Tag Archives: story

God Is the Author Who Enters His Story

Storytellers invariably feel a deep connection with their stories. This is not surprising, given that every good story is a revelation of its author's being. Some authors express this connection by writing their stories in first-person narrative. Others actually write themselves into their stories as characters, though few enough manage to do this well (consider C. S. Lewis writing himself into the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, as well as his unfinished novel, The Dark Tower, or Stephen King's role in the later books of his own Dark Tower series).

Authors are not the only storytellers to feel this impetus. Film directors make appearances in their movies, either as major characters or in cameo roles. Who can forget the somber playfulness of Alfred Hitchcock's impassive visage as he emerges inevitably, albeit momentarily, on the film screen? Or, more recently, the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt roles M. Night Shyamalan plays in his movies? Stephen King appears in minor roles in many of the movies that are based on his books. Others could be added to the list as well, of course: Quentin Tarentino, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, Orson Welles, and many more.

These moments of authorial self-disclosure demonstrate an inescapable reality for good storytelling. A lasting and meaningful story will always be an extension of the very life of its author. Its bones will be his. Its sight will be limited by his eyes and its poignancy by his spirit. A good story throbs with the beating of its author's heart and pulsates to the rhythm of its author's blood. It is a nerve laid bare; a soul exposed. Not all authors, writers, or directors respond to this reality by entering into their stories, but those who do can be forgiven.

Space and Time

Granted that such is the case for the best stories, ought it surprise us when the divine storyteller enters into his story? What else could he do? What else would we expect from him? For this world is the story that God is telling: it is the revelation of his very being. Our world pulses with his life; we exist because he dreamt us up. Human storytellers create with ink on paper; the divine storyteller creates with matter on space and time. Human authors tell their stories through imagined characters; the divine author tells his story through humans.

That the truth of his authorship is hid in our collective subconscious is seen in a myriad of ways. It is seen in our absolutist sense of right and wrong ("he has put eternity into man's heart"—Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is seen in our poetry: "All the world's a stage/and all the men and women merely players" (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII). It is seen in our pantheistic tendencies, both ancient and modern. Given the intimate connection between story and storyteller, were the ancient Babylonians so far afield in imagining that the world has been formed from the flesh and bones of a god? Wrong in the technical details certainly, but as a metaphor, it's not entirely inaccurate. Even Paul lent limited legitimacy to a pantheistic poet in Acts 17:28: "We are indeed [God's] offspring." The world is God's self-exposing story. Indeed, the truth that God is telling his story through humanity is seen finally in humanity's own penchant for storytelling.

Story Within the Story

Still, this master artist is not content to tell his story merely through the created universe. He tells a story within the story too, by appointing people throughout the narrative to record his direct communication with his characters. So emerge the Scriptures, an even deeper revelation of the mind and heart of the divine author. The Scriptures reveal to us that in this particular drama, the characters are created for a loving relationship with their author.

This world, like all good stories, vibrates in tune to its author's heart. This fact remains, despite the catastrophe of the fall, for the fall itself is part of the story. The Scriptures flow with a verdurous life-force shunted from the veins of the Almighty. But even this is not enough. The author of life insists on entering his story, Hitchcock-like. Only his role is no cameo. When God enters the story he takes up the central role, and suddenly it becomes apparent that his role was central all along. And since this is the archetype of all stories, it is fitting that in it, the author's bone, flesh, and blood are all, quite literally, laid bare. Anything else would be anticlimactic.

In the appearance of this author within his own story, all of the other minor roles foreshadow and echo his critical one. In that grand denouement which is the incarnation, all other lives suddenly take on a whole new meaning and importance. In addition to their contribution to the story within their own plot arches, each individual life becomes a living echo of the story's main character, Jesus Christ. A whole discipline of theology, known as typology, is devoted to locating these echoes in the Bible.

But should we to stop with the people depicted in Scripture? Aren't our own lives part of the ongoing story? Shouldn't my life also approximate that of my Savior? Might this be part of what Paul is getting at in Colossians 3:3-4: "you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory"? We don't know all the ways in which our lives are being made into echoes of the messianic hero, but one day, we shall.

