Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Story and the Church

I gave this as a faculty devotion. In some ways it's a continuation of my earlier two posts on "Teaching History, Confronting Suffering." In other ways, perhaps, it's a response to those posts.

I’m going to start with a passage from The Historian’s Craft, a classic by the French historian Marc Bloch. The book is famously unfinished—unfinished because, in the midst of its composition, its author, who was a member of the French Resistance, was tortured and executed by the Gestapo.

In it Bloch writes, “Christianity is a religion of historians. Other religious systems have been able to found their beliefs and their rites on a mythology nearly outside human time. For sacred books, the Christians have books of history, and their liturgies commemorate, together with episodes from the terrestrial life of a God, the annals of the church and the lives of the saints. Christianity is historical in another and, perhaps, even deeper sense. The destiny of humankind, placed between the Fall and the Judgment, appears to its eyes as a long adventure, of which each life, each individual pilgrimage, is in its turn a reflection. It is in time and, therefore, in history that the drama of Sin and Redemption, the central axis of all Christian thought, is unfolded.”

Indeed, the Christian faith rests wholly upon the historical reality of Christ crucified and Christ risen again. As St. Paul writes, "...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

It matters, in other words, that Christ was actually—historically, physically—resurrected. For if he only served as a good example and the resurrection is only spiritual and non-corporeal, Paul indicated, we're a bunch of fools who deserve pity. It’s the story of Christ’s resurrection that lends our faith the weight of reality.

A bit earlier in the same letter, St. Paul corrects the Corinthian church’s abysmal failures with a story. “For I received from the Lord,” he says, “what I also delivered to you”... and then he tells the story of the Lord's supper. And so, when we take communion, we also tell that story. And retell it, over and over again until he comes again. Our ecumenical creeds, too, are stories. The heftiest portion of the Nicene Creed tells who the Lord Jesus Christ is through story—it tells us he was begotten of his Father before all worlds, that all things were made through him, that for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man; he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again...

The four gospels tell—and between the four of them, retell—story after story after story. The Old Testament is filled with books of history—and the books that aren’t historical, strictly speaking, are stuffed with stories too. I could go on and on.

I have spent a good while thinking about what it means to be a people of history—a storied people. I am thinking about this as a Christian first and foremost, but also secondarily as a historian, and now as a teacher of American history at a Christian school.

And I have to admit that I am extraordinarily cautious about the uses to which I put history.
I am hesitant to ascribe motives or purposes to our ineffable God on the basis of my own, terribly limited grasp of history. I tend to see clear connections between earthly success and God’s favor—or between catastrophe and sin—as, at best, presumptuous. The story of the blind man in John 9 illustrates this: the disciples ask whether the man was born blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus rejects the premise of their argument: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The man, in other words, was born blind and lived blind for decades, in order that on this one day, Christ passing by would stop and heal him and reveal the glory of God. I find that astonishing on many levels, but the point I want to make here is that, until our Lord stopped and performed a miracle and explained it, no one could possibly understand the purposes behind this man’s blindness. What I am suggesting is that Christ's statement here is not necessarily an invitation to continue speculating about the causes of particular maladies or disasters—but with God’s glory rather than sin at the center of the story. Rather, I am suggesting that all that speculation may turn out to be fruitless, because without the aid of divine revelation, God’s purposes in this veil of tears are inscrutable. You need the voice of Jesus and the miraculous intervention of the messiah to peel back the mystery and reveal God’s plan.

But I know that, despite my hesitations, if I am to tell stories at all—and as a Christian and a historian, I believe that I must—those stories are going to do something.

Stories tell us what’s true about the world, and they also teach us what is good and desirable. They’re formative, in that sense—they shape what we’ll go on to love. And stories are how we, as human beings, make sense of the world, and make sense of our days. They provide a set of expectations about how the world functions.

And so we must tell stories rightly—to ourselves as well as to others. Nate McFarland spoke at chapel last year about art—and one thing that he suggested was that the content actually mattered somewhat less than the presentation. What matters is not necessarily whether an album or a movie deals with sex or drugs or violence—it's whether it tells the truth about such things.

And I believe that telling true stories—and telling them rightly, as best we can—helps us wrestle through the difficulties of our world.

Daniel Mendelsohn recently wrote a great short essay in The New Yorker about the controversy over burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber killed in a shootout with police. Mendelsohn quotes a law professor who specializes in “the law of the dead” as saying that the case lacks precedent—“a legal no man's land.”

Mendelsohn responds, “A legal no-man’s land, perhaps, but familiar to anyone even casually acquainted with the Greek classics.” Mendelsohn then walks through Antigone, the Illiad, and the Odyssey, showing how these ancient Greek stories provide a context into which one can place this very new controversy. This context does not necessarily provide ready answers to difficult questions, but it provides a structure within which one can think through those questions. It provides a sense of order, even of security, in a chaotic, confusing world.

How much more so can the stories of Scripture provide that protective context! Story sustained the Jewish people throughout the centuries. Story—embedded in Scripture and in our practices—reorients us, rights us. And it’s the stories embedded in Scripture, in our creeds and liturgy, that will sustain the Church until the Lord returns.

And it’s those stories that sustain each of us too.

For a number of reasons, including but not limited to my induction by trials and tribulations into the teaching profession, 2012 was an extraordinarily difficult year for me. I found myself reflecting on the story of Job—in particular, on God's apparent absence throughout Job’s suffering and his powerful yet inscrutable response at the end of the book. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann characterizes it, “...after Job relates in great detail his anguish and pain and bewilderment, Yahweh responds, ‘Let me tell you about my crocodile.’” G.K. Chesterton concludes from the story that “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” And the author Mike Mason suggests that while God does not supply any logical or theological reasons for Job's suffering, he does give an answer. “The Lord's answer,” Mason says, “is Himself.”

I remember reading through Job in college and finding that answer profoundly unsatisfying. And even today I find it not exactly satisfying--not satisfying in the sense of making anguish comfortable or even explicable. But this past year it provided a context into which I could put my own struggles. And in that sense it was more satisfying than any human attempt to distill suffering into a life lesson or a punishment for sin. And as I read Scripture, I found more such stories—the blind man of John 9, or Psalm 44, where the Sons of Korah continue to claim righteousness and faithfulness despite suffering and loss, despite the apparent deafness of God to their pleas. And it was to these stories I turned when, in the midst of things, I could not stomach easier explanations.

The apparent lack of a logical answer at the end of Job's tribulation suggests to me why story—story itself, the storytelling medium—is so important. It's not just abstract truths embedded in a superfluous or extraneous plot, as though Christ in his parables were playing some cryptic game of cat-and-mouse with his disciples and with us. If you try to distill the Book of Job down to an abstract truth, the power and majesty embedded in the story will slip through your fingers and dissolve.

The stories themselves—they do something to us and in us. They act out their own transformative drama within our souls.

I am more and more convinced that we need to be constantly rooted in the stories of Scripture, even when—perhaps especially when—these stories don’t make any sense to us. Because those stories might take on a different light at another time in your life, and because, ultimately, there is a day coming when Christ will return and make sense out of nonsense, when God will return into our broken world, our world beset with death and pain and violence and wickedness. Our world that is not as it should be. And he will make things right.

That’s the end of the story—when Christ shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead and establish his kingdom that shall have no end.

We know the end of the story, and so that’s what we hope for, and that’s what ultimately gives us hope for today. We’re hoping for that day when, as Amos tells us, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when, according to Zephaniah, God will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.

So I'll conclude with the final great prayer of Scripture: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”