2017 Fall Issue 2
Narrative Over Knowledge: The Role of Story in Relationships
by: Carson Leith
I was an English major in college, which afforded me the privilege of reading stories for four years. Now I have been in seminary for two years, and have ingested quite a lot of non-fiction material. While this experience has been groundbreaking for me, and while I understand this kind of reading to ultimately serve the purpose of understanding the story of the Bible, my reading has definitely been imbalanced.
I read once about someone who read too many business books and realized that it screwed him up. He was too focused on one aspect of life. So a friend of his recommended he read some fiction—something that wasn’t about figuring out how to fix problems. Something that wasn’t about being efficient and effective—those alluring American ideals that drug you into thinking life is about projects, tasks, and setting up a flawless GTD system.
In the same way, I have begun to feel the scale tip after reading too many biblical studies and theology books. I have been imbalanced. I have tried too hard to construct a perfect theological system, thinking that that will solve all my problems. All the while, I have lost touch with the fact that God reveals Himself primarily through narrative and personhood, not systems and knowledge. And come to think of it, this is the fundamental problem with systematic theology. Its end is understanding God through categories instead of knowing Him through the revealed story of His character. If I say I know you because I’ve studied your resumé and I know every fact about you, I don’t really know you. The only way I get to truly know you is by hearing your story.
All of us will nod our heads to this on a human level, but when talking about knowing God, we get nervous at the prospect of surrendering to the narrative instead of boxing God up in a textbook. I think it’s time we have a meal with God and ask Him to tell us about His story. I’m sure He’d love to do the same, seeing as he had the habit of eating with people while on earth.
When we are too ravenous for knowledge and not patient enough for story, an essential part of our being gets neglected. When we are always focused on getting our theological structures right, and unwilling to let go and experience a narrative for narrative’s sake, the part of our soul that yearns to be cultivated is instead suffocated by weeds.
I want to get back in touch with the fact that we are storied beings—that we make meaning out of telling and hearing stories. I recently received a gift card to our bookstore here at Regent, and although my desire was to buy books on biblical studies or history, I realized that the answer to those was a firm “No.” A firm yet freeing “No.” It needed to be fiction. I needed to clear away the weeds and dig my hands in the soil. I ended up buying two books by authors who I feel cut to the heart of things: Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner. I bought Wise Blood and Godric respectively. Now, which one to start with?
To Say Goodbye
by: Rob Collis
Prefatory note: I had many ideas of what I would get up to this past summer. A number of those still happened, but they were greatly overshadowed by the death of my grandmother in June. The following is what I wrote as I have processed the pain of her loss.
In a society where Church matters less and less and where man is the measure of all things, there are increasingly fewer occasions whereupon a people shall gather under the auspices of religious ritual and rite. The funeral—the solemn occasion of saying farewell and goodbye—is among the last of those universal reasons for any and all to gather in a church.
Yet this act of saying goodbye is also becoming increasingly less fashionable as an occasion. Death, our universal final frontier—the greatest and most assured eventuality for us all—is a topic we increasingly as a society seem to disassociate from our lives. Our infatuation of making the best of every moment because we only live once recognises our own mortality. Yet the false wisdom of positive living whose roots derive from the maxim of “You Only Live Once” often struggles with this act I presently face—of saying goodbye. The new human quest of seeking to live positively too often fails to acknowledge the reality of hurt and pain.
Far too few of us today wish to face the emotional storm which brews in the face of loss and death. The crashing waves which threaten to swallow us up into the echoingly empty pit of agony and despair appear to us a reckless and horrendous journey into apathy, bitterness, loneliness, and depression. Not many perceive the rays of light piercing through the thick fog of dread which emanates from the lighthouse of life and joy. And no wonder! After all, how could we ever expect to discover joy and life as we grapple with the sour taste and bitter sting of death?
It comes as a surprise to discover that many psychologists report that our capacity to experience any emotion is restricted and limited by our unwillingness to engage those harshest and most bitter emotions. Our capacity to experience true positive emotion, such as joy and happiness, is only ever going to be increased by our grappling with these negative emotions, like loss and despair. Psychology tells us that it is only by pressing on through the turbulent waves of hurt and pain in the storm of saying goodbye that we will ever again be able to come to a full sense of emotional right-living.
