Friday, June 24, 2011

An Argument for the Antiquated

Fred Craddock said that the mind is like a hallway in an art gallery with pictures hanging on it, and under each picture is a word identifying the subject of the picture. So that if I say a word, you get a picture. “Nun,” “Southerner,” “Doctor,” “Homeless.” The problem is, we don’t all have the same pictures hanging on the walls of our minds! Hence, we use words, thinking that we’re communicating clearly because we have a clear “picture” in mind of what we’re talking about, but the other person has a different picture.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that words, and the pictures they conjure up in our minds, are always accompanied by a story of some sort, a narrative matrix against which the picture is set, which gives the word context and meaning. Therefore, to exchange one word for another is not just to change the picture, it is to change the story within which the picture is set. That is to say, words don’t just communicate ideas; they also carry with them a common culture, ethos, values, and plot. Change the word and you’ve changed the story.

In an episode of the old television sitcom Home Improvement, Al’s mother dies and Wilson, Tim Taylor’s globe-trotting, Renaissance-man neighbor, agrees to conduct the funeral. At the funeral home, Tim is chatting with Wilson who, having donned clerical robe and stole, is looking over his notes for the service. Wilson reads through his funeral sermon notes to Tim and admits that he’s a bit rusty; that the last time he’d conducted a funeral was when he was a shaman on the island of Pago Pago. As he reads through his notes for the service, he comes to the part in the funeral where it says, “Dear brothers and sisters, we’ve come to pay our respects and to celebrate the life of (insert name), and to commend the soul of our beloved to the eternal keeping of the ________________,” and at this point Wilson says to himself, “Must remember to replace “Lizard King” with “Heavenly Father.” Audience laughs. They laughed because they instinctively knew that changing the words of the story changed the story itself. That is to say, while the narrative structure of the funeral service Wilson was about to do was identical in form to a Christian service (right down to the language of “brothers and sisters” and “commend the soul,” and “eternal keeping”), by simply changing the name for God from “Heavenly Father” to “Lizard King” a completely different story was assumed.

Some have suggested that because we now live in a biblically-illiterate and post-Christian world, the “ancient words” and their concomitant stories form a dis-connect rather than a connection with postmodern persons, and that in order to communicate the Gospel to a postmodern world, we must jettison the old, “ancient words” of faith (jargon, they call them, like “salvation and “sin” and “hell” etc.) and replace them with words more relevant, trendy, contemporary, comfortable, and comprehensible to a secular, postmodern, biblically-illiterate, post-Christian culture (words from the pop culture or business world or psychological jargon). The problem with this approach is that words come with an attendant context, values, ethos, and story. And so, to replace, for example, the biblical word “sin” with a postmodern, contemporary word that communicates effectively to a contemporary culture consumed with health and wellness concerns, one must choose a word from the therapy culture, such as “sickness,” or “pathology” or “dysfunction.” But that is not what “sin” means in our story. In the Bible, sin is not merely some unfortunate, no-fault, mindless mishap for which one is neither accountable nor responsible; it is intentional, willful disobedience to the One Who makes appropriate and legitimate claims and demands upon us. In our story, “sin” is not merely an “oops” or an “uh oh,” it’s a stubborn, intentional, recalcitrant “no!” that sets in motion irrevocable consequences and inescapable outcomes. And so, to exchange the word “sin” for “sickness” and “salvation” for “therapy” is not just to change the word; it is to change the story, or, as Paul says to the Galatians, to run the risk of proclaiming as “Gospel” something that is “no Gospel” at all!

Moreover, isn't it just a bit arrogant, provincial, and overweening to believe that words and a Story that have given life and meaning and hope to a people for over two millennia can, and should be, abandoned now just because the latest occupants of this planet find those words and that Story befuddling and bewildering? Why not just teach them what these words “mean” by teaching them what the Story that gives them meaning “says?”

It’s a little like marrying into a family and going to the family reunion of your spouse and suddenly meeting people with whom you have no history, hearing the names of people you don’t know, like Uncle George, and hearing stories in which you have not participated, and then announcing that you find that history “irrelevant” and these names “unnecessary” and those stories “off-putting” and that you forbid the family to speak of them again in your presence! Rather, you have your own history and some other names and some other stories with which you’re familiar, and that from now on, you want everybody at the reunion to talk only of them. Absurd? Of course. What you do is to listen carefully to their history and those names and these stories until you begin to learn who Uncle George is/was and what he is/was about. After a while, an amazing thing happens. “Uncle George” is no longer just a strange sounding name about which you know nothing. You begin to feel that you actually know Uncle George. And then, after a while, another, more amazing thing happens: “Uncle George” becomes your Uncle George! And finally, something even more amazing happens: In discovering your Uncle George, you discover yourself – that this is who you are; that this is your history; that this is your story!

That’s precisely what happens in the Bible. As the words of the people of God are spoken, the history heard, the stories shared, what had been strange and remote becomes familiar and one’s very own. That’s why in Deut. 26:1-11, the writer, composing centuries after Moses and the Exodus, instructs the people of God to bring their offerings to the temple and, before leaving them there, they are to remember their history; to speak ancient words and tell an amazing story:

A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

At the time Deuteronomy was written (or at least discovered and used as the basis of Josiah’s reform in 621 B.C.), not a one of those offering their “first fruits” to the temple had actually been alive during the Exodus, which had occurred 600 to 800 years earlier. But in speaking the “ancient words” and in re-telling that “amazing story,” that story became their story, and “they” became “us.”

Something to think about the next time some neophyte suggests scuttling the Story and the words we use to tell it in order to make room for something more “relevant” to the contemporary world.


Devine Purpose said...

I love it! This really open my mind to approach and see the world in a different prospective. I enjoy the read. misty

Jo said...


Thank you so much for this. My theology has been taking some wide swings and where it was until recently was freeing but a little too much. The faith of my fathers, and the niggling moral issues of right and wrong and sin were under my skin and itching to be scratched. You just did that. Thank you for putting into words what I have been trying to mentally verbalize