth, and how that’s okay; somehow, something being fiction does not necessarily make it untrue.  Now I’m taking a course called Religious Themes in Literature, and the first assignment is to write about how faith and art intersect.  There’s so much to talk about here that I don’t know where to begin, so I went to Maeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, but she wanders so much in her own thought that I’m having a hard time keeping it straight.  So I’m drawn back to the only place I can ever seem to make sense of anything: the keyboard.

This course is being taught by Dr. Michael Gilmour, who writes scholarly articles about the religious content of The Far Side and Shakespeare and Iron Maiden in such worldly venues as The Huffington Post.  He approaches the concept of God in “secular” art very gingerly, because he knows that it is a controversial notion (at best) to some in the Church.  He asks us to ponder the question of whether “Christians [should] ignore the so-called secular arts in favour of cultural productions that explicitly reinforce their religious convictions?  Is there a middle ground?”  He seems eager for us to see God’s presence in the wide world, rather than exclusively in the little box of our particular church, and I’m very thankful for that – but I think I dare to go even a step further: while Dr. Gilmour aims to show us that God can be experienced in story, I would go so far as to say that God must be experienced through story, at least to some degree, and that story is the most important way that we experience Him.

God revealed Himself fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  I know this because I read a story about Him. Interesting thing about Jesus: “Jesus was not a theologian.  He was God who told stories.” (quoted by L’Engle in Walking on Water, Bantam, 1982, p. 54)

I’m not sure what comprises more of the Bible, narrative or poetry, but between these two classes of literature it’s clear that the vast majority of Scripture is literature.  It’s not cut-and-dried, scientific, scholarly, history textbooks.  There are a few sermons, and a hint of systematic theology (though Pauline scholars are divided over whether or not we should consider Paul a theologian).  Even in the epistles, it’s rare that the writers stop to explain why they say something – and those passages are usually the most obscure and divisive (e.g. some people died because they took communion unworthily, an aside that breaks up the otherwise narrative explanation of the practice of Communion and has been the source of much speculative and confusing theology).  The most theological-sounding texts seem like they should be the most important, but really it was just a few church leaders trying to derive good practices from the stories that formed their entire basis of understanding.

Have you ever noticed that very few people preach from the Old Testament regularly?  And when they do, an Old Testament sermon is usually a character study, analyzing the central figure of a story to try to explain why God said or did whatever it was God said or did?  I know half a dozen different ways that David was “a man after God’s own heart”, and I know all about Moses’ stutter, and Gideon’s self-consciousness, and Ruth’s faithfulness.  Sometimes it seems like these sermons are really grasping at straws, looking for more specific details to explain a story, because preaching from story involves a reversal of the typical mode of preaching.  Preachers deliver speeches which explain an issue and inspire us to do something about that issue – and they use short stories to drive their message home or begin to apply it.  They’re long on explanation, short on story.  The Bible is long on story, which it almost never explains; how do you preach from that?  The reason I know so much about the small details of every Old Testament character’s lives is because those are the only parts that even lend themselves to explanation, much less require it.  If a preacher really wanted to get to the point of an Old Testament story, they’d end up just reading the story.  In my church this is a common occurrence, and nobody complains when Pastor Ed lets the story preach itself.  It’s fully capable.  On those mornings Ed is a tour guide of the city of Nineveh as Jonah is passing through, an assistant to the narrator whose primary job is to translate the story as accurately as possible through time and language and culture, so that we the audience can hear the story speak clearly in its own words.

It struck me the other day that if we could read the Bible with as much wonder and excitement as we derive from Harry Potter, we’d be better Christians: better theologians, and better people.  I’m not sure that we can read the Bible in that way as long as we are dissecting it for nuggets of wisdom (with our pithy sayings and quotations of single verses out of context, are we Christians the source of our culture’s dependence on the sound bite and the tweet?).  I’m not saying that scholars should not read Scripture critically; I think that the conservative disgust with critical methods of interpretation is a good impulse with a poor implementation.  I think that people who are afraid to study the Bible critically could have made a very good case if they had stuck to the Bible as story; instead, they had nothing but an argument that “the Bible is holy, so we shouldn’t ask too many questions about it”, and today just about everyone in the Church reads the Bible critically.  Our scholars absolutely need to study the text critically, but that doesn’t mean that text criticism makes for a good sermon, or that all Christians need to be experts on hermeneutics.  It seems that we learn in school to read texts critically and scientifically (which can be a very good thing), but in the process forget how to actually communicate.

I heard a great interview with a Rabbi who only spoke in parables and stories.  It wasn’t Jesus, by the way, though that was his primary mode of teaching too.  If I tried really hard, I bet I could remember the gist of half a dozen sermons that I’ve heard in my life – maybe a dozen.  But I can quote some films start to finish with about the same effort, and my mind’s eye can see the walls of Helm’s Deep as clearly as it saw them when I first read Tolkien’s The Two Towers for the first time in grade 5; without conscious effort I can feel the winds of Perelandra (Venus) and the shifting and tilting of its islands as they ride the massive waves of that world’s great ocean, and know the magnitude of the potential loss if the Eve of Perelandra falls prey to the deceit of Satan in the body of Dr. Weston.  There is something about story that allows us to understand things intuitively, and in small bits, so that our understanding grows simply through hearing and seeing, and every fresh hearing brings a greater resonance of that understanding.

