Thursday, June 25, 2009


"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, ... about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. ...

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?"

St. Augustine

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Stranger

They say there are really only two stories in the world:

Someone goes on a journey, or

A stranger comes to town.

Both kinds of story have a similar rhythm. The status quo is upset somehow, and equilibrium must be restored. The protagonist is either thrust by events outside the familiar into the larger world, or the larger world comes bursting into the protagonist's comfort zone in the form of the stranger.

In the first kind of story, the journey can be literal, metaphysical, philosophical, spiritual, or (usually) all of the above. Dorothy is ripped from her home and takes a physical journey through Oz, but it's also a journey to adulthood of sorts, where she makes friends, learns lessons, and discovers personal strength. Frodo has to journey to Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, but it's also a spiritual journey of sacrifice. Ebenezer Scrooge travels in space and time (or dreams it, or whatever), but his real journey is one of personal discovery.

The second kind of story is common in Westerns. The townpeople are being oppressed, but surviving, until a stranger rides into town wearing a white hat to clean up the badguys. Once that's done, he rides off into the sunset. Or think of The Cat in the Hat. Equilibrium is upset by the appearance of the strange figure, but in the end a better status quo is established. Romantic comedies can work this way too, particularly recently. Frequently the mopey male lead's world is interrupted by the manic pixie dream girl, who is a destructive force but draws him out of his shell (Elizabethtown, Garden State). You know it's the "stranger comes to town" plot when there's a big speech at the end where the guy says something like "ever since you showed up, you've ruined everything, I can't sleep, I don't know what to do, but you're all I think about..." and so on and so forth.

So if the Bible is primarily the story we find ourselves in, what kind of story is it? There are of course a huge variety of smaller stories within the big story, but I think we can see the Bible's narrative as kind of a fractal pattern involving both story types.

In the Old Testament, after all the exposition and setup (Genesis 1-11), a stranger comes to town. Abraham's ordinary life is interrupted by the arrival of a strange God, who tells him to take a journey, both physical and spiritual. The rest of the OT is an account of this journey, with all its digressions, dramatic interludes, and what Scot McKnight calls "wiki-stories", smaller stories that fit within the big story (Ruth & Boaz, Jonah). But the big journey seems to fizzle out. The Promised Land is reached, and yet...Israel still seems to be stuck in a persistent exile. There's a new status quo, all right, but it's apparently one of expectantly waiting while being oppressed. Some story.

And then a stranger comes to town.

And he starts to talk about the old story, and how it's now coming to fruition through himself. And he talks about how the status quo is being overturned, and there really is a happy ending on the way, though of course (like all good stories) there's a lot of bad to come before that. And he threatens the people who profit from the status quo and tells them the part they've chosen in the story does not end well, and of course they don't like that so they kill him. And the story seems to be over. It's a cautionary tale about not rocking the boat. Because the villains always win. Life is nasty, brutish, and short, and eventually Grendel or Darth Vader or Caesar will get you.

And yet.

The story isn't over. Paradoxically, the antagonist's moment of triumph was simultaneously their very defeat. The rhythm of the universe picks up again. The seed sown in the dark earth sprouts up a plant. Aslan gets off the stone table, Neo picks himself up off the (virtual) ground, and Jesus walks out of his final resting place not just resuscitated, but Resurrected.

And the story starts again. A new people is gathered, made of all the nations of the earth, and the friends go on a journey. The turning point has happened, the war is over, but there is still a lot of work to do. The story continues, and we're still in it, and we decide what part we will play. The invitation is extended to join the journeying friends, who will have their own smaller stories, but these stories will find their place in the great narrative that fills the cosmos.

This pattern repeats itself yet a third time. Because the journeying friends know that the stranger will once more come to town, and set all things right. And then a new journey will begin. And this part of the story stretches away so far ahead of us we can barely understand it, but it's the story we're choosing to live in, every day. It's the story that is the most beautiful to us. It's the story that is deeply good. And it's a story that is true; that is, it makes the most sense of what we find around us. And we learn how to mourn, and how to celebrate, because the story isn't over.