I wonder if it comes as a surprise to us that this modern wisdom was preceded many centuries prior by the very teaching of none other than Jesus Christ? We find in the Gospel According to Matthew an extended teaching by Jesus when he sat down upon the mountainside to teach. This was Jesus’ second sermon. Where his first sermon was an invitation to live a fully human life found in him, this second longer sermon was an explanation of how to live out this new life found in him. His teaching famously begins with a list of eight qualities of the blessed life in him; eight markers and distinctions of what a good life—a right life—a wholesome life, looks like when we live as followers of Jesus. They are, in effect, like the accent of Christ's followers. They are Christ’s Beatitudes.
Each beginning with the phrase “Blessed are…,” we would be forgiven for mistaking Jesus to be talking about blessings in the way we often do today. For us today, a blessing is some sort of fortunate thing in which many of us are apt to boast. Our blessings are our families, our friends, our jobs, our wealth, our awards, achievements, vacations, and our health. And many of these are good things—wonderful things! But Jesus meant something different when he spoke upon that mount. In the Greek, the word he uses here is makarios, which is best understood as a state of things being well. These eight markers of life lived in his kingdom are as though he is saying, “You see this thing here? It is well with those who experience it.” When he says, “Blessed are those who…” he is in effect saying, “It is well with those who…”
And with this in mind, it seems of particular importance that we consider Jesus' second Beatitude. It reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
We might rather read, “It is well with those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Jesus is giving us permission to mourn. And oh how desperately I need this! But not only is he granting us a space to grieve—he is exhorting us to! It is well with those who mourn. Increasingly, we are not given permission to mourn—not really. Too many of our funerals are merely a celebration of life. They focus on all of the good; and it is right for us to remember the good times in a person's life. I don't deny it. But far too often we only focus on the good—often modern funerals deny us the reality of sitting in our loss and sorrow from our loved ones. The march for positivity risks not giving us a place and a space to say our goodbye.
Grief is uncomfortable. Grief unsettles. It unsettles because it exposes us to the reality that we are mortal; we are finite. The promises of this world will fail us in the end. We’ve built our society around things which cannot give us life; they may well offer us comfort and pleasure, and moments of joy and happiness. But the reality of our grief—the reality of our mourning—bears witness to the fact that even the most wonderful things in life will one day fade away. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return.
The notion which tells us that which tells us that our prosperity—our health and wealth—are all that we need to be satisfied gets eviscerated by the sting and emptiness of loss and heartbreak. To mourn is to accept that this world is broken, and that the promises of this world are not enough. When we mourn, we rest in the sting, in the hollowness, in the world-crushing, rug-swept-out-from-under-our-feet agony that life on earth is not as it should be. Our mourning in the face of loss, our mourning in the face of injustice—it is our heart’s cry that all is not well with this world. All things are not well. Our lives are not well.
And to this, Jesus speaks a promise: You will be comforted, all you who mourn. You will be comforted.
And this sounds nice to us. For certainly peace and comfort is what we want in the midst of sorrow and despair. But what sort of comfort has Jesus to offer us that this world cannot? What makes Jesus’ comfort any more meaningful or special than the soft, warm platitudes found in a Hallmark card?
The word he uses here is parakaleo, which literally means “to call alongside.” This is the root word from which we derive paraklete—the promised comforter and helper whom Jesus promised he would send. We are comforted by none other than the Holy Spirit—by God himself. In the person of the Holy Spirit, Almighty God, who made the earth and the sky, the stars and the galaxies, the birds and the trees, the super novae and the Big Bang, the hairs on our heads and the freckles on our arms—this God will comfort us. God will come alongside.
Here is our comfort: God is here. God is here and his kingdom is at hand. The wrongs shall be made right. The pains shall be washed away. The deaf shall hear. The blind shall see. The mute shall sing. The lame shall walk. The captive shall be set free. Justice shall flow like a river—because God is here. His kingdom is at hand. All things shall be made well. For Christ has come. And he has died. But he has risen, and he will come again.
Our mourning is not in vain. Our grieving is not empty. Our woe does not go unseen, and our anguish does not go unheard. All of our mourning cries out and testifies that this world is not well; but the kingdom is coming, and the Holy Spirit is alongside us, and all shall be made well.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. It is well with we who confess and testify that this world is not well; for Jesus comes now to meet us in our hurt, in our sorrow, in our affliction, in our pain.