Lord, continue to write your story. Write your story into ours so that ours can be writ into yours. Make us always the supporting characters of your protagonist, Jesus Christ, and preserve us from both the fate of his antagonists and the ignominy of becoming mere comic relief. And while we continue to joyfully engage this volume of your great redemptive story, we eagerly look forward to its sequel.

"Since all the world is but a story, it were well for thee to buy the more enduring story rather than the story that is less enduring."—Saint Columba

From Prison to the Pulpit: A Stunning Story of God's Grace

Every Christian has an "impressive" testimony. There aren't Varsity and JV versions, because there aren't Varsity and JV sinners. "Dead in our trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1-3) described all of us before God butted in (Eph. 2:4).

But while all testimonies are miraculous, some are unusually gripping and encouraging. Mez McConnell has one of those stories.

Once an abused, addicted, homeless, Christian-despising criminal, Mez now serves as senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, and founder of 20 Schemes, a ministry dedicated to building gospel-centered churches for Scotland's poorest communities ("schemes"). Here's their vision:

Our long-term desire is to see Scotland's housing schemes transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ through the planting of gospel-preaching churches, ultimately led by a future generation of indigenous church leaders. . . . We believe building healthy, gospel-preaching churches in Scotland's poorest communities will bring true, sustainable, and long-term renewal to Scotland's schemes.

We partnered with 20Schemes to record a brief video of Mez's testimony. Do your soul a favor and watch. Soli Deo gloria.

Mez McConnell's Testimony from 20 Schemes on Vimeo.

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Mez recounted his story in a three-minute presentation at Together for the Gospel 2012 and in an hour-long interview at 9Marks. For a more detailed account of Mez's testimony, pick up a copy of his book, Is There Anybody Out There?: A Journey from Despair to Hope (Christian Focus, 2011).

Reading for Worldviews: Lord of the Rings

Editors' Note: "When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue," novelist Christopher Morley said, "you sell him a whole new life." During the past 50 years more books have been sold than in any other time in history. So what type of life---or, as Abraham Kuyper would say, world-and-life view---are we buying?

As a partial answer to that question, we've asked several Christian thinkers to examine the worldviews presented in the top 10 most-read books. Over the next several weeks we'll present articles on each of the titles. Read the introduction to the series by Louis Markos.

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One of the disadvantages we have with books written in our lifetime---as compared with classic books from other eras---is kind of obvious if you stop to think about it. We don't know which ones will be classics. We don't know who to put into the line-up. Other centuries are picking on us unfairly. Those other generations had their dreck too, but almost none of that survived the test of time. Our dreck is still alive and well, and selling briskly. So when we make a comparison, we tend to imagine that the 14th century had a Chaucer on every other corner, while ours has an E. L. James in every Starbucks.

The game is lopsided because all they have to do is put in their first string. We are required to put in anybody from the student body who thinks he might be able to play a little.

But imagine what the test of real time will do to our literature that is not worth preserving. Imagine what it will look like when our century and the last one have that huge neighborhood garage sale, the one where we sell off all our old Book of the Month Club selections at a nickel a box. What will we keep? What will be left over?

I want to argue that The Lord of the Rings will be among the keepers. And schoolchildren several centuries hence will then be able to imagine that the 20th century was a time of literary giants, all of them with a Christian worldview---when there was a Tolkien on every corner.

Not Just Harry Potter for Grown-Ups

I have taught courses in Tolkien (and in Lewis), and whenever you do this the teacher has quite a daunting challenge. If I were to teach a course in George Herbert, or T. S. Eliot, or Shakespeare, I would get students enrolled in the class who were interested and engaged, of course. But with a class on Tolkien, you will invariably get one or more students who have the entire middle section of The Silmarillion memorized. "No, no. Beren and Lúthien went through the Gate after they had put that spell on Carcharoth." The same disadvantage attends any who would write about Tolkien as well. And so I begin this modest discussion, suitably abashed.