They say that the Bible is alive, “the Living Word”, and I struggled with this for years.  It supposedly teaches us something new every time we read it.  This idea seemed somewhat magical to me, as though the text itself would change with each fresh reading, or that the Spirit would enlighten me in a new way with each successive perusal of the same text.  Having spent the last 7 or 8 years reading the Bible analytically and critically, I can tell you that the words of the Bible don’t change between readings, and after a while it’s quite possible to run out of new perspectives to see the text from.  For some parts of the text that I’ve studied most, I’d probably have to discuss them with people from another culture or religion to get a new look at them in that sense.  I’ve been trained to strip a text down to its phonemes and analyze every possible meaning of every word, and then every possible meaning of those words put together in grammatical constructions, until I get to the meaning – and this is a very good thing!  But the meaning is not new every morning, and while I might think of new ways to apply it, the possible meanings and connotations of particular words in the original language, or textual variants, or syntactical possibilities, do not resonate within me and grow my identification with and recognition of God.  Story does that though.

Not only is the Bible story, and not only must we read it as story to really understand it, but we need story to explain it too.  I don’t mean sermon illustrations, though they are helpful.  But try to explain the Holy Spirit, or the Trinity, in scientific or systematic terms.  The Trinity is a concept born of story, and cannot be properly reduced to less than story.  The Powers and Principalities, which I hope to write my thesis about, defy systematic explanation; no theory fits all of the evidence or all of the texts – yet Madeleine L’Engle made generations of children understand them in her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time (another book that was banned, if only from Christian book stores!).  We need story, even myth, to truly understand God.  Even God in human flesh needed stories, and his disciples still didn’t (and still don’t) understand Him.

Dr. Gilmour asks “Should Christians ignore the so-called secular arts in favour of cultural productions that explicitly reinforce their religious convictions (the Bible, devotional writing, etc.)?”  In class, he throws Left Behind in with that group.  We Christians like to designate some literature, or television, or film, or music, as “Christian” and therefore acceptable.  L’Engle talks about this phenomenon in Walking on Water:

Christian art?  Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story.  If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. (14)

Basically there can be no categories such as “religious” art and “secular” art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore “religious.” (25)

…we call the work of such artists un-Christian or non-Christian at our own peril.  Christ has always worked in ways which have seemed peculiar to many men, even his closest followers…so we need not feel that we have to understand how he works through artists who do not consciously recognize him.  Neither should our lack of understanding cause us to assume that he cannot be present in their work. (30)

A few times, I’ve made the (surely heretical) admission that I’ve had more “religious” experiences reading The Chronicles of Narnia than I have reading the Bible.  Most people I tell this to agree with me, and I wonder if they feel that same guilt that I feel, thinking that something could be more interesting or more edifying to a Christian than the Bible itself!  Of course, this  is the Chronicles of Narnia, that great Christian work of allegory (though it’s not).  It fits into the “Christian art” category, so it’s more acceptable.  CS Lewis is part of the Protestant canon, after all.  Would it be as acceptable if I were to admit in public that I’ve had similar experiences reading horror novels by Stephen King (Needful Things is my favourite), or the demented, sex-ridden stories of Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke)?  That one of the most positive impacts during a particularly rough patch of my teenage years was reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which contains a very intimate scene in which a boy lets himself be kissed by another boy?  This isn’t a coming out (it wasn’t for the boy in the book either), but it’s content like this that led to The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be banned in thousands of schools in the US (and probably in Canada too).  And yet it taught me something about love, and being loved, and being forgiven, that I had never learned in Church.  Surely Christian themes, even in such a strongly “non-Christian” book.

I think that the thing that makes a book “Christian” or not is how explicitly “Christian” it is.  I think that this amounts to a self-conscious self-labelling.  If you have to tell someone that you’re a Christian, are you really?  Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps is only a classic among Christians, and not a very good read; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a cherished classic of English literature; while both are products of the social gospel, the most notable difference is that In His Steps tries so hard to be explicitly Christian that it gets cheesy, if not painful, while Dickens is more subtle (and a better writer) – yet one is “Christian” and one is not.  And does using Christian terms and labels actually make you in any way good, or Christ-like?  The writers of Marvel Comics rarely use biblical allusions, much less quotations, yet I’ve recently pointed out just how much the story of Ant Man and his robot Ultron parallels the story of the Fall and the Flood – a powerful story that has been replayed many times, including I, Robot, The Terminator series, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and most famously (I can’t believe I forgot to mention it in my Ant-Man post) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which we will be studying this semester in class.  None of these books or films would be in any way considered “Christian”, yet they all replay one of the most important Bible stories for our understanding of human nature, in ways that we understand much better than the ancient Hebrew text.  Reading “secular” literature helps me understand who I am before God, sometimes better than the Bible does.

Finally (sorry for going long), finding God in the “secular” makes me redefine “secular”.  “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation” (L’Engle, 50).  Finding God in the “secular” reminds us that He has redeemed all things unto Himself, that nothing in this world is untouched by Him, and that few things fail to give Him glory.  God is everywhere, and speaks everywhere, and though we preach this truth we are often quite selective about where to listen to Him.  And to paraphrase L’Engle, if we can’t see God in “secular” art or art composed by people of other religions, then we’ll miss seeing Him in those works composed by Christians, too.

So read a novel, for God’s (and your own) sake!