The notion that has crept into some of our churches that we must be straight-laced and uptight before God, and not be honest with him about what we really think about him and about our life is patently absurd! It certainly has no place in the Christian life. Indeed, if we are so content to believe that God delights to share in our joys and praises, why would we not also consider him safe and loving enough to confide our greatest hurts, frustrations, anger and disappointments? Jesus loves us, and Jesus cares for us—and his unconditional love for us will not be pulled away when we ask him why he let this happen, and blame him for allowing things to go wrong. He is strong enough to take our punches. He's taken far worse before. Jesus is here with us, he is giving us space to mourn and say goodbye. He is encouraging us to tell him how hard life is; how unfair it all is. And he hears us. He is with us. He puts his arms around us, and gently and softly whispers in our ears,
“There, there, my child. I know.
I know not all is well.
I know not all is well in this world.
I know not all is well with you.
I know your pain.
I know your sorrow.
My child, come here and lay it all on me.
But know this, my child, know this –
This is not the end. Oh no.
For I am making all things well.
Yes. All are being made well.”
And so it is right to have more than just a celebration of a good life well lived. It is well for us—it is blessed for us to come to say goodbye. Indeed, if we so need it, it is right to let go of our composure and break down and cry.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Biking the Seawall at Dusk
by: Karen Hefford
There is a particular sweetness only found at the end of the day.
The flower's fumes, to life, slowed breathes awake,
In the sigh and pause only allowed after a long day at work,
When the slightest touch causes the whole ocean to ripple.
The R & J Review: Wings of Desire
The film we will discuss in today’s column is Wings of Desire (1987), directed by Wim Wenders. It was screened on September 21, 2017, 6:30pm, as part of the class Christian Thought and Culture I. Film synopsis: Angels watch over the city of Berlin. One angel falls in love with a trapeze artist, and wishes to “fall” to be with her.
R: So J, what did you think of that really boring movie?
J: When the movie was over and the lights went up, what I mostly remember was the interesting pattern embossed on my face after having been asleep for two hours. What did you think of the movie?
R: Well, it was actually a relief to see. I’ve been lying about having seen this movie for a couple years now. So now I can be not only pretentious but truthful. Had you seen a Wim Wenders movie before?
J: No. I’ve heard his name before though. Actually, I wasn’t asleep throughout the entire movie, so I do remember parts of it. I remember certain scenes that had compelling cinematography, such as the short interstitial shot of the elephant outside the circus.
R: Right! A gratuitous performance, unprompted. The movie has such a good eye for life! The strange and beautiful things like an elephant performing in a rubbled city like Berlin. Did you catch how the director would change color and camera movement to fit the perspective of the angels and humanity? What do think was going on with that?
J: I noticed the change in color, but not the change in camera movement. Good catch! One question that the movie prompted for me was, “What is the value of mortality?” In the film, the angels were immortal beings and not bounded by space—they could fly and perch on top of skyscrapers or be in the public library walking around library patrons—and yet, when they would compare notes about what they had observed that day, we could see that they were curious about, or even desired to experience, the things that humans experienced. Perhaps when we know our that lives are finite, we will treasure each day and each sensation. This line of thought also made me think about Moses’ words, “Teach us to number our days.”
R: Yes! Good connection. The movie was full of biblical allusions. Interestingly though the city was full of angels there was not really a God or even a mention of a god. Looking at all the destruction, alienation, and even the horrific footage from WWII it does seem like God must have forgotten or even left Berlin long ago. But the movie doesn’t leave us there to bang our heads in desperation against the Wall. It never lets us forget that beauty, elephants, love, coffee, rock music, cigarettes—the mixed bag of life itself is something mystical, something profoundly good.
J: Yes! Well put. Do you think that the movie is saying that God or the divine is in those things and experiences?
R: I think so. Or something like that. And I think it's on to something. Ignatius Loyola when sending his Jesuits to go out and “find God in all things.” And I really like that. I don’t think Wim Wenders is a Jesuit but he’s got an eye like one.
J: Hmm. I wonder how Wenders would respond to that quote from Ignatius Loyola. There’s something in C.S. Lewis’ speech “The Weight of Glory” that I think has a slightly different approach than “find God in all things,” but I’ve got to go now—I’m headed to the library to despair over the all the reading I haven’t done for my OT class.
R: (Brown angel emoji) ;)
Despite being one of only ten eligible women at Regent, no one — I mean NO ONE — has even asked me out! How can I show the boys that I’m a Proverbs 31 kind of gal and why are these seminary students such cowards?
- Forlorn First Year
Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
Hugs from Hippo,