Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Story, Sweet Perilous Story


When I started writing curriculum for my church’s Junior Church program last year it became clear that the kids kind of didn’t know what the Bible is, so we started there: What is the Bible? Who wrote it? Why is it arranged the way it is? What are in the different sections, and how do you find things fast? We memorized the books of the Bible together. We did worksheets. It was very satisfying, and we ended the summer with a happy glow and a hard-earned pizza party.  This semester we turned to the subject I really wanted to tackle: God's constant character, from creation to the end of the world. I want the kids to really know God’s character. 
We are doing a detective theme. 
It’s cute. 
It is not, however, nearly as fulfilling for any of us. Whereas cranking out a polished lesson every week was a joy in the first unit, this one is a real wrestling match. It gives me goosebumps, it’s a little fly-by-night, and the pace feels absolutely punishing. Some weeks the kids are not so enthusiastic either, to be honest: All of which got me thinking “Why?” 

   I think that the unit on the history and purpose of the Bible was so fun for all of us because it dealt with concrete facts: This is how many books there are. This is how you find the New Testament. Facts are fun because they are easy to impart, easy to memorize, easy to feel accomplished about, easy to test on, easy to check off your list. You can do really creative things with facts, and then in the end they are there, nice and solid like coming home. 

   The thing is, if God knew it would be best for us to connect with him in a quantifiable way, surely he would have given us such a way. Instead he gives us his presence via the Holy Spirit, Jesus, of course, and stories! Doctrine too, but the doctrine is like the bones beneath the flesh of the stories. I find that fascinating and terrifying. Stories, I mean, not bones! I love bones. And stories. But you knew that.

   Story is enmeshed in every culture. Whether you tell stories to drumbeats around a campfire or via Youtube, story is how we pass down meaning and cultural value. It’s how we explore, internalize, and make sense of the world. Your family stories confirm who you are and where you came from: The love, the ethics, the humor! Story has a potency of it's own, and serious staying power in the mind. Every time you approach a really good story you have a new thought. It touches your experience in a new way. Think, for instance, of how many times over we tell Red Ridinghood. We need to tell it again and again because Red Ridinghood is each of us, straying off the path, rationalizing, entranced by something just up ahead. Like us she is both innocent and willfully ignorant, or even a bit fascinated by gleaming incisors. Like life, it could be dark, comic, tragic, or reassuring depending on your angle. Red Ridinghood is also someone we love, whom we want to protect from wolves. Heck, Red Ridinghood might be the wolf! What then? We need this story because we are not sure to recognize a wolf when we see one, because the wolf might be misunderstood, because no matter how well you know your grandmother, you can’t know her all the way, because it isn’t certain whether we can wait for a woodcutter, or whether we need to be prepared to slay the wolves ourselves. Story helps us work these questions out. 

   Our culture is just as heavily dependent on story as any other, with a key difference from traditional society: Overall it seems like we are less commonly adept at telling stories ourselves. On average we are more consumers of story than purveyors. That may be a somewhat temporary problem as younger generations are finding new ways to convey stories with common technology. But here we are, a little bit in between, and if God saw fit to speak to us through story, and I am supposed to be passing that on to the little minds in my charge, the problem is this: Instead of teaching story the same academic way I'd teach fact, how do I celebrate the story and become a really great storyteller? How do I equip other teachers to become really great storytellers? I don’t know, I’ll have to keep pressing into that. That’s the fascinating part.

    I am a little distracted from the "How Question" by this scary observation: Story is really dangerous to consensus. Literature is perilous! If you sit 3 people down to talk about a story they may agree on a few facts, but they will disagree on the interpretation. You can get consensus amongst peers in many areas, but with literature you can’t always get everyone to agree on something as foundational as who the villain is. I don’t know if this is objectively true, but my observation is that the better the story is, the more nuanced and wide ranging the interpretations seem to be.  That’s so true with the Bible too, isn’t it? It helps us work our questions out, but we approach it with experiences and presuppositions, and we don’t always come up with the same answers. God has given us that leeway, even with the Holy Spirit. There are facts there, but He didn’t make his primary message to us a mathematical proof. He made it story. And that's where the skeleton of doctrine comes in, because it gives us facts, a place to start. Still, there's the Living Word humming with the bass line of truth that rattles us. 

    I think as we try to responsibly hand down the Christian faith in our western secular culture, it really is easier to retreat into dry fact mixed with personal opinion, memorization, ritual, truisms, common experience, politics, vitriol, warm fuzzies, crafts, moralism… anything but story. Story cannot be controlled and regulated the way these other things can. When it comes down to it, all we can do is deliver both the great story of the Bible, and our own stories accurately, vividly, daily. The Holy Spirit must do the rest. That’s the miracle isn’t it? That in each generation God does the heavy-lifting in spite of our toddler-like counterproductive help. 

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