Those who dismiss The Lord of the Rings as simply Harry Potter for grown-ups, or as a source of bumper sticker material for aging hippies to put on their Volvos ("Not all those who wander are lost") have really missed the central prophetic vision of the books---a prophetic stance taken against modernity . . . or perhaps what we might want to call mordornity. This is the prophetic element that makes Tolkien's vision a fundamentally Christian one. There are places where I prefer Lewis's Protestant take to Tolkien's Catholicism, obviously, but on this issue Tolkien reflects the ethical perspective of the entire Christian tradition. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

The Gospel as Power Under

This is the wisdom that acknowledges the small are great, the last are first, the humble are exalted, and the servants are lords. For those who think in carnal categories, power is always power over, and this means that for them the difference between white magic and black magic has to be power over for good ends, and power over for evil ends. But the gospel is power under. Jesus humbled himself in obedience, even to the point of death on a cross, and God has therefore highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name.

Think of it this way. The council of Elrond determined that they would not be seduced by the concept of total war. They are unalterably opposed to Sauron and his works, and so they decide that they will under no circumstances become Sauron themselves. A ring comes into their possession, and it is a ring that would enable them to overthrow Sauron completely . . . but with a price. They could defeat Sauron by becoming Sauron.

The characters who refuse to use the ring in this way are many---Elrond, Gandalf, Faramir, Galadriel, Sam, and for a very long time, Frodo. Boromir falls prey to the temptation posed by the ring, but it seen by all the rest of them as just that, a temptation that his particular kind of strength was too weak to resist.

At the end of his journey, when Frodo finally succumbed to the power of the ring and put it on, standing on the lip of the crevice going down into Mt. Doom, Sauron was "suddenly aware of him, and . . . the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash" (The Return of the King). Sauron has no category for a strategy against him conceived in humility. The idea that someone could come into possession of a ring that would grant universal power to the one who possessed it, and who would then not try to use it as he would use it, had never entered his mind. Indeed, given what kind of mind it was, it could not enter his mind.

A Cruciform Story

C. S. Lewis once pointed out that Tolkien's "ring of power" was not a coded message against the atom bomb, and that the chronology of the writing made such a reconstruction impossible. At the same time, the ring of power is a clarion statement against thoughtless use of every form of right-fisted power---from the crossbow to the bomb.

This is another way of saying that the plot lines in The Lord of the Rings are cruciform. And when this kind of structure is combined with Tolkien's vast learning, painstaking attention to detail, and imagination stocked with tales from everywhere, you have a story for the ages.

We cannot know what the technology will be like two centuries from now. How smart will the phones be? The computers? The weapons? The genetic engineering? We have no idea what sort of device might be used in order to read The Lord of the Rings. We therefore cannot pass down to our great-great-grandchildren any specific instructions concerning such details. But we can pass down wisdom. We can teach them---by handing down stories like this one---that being able to do something doesn't mean that you should.

The Tree of Life: An (un)Review

In the world of cinema, there are two basic kinds of people: those who "go to the movies," and those who love the art of film itself. For the latter group, the release date of  Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in their respective city was tantamount to a high holy day. Malick—the reclusive director—has only made four films in the past 40 years before this current release. Each piece has in turn been critically acclaimed. The Tree of Life was certainly no exception to the rule, receiving the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the festival's most prestigious award. This all took place despite the fact that Malick did not personally appear in support of the film at Cannes (although he was there), and refuses to do any publicity.

Confession: I believe that The Tree of Life is a masterpiece and a deeply important film. As someone who teaches courses in philosophy of film, and having seen the film multiple times myself, I have repeatedly told all interested parties that this is not a film for the folks who like to "go to the movies." In fact, I have actively discouraged people from going to see it. Terrence Malick is a highly philosophical auteur filmmaker whose works defy the traditional conventions of dialogue, narrative, and story arc. Complicating matters, however, The Tree of Life stars three of Hollywood's biggest names: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. Consequently, people have shelled out their hard-earned dollars and filed into the theater to see a blockbuster. They were in for a rude awakening.

Each time I have seen the film, I have felt like I was entering a zone demarcated for spiritual warfare. It opens with an epigram from Job 38:4,7 ("Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"), and immerses its viewers into what I can only describe as an intense experience of emotional vertigo for the next two and a half hours. The film arrests the individual's senses at every level: intellectual, psychological, and visual. The cinematography is stunning. The portrayals of the O'Brien family, set in 1950s Waco, Texas, provide what can only be described as the most moving repristination of childhood ever captured on film. The voiceovers from the film's protagonist, Jack, confront the audience directly with the existence of God.

