Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Dark Side of Story

It was a lovely little gathering at a denominational meeting, as I and another dual-class pastor/author sat with folks and talked faith and storytelling.

We chatted about our books, about the literature that we loved, about the stories that shaped us.  We talked about how story is the ground of faith, and how mythopoetic narratives create a sense of self in a way that data simply cannot.  We talked about the use of fiction in liturgy and teaching, and gave examples. It was a good, solid, earnest Presbyterian bit of thinkery.

After many other good questions and conversation, my colleague offered up the rich question: we've talked about how story can shape us in positive ways.  In what ways can story be less helpful?

There were some well-considered answers around the table, thoughtful reflections on the obscurity of narrative as a means of speaking truth, and about human subjectivity and our capacity for misunderstanding as we engage with such truth.

There were reflections on the dangers of stories that were cloyingly sweet, the clumsy Christian tendency to create bludgeoningly didactic books and films, in which all of the characters are transparent stereotypes and THE MESSAGE IS IN ALL CAPS.  It is no small irony that our "evangelical" stories are so often told in ways that only those who already believe can enjoy them.

It was a wonderful dialogue.  As one of the two folks at the "front" of the room, I pitched out my thoughts on the subject early.  Well, one of my thoughts. As the conversation continued, another occurred to me.  But the role of the person at the front of the room isn't to pontificate endlessly, no matter how much caffeine you drank right before the session.  You contribute, give a perspective, and then support, and listen.

The answer I left unspoken was this: Story is a soul-shaping magic, but it is not necessarily a good magic. 

Stories can be evil.

Storytelling as a means of forming personal and collective identity can make us more just, more compassionate, more open, and more gracious. It can force open our imaginations to receive a new blessing. It can deepen our welcome to the stranger, and set our souls at peace. 

And it can also do precisely the opposite thing.  We can tell stories of our own lives that make us more anxious, more hateful, and more bitter.  Our narratives of the people around us can twist them into chimerae, allowing us to project our anxiety and rage onto that false Other.  They abuse us! They are monsters! We, the victims, the paragons of virtue! We can mutter these things to ourselves for a lifetime.

We can tell stories of our lives together that deepen our collective resentments towards the stranger, that heighten our distrust of neighbor, and that dehumanize those we need to hate.  We recount their corruption and brutality, heightening our contempt of Them, reinforcing the bright shiny truth of Us.  We make up stories that cast Us as perfect and noble and good, and Them as demonic god-foe monstrosities, irredeemable enemies, unworthy of love.

Our stories can make our hearts leap at the thrill of violence, hunger for possessions, and view others as meat for our pleasure. They can make us cynical and cold and brutal.

Fiction can call us into a higher truth. It can also be a deepening lie upon a lie. 

A story can tell a deep magic of compassion.  It can just as easily be a coldwoven curse, written in the blood of ego, filling our soul with worms.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

My Sweet Enemy

Is my

Strangling my 
Murdering my 
Smothering my

And yet

As I watch

On a new summer's twilight

The young couple stops
And He
Takes flowers for her hair

Then a woman

Presses her face
Into its warm

O my 

How worthy you are

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

This is one of those posts, from one of those people. 

Because I don't watch it.

I could have, out of some sense of cultural obligation.  How else could I pepper my sermons with knowing, engaged references?  But I have not watched it, and I am not watching it.  I mean, sure, every now and then, I'll watch a snippet of an episode on Youtube, because dragons.

I did, however, read the books.  Not all of them.  I read the first three, years ago.  They were great.  I found them utterly engrossing.  After the end of the third book, at the advice of a trusted friend and the stirring of my own instinct, I stopped.

The reason I stopped was simple: I could see how the series had to end. 

Not because I'm a prophet, or because I'm in sole possession of the only handwritten manuscripts of the last four books, which George RR accidentally mailed to my home address.  That rumor is completely unfounded, no matter what George tells you.

But because I'm a storyteller, and I recognized the flow of the narrative of Westeros.

Here's the truth of it, the only legitimate, true-to-the-genre way Game of Thrones ends:

It doesn't. 

It can't.   There is no way to end it that would feel right, as y'all are discovering.

The entire series is about the human struggle for power, the wrestling for control.  I mean, duh.  It's just a mirror of our history, in all of its endlessly cycling brutality and falseness.  That kind of story goes on, and on, and on, generation after generation, filled with war and treachery and plotting and greed.  There would need to be a hundred books.  A thousand.  More.

It'd be both exhausting and insane.

I already get that from history itself, as bloody and fascinating and bizarre as anything Westeros offers. 

And the news, God help us.

Friday, May 3, 2019

That Moment of Stillness

The concert hall was filled with human beings.  It was close to capacity, with almost every seat taken.  Almost two thousand persons, gathered in a space, listening to a trio of the world's best musicians play a series of classical pieces. 

