Myth In The Material of History

A Great Myth Written in the Material of History

I was speaking with an executive of the AMC channel about their wildly successful shows, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.  We were talking about the split season for many of their shows, ending a fall run in early December and not beginning a spring run until late winter.  The executive said their most popular shows had a storyline that focused on evil, and they wanted to give people a break from evil during the Christmas season.

The executive is a believer, and we began a conversation about the storylines of these wildly popular shows.  He said, “Yes, they are about good and evil, and especially about the consequences of evil.”  I agreed with him when he said a show that includes the consequences of moral decisions, is in the final analysis a show with spiritual values.  I thought of the flawed characters in the novels of Flannery O’Connor, a committed Christian.

An acquaintance of mine in New York City made a number of popular but violent movies.  On a visit to his home in the late 80s, I asked about his movies.  He said they were very spiritual.  He cited a scene he had shot that very day for a film he was making.  Over the passing of time, that specific scene has found a life of its own on You Tube, in university courses, and in conversations among Christian filmmakers.  The scene shows Harvey Keitel on the floor of a church in Manhattan, looking up at a homeless man, but seeing Jesus.  My friend was right.  His movies were spiritual.

All great stories have similar elements.  There is a protagonist and an antagonist.  There is something the protagonist wants that the antagonist does not want him to have.  The story builds to a dread/hope axis, in which the reader, hearer, or viewer dreads and hopes something for the protagonist.  He dreads that the protagonist does not reach his goals, and hopes that he does.

Many great stories are myths, stories that may or may not be historically true, but universally illustrate the human condition.  Think of Homer’s Odyssey, or other examples of Greek mythology.

One group who understood the importance of myth was an informal literary group of several writers affiliated with the University of Oxford in England.  The group was called the Inklings.  The group included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others who appreciated narrative fiction and fantasy.  We are blessed today with the fruit of their collaborative conversations.

On one occasion Tolkien suggested to Lewis a way Lewis might want to view scripture.  He said Lewis should view the gospel as “a great myth written by God in the material of history.”  Tolkien was right.  Never in the history of mankind has the dread/hope axis been any greater than in the three days between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection.  Never has there been a more powerful protagonist and antagonist.  And never has so much hung on the outcome of a single story.

Poet or Preacher?


Poet or Preacher?

It has been three months since I last preached.  I’m not sure the last time I went three months without preaching, but I’m pretty sure it was over a decade ago.  Interesting though.  I do not miss it.  Not one tiny bit. I have nothing scheduled on the horizon and at the moment that does not bother me at all.

Ironically, over the past year I have done the best preaching of my life.  I’ve been relaxed, less scripted.  I still aim for excellence and put a lot of time into my messages, but there has been no striving, no reaching or overreaching.  I have been content to not know what I do not know.

The older I become, the less certain I am about what exactly the truth is.  I once had a mentor who said, “The truth is hard to tell.”  I thought he meant it was hard to speak, but that was not his message.  He was saying the truth is hard to discern.  Preachers have to be confident they have discerned the truth. They speak with authority and conviction.  I believe I have pretty much figured out what the major questions of life are, but I feel less and less comfortable speaking with authority and conviction about the answers.

I was speaking with my therapist, the one who has known me for decades, and surprised myself by saying, “I am a poet, not a preacher.”  The writer Mark Nepo says it is unfortunate that art and poetry have been cast in our culture as entertainment, when they are so much more than that.  He says they are “air to breathe.”  I believe the essence of our humanity is uncovered in the questions we ask, not in the answers we receive.

We live in a world dominated by measurable facts.  It’s been that way since the dawn of the modern age over 500 years ago.  Facts are good.  I like that my doctor deals in facts, my accountant too.  But life is so much more than a collection of facts.  It includes feelings and values and intuition and soul.  A world dominated by facts is not a world in which I am going to thrive.

Poetry, on the other hand, is indeed like the air we breathe.  It goes deep within us and through us and around us.  I have been memorizing poetry for about 10 years and writing it for about three.  I’ve tried quoting my poems, but only with groups of ministers.  Not a particularly good idea.  Most were looking for “how-to” information that would help their churches grow. I’m not sure poetry is going to help their churches grow.

Now that I am no longer preaching, the way I am choosing to live my life is changing.  I do not gravitate toward conversations in which I am expected to have answers.  I would rather listen deeply than speak.  I have no kingdoms to build, no axes to grind.  I do not want a soapbox.  I want a flowing river and a pen and notepad.  I want good conversation with friends.  I am discovering the truth that has been building in me for a long time.  I am more of a poet than a preacher.

Comprehension & Apprehension

Comprehension and Apprehension

I was talking with a scholarly friend about the nature of understanding.  We hike together and sometimes discuss subjects others might consider esoteric.

I told him I have noticed a shift in my focus.  I now seek wisdom with the same determination with which I once sought knowledge and understanding.  My friend suggested understanding moved to second place because of how bound it is to modern age thinking.  I believe he is correct.

The modern age was focused almost entirely on science and the notion of factual knowledge.  Science today is still fixated on facts.  It loves objective measurable facts.  While science could not advance without its cold and calculating regard for hard information, too much reliance on science reduces all of life to nothing but facts.  If something cannot be measured and quantified, it simply is not important or worse yet, it does not exist.

Facts belong in the realm of comprehension.  But much of life cannot be comprehended.  It can only be apprehended, and there is a huge difference between the two.  In his book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite says comprehension occurs when you “completely surround something, so that your mind completely understands it.”  He suggests that when you apprehend something, “you are not saying you’ve completely got a hold of it, you are saying you’ve grasped something of it and you’re moving toward it.”

When I read the first verses of the Gospel of John, I apprehend the gospel.  I cannot say I comprehend it.  In fact I feel that way through much of John’s writing.  On the other hand, it seems to me that Paul writes so we may comprehend the gospel.  Proverbs is about comprehension.  Psalms is about apprehension.

Seamus Heany’s poem The Forge begins with the line, “All I know is a door into the dark.”  Guite suggests it is not just a great opening line, but a wonderful stand-alone line.  To go through that door requires what he calls “imaginative apprehension.”  Isn’t that how we approach death, or marriage, parenting, retirement, or any other milestone event?

Ah, this is one of those times I am frustrated by the limitations of this little column.  I would like to wander more into the territory of apprehension.  Maybe you can come on by the house.  We’ll sit by the fire pit, look at the mountains and have a conversation about the nature of understanding.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even apprehend something.