Legendary Reactions

Reactions to The Tree of Life have already become the stuff of legend. Some respond to what they are seeing with deep, sensate weeping. Others grow visibly angry and verbalize their protests before storming out of the theater. Still others emerge from the auditorium in a state of shock. But everyone leaves talking about what they have just seen. Personally, I felt the right response for me afterward was a period of silence.

Film criticism has fallen decidedly on hard times, and nowhere has this been more evident in the reviews of The Tree of Life. Although Roger Ebert has heralded the film as the most ambitious film he has seen since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, reviewers have struggled to wrap their minds around Malick's magnum opus.

For secular audiences, the content borders on offensive given the work's explicit theism and anomalous ending (e.g. is this an evocation of the afterlife or not?). The general line of attack for them has been: "Malick has taken on the meaning of life, but we remain very piously unconvinced by what we perceive as his 'answers.'"  Perhaps more enlightening are those who apply a Freudian/Lacanian grid to the story, referencing the Oedipal impulses they see tacit in Jack's relationship to his father and his mother.

Christian reviewers, by way of contrast, appear almost desperate to figure out what every scene "means" in the film. We would like to believe that Malick's genius is a catalog of one-to-one correspondences with orthodoxy, ready-made for illustrative sermon material. To be sure, there is plenty of fodder for such interpretations: the nature vs. grace dichotomy, the explicit and latent references to Scripture, the themes of darkness and shame versus light and love, the seemingly weak church and pale Christ juxtaposed to the youthful passions of Jack, and the redemption/reconciliation sequence that closes the film.

The whole work overflows with theological intensity. For example, what other filmmaker besides Malick would have such a high view of the sanctity of human life so as to suggest that the significance of one child's birth can only be understood in light of the totality of the universe's creation? And what do we make of the sequences with the older Jack among the skyscrapers of Houston? Could it be, as one colleague suggested, that you can go running from your emotional and psychological "stuff," but sooner or later, your "stuff" is going to come looking for you?

But whereas we are driven to do theological analysis on The Tree of Life, I wonder if we might be missing the film's own internal governing hermeneutic. Terrence Malick transports the individual into the pure feeling and wonder of existence in light of our experience. Could it be that the analogue for this film is not Western Christianity, but rather Eastern Orthodoxy? Is The Tree of Life meant to be dissected and explained, or does the filmmaker intend for us to think of his piece as an icon, transporting us into another world in which restoration, reconciliation, and grace are not scorned by mockers and enervated by skeptical disavowals?

High Priests of Culture

Recently, philosophers have begun asking the question of whether or not film has/will become a new form of thought itself. In his massive two volume work on Cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that film is not merely a medium for communicating messages or stories, but also a means to fuse thought and image together in an instant of ecstatic realization. Similarly, Jacques Rancière has written that film gives us the ability to do something that ideologies have wanted to do for centuries: make the abstract and unrepresentable, representable. It has the potential to combine image, sound, and thought into form that has a distinctive power to explain the world around us.

If these analyses turn out to be apt, then The Tree of Life may well be remembered as a turning point in the importance of how we think about film itself. It may well accelerate the feeling of many people today that their aesthetic experiences through the arts are religion enough for them. Anton Chekov once reflected on his ambivalence toward the theater and the "high priests of the sacred art"—that the actors show us how to live, what to do, and who to be. Today, there can be no doubt that the high priests, priests, and acolytes of our culture are the producers, directors, writers, and actors. As film increasingly presents people with opportunities to replicate certain aspects of religious experience, we must pause to reflect upon the growing reality of "theater as temple."

This phenomenon puts us back, curiously enough, in the position of the ancient Mediterranean world, in which Greek dramas brought together the worship of the gods, the understanding of the state, and the norms of society. In such a world, we have no choice but to repair to the foolishness of preaching, return to what Luther called the "poor tokens of the Word of God alone" . . . and hope at the end of the day that Terrence Malick is on our side.