One of the great advantages of modern-era music?  It's amplified, pouring out through vast speaker arrays, filling the air with itself, smothering the presence of human beings.  Space is left for applause and call-outs to the audience, but when the music is TURN'T UP, it shoulders us aside.  We are there, but we are not there enough to intrude.

This was different.  No amplification, no nothing.  Just piano, cello, violin, and the natural acoustics of the venue.   It was a pure, organic experience, and as such was a perfect reminder that pure, organic human beings are...well...we're kind of noisy.  We rustle.  We stir.  We drop things.  We murmur and shift in place.  And at the height of pollen season, we cough.  Oh dear sweet baby Jesus, do we cough. 

Echoing through the perfect acoustics of a modern concert hall, allergy season isn't the friend of the listener. 

As the musicians played their first piece, Mendelssohn's lovely Piano Trio No. 1, our noisy humanness was impossible to escape.  We intruded constantly on the music, coughing and snorting and sneezing.   And dropping things.  Evidently those programs were slippery.

During the break between pieces, the gathered mass of humanity hacked and hawked and cleared its collective throat, to the point where I wondered if this particular concert happened to include Patients Zero through Four hundred and Fifty two in a major pandemic outbreak.  People shifted and talked, the room alive with the sound of our collective bustle.

But at the beginning of the second piece, there came this...moment.  It was at the start of the second piece, Shostakovich's Piano Trio #2 in E minor.  I'd never heard it before.  It's a stark, challenging work, sometimes sublime, often harsh, teasing with sorrowful near-harmonies.  It begins with the cello, way up high at the top of its register, sweet and soft and intimate.

In that great room, alive with the sounds of nearly two thousand humans, that cello was barely audible.  A whisper of beauty, so quiet as to be almost outside of the range of hearing, almost lost in the sound of the natural movement of our mass.  We weren't trying to be loud.  No one was coughing or dropping things.  Even so, we were still all moving, just a little, all together, enough to make it hard to hear.

But we were also all listening for the music.  Every person in that vast space wanted to hear.  We were all paying attention.  And from that shared desire, the whole room went still.   Completely, totally, still.

All at once, there was near absolute silence.  Not a person moving, breath held in thousands of lungs, not a one of us shifting, all holding perfectly motionless as the cello sang clearly in the space we together had made for it.

That great receptive quiet was, in its own way, as beautiful as the music itself.

How often in life do all of us grow still, not just one or two of us, but all, listening together to a voice that can only be heard in that place of deep gathered silence?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

One City, Many Gates

How can faith integrate into itself the idea that there are multiple and variant narratives of truth?

It would seem impossible.  Faith, or so we tend to think, involves having one defining story, a singular mythopoetic.  There is a single acceptable set of truths, and anything outside of that truth set is either not of the faith or heretical.

We have, from the modern era's mechanistic assumptions about inerrant texts and the pre-modern era's assumptions about ecclesiastical inerrancy, assumed that authority is singular.    So of course religion can only have one truth.  Accepting variation would be a violation of canon.

And we know from the fandom of our modern corporate myth-o-tainment franchises that varying from canon...any canon...seriously sets people off.  Some days, that's pretty much all reddit and Twitter do.

Only, well, the Christian canon is weird.

At the core of the Christian faith, there are four Gospels, four alternative narratives of Jesus.  Three...Matthew, Mark, and Luke...share general parameters with one another.   One...John...is completely different.  They arise from variant oral and written traditions, all trying to get at who Jesus was and what he taught.  Each was written into a specific context in the early church, by a writer with a particular and discernable editorial emphasis.

Mark, furtive and blunt as a bludgeon.  Matthew, the earnest traditionalist.  Luke, the erudite historian.  John, the poet and the mystic.

Their tonal variances are nontrivial.  But, more importantly, none are exactly the same story.  They present us with variant characters and differing chronologies.

They cannot be reconciled or blended with one another without some serious surgery.  This is a problem for fundamentalism, because you cannot be "literally inerrant" if your texts are "literally different."

The early church also struggled with this.  How can you have this peculiar dissonance?

Efforts were made at mashing them up, at creating one authoritative and harmonized story.  Tatian's Diatesseron was one early attempt.  But the Jesus movement did not go that way, as the words "Tatian's Diatesseron" aren't likely front of mind for most Christians.  The choice was made to retain these variant accounts.

So what if they're different?  So what if they don't line up exactly?

It doesn't matter.  The geist...the spirit...of them is the same.  There are four gates to our city, but they lead to the same place.

And, in fact, keeping those variant perspectives was viewed as ultimately having more value.  Having variance deepens the core truth of each, with each text offering insights that the others do not, creating a sense of a whole that is richer and more complicated than a unitary perspective could provide.

Variant narratives of truth?  That's pretty much the core of the Christian canon.