When we resist the urge to pick sides and demonize our opponents, When we dwell in the mysteries by finding the truth in both sides of an argument, we receive great training for something really important. God tells us about the world by telling us stories. And try as we might, we can’t read stories the same we’d read a debate, or a text book.
When I use that word “stories” I’m not implying that they are contain no truth. Nor am I suggesting that they didn’t actually happen. What I mean is that If you take out a few lineages, a few lists of laws like Leviticus, and a few letters in the back, this book is nothing but the telling of events that happened to specific characters in specific places.
There’s a truth about story that can best be grasped by looking at a story. It’s not a story that’s in the bible. But it’s a masterpiece of film, a story for the ages, a tale that brings tears and laughter. It is Back to School.
As some of us remember, Back to School is this Rodney Dangerfield movie. As one might guess based on the title, he’s an older guy who decides to go back to college. In the scene that I’m focused on today, Rodney is struggling in his English class reading a Kurt Vonegut story.
So he hires Kurt Vonegut to write the paper… about Kurt Vonegut. The punchline to this whole series of scenes is that the professor, not knowing that the author wrote the paper, thinks that the paper is all wrong.
That’s the most obvious absurdity: the idea that Vonnegut could get his own writing wrong. But there’s something else, equally absurd at work. And that’s the idea that somebody might tell a story and then, after writing it, that the person might go about explaining what that story means. This leads to a question: If the story was just a masquerade to convey a few sentences, what’s the point? Why not just write those few sentences—the thing you really wanted to get across—and be done with it?
The bible is a pretty amazing book. More to the point, this is a pretty good cool series of stories. And most importantly, this is an amazing story—not just an anthology, not only a collection of stand-alone independent chapters, but also, a novel, a complete work.
And this leads to a question:
Why is the bible almost exclusively story? Why did God choose to communicate this way? Why did Jesus communicate through story? Why are the accounts of Jesus the stories told from the perspective of four different men?
And here’s an equally important question:
What if you didn’t know anything about the bible first hand? When you hear other people talk about scripture, do they pay enough attention, do they offer enough respect to the stories?
In my experience, people talk a lot about what the bible says. And even more about what it means. And it might be that some of them are right.
But to judge by the way people quote scripture, you’d think it was a list of rules, laws, and expectations. You’d think that were no stories at all. You’d think it was all black and white, predigiested, specific instructions.
One of my favorite writers is this guy named Billy Collins. He wrote this poem about how to read poetry. I think it’s relevant though, to the way we read story. More importantly, it’s relevant to the way we read scripture.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
The idea is that a story is like a bunch of grapes. Our tendency is to want to put them into a press and squeeze the truths out. And then discard the rest. Or better yet, it’s like Collins says: We tie the story down, and we beat the truth out of it. Those 4 or 5 morals, or principals, or whatever, they the true essence of what the story is. The husk that is left over, after we squish it, or beat it, that can be discarded.
Have we ever really worked out the profound arrogance in this? The beginning and the end, the A through the z, the author and the sustainer of the universe, he shared with us truths in the form of a story. But only we are qualified to extract the important nuggets out of those stories. It’s like we say “I wish I’d been with God at the beginning. Then, when he started conveying all these stories to people, I could have interupted God, exerted the important parts, and saved everybody a lot of money in bible printing costs. The version of the bible I co-wrote with God would have been much more succint than this fluffy thing he handed us.”