Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Apologetics and Storytelling

There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such a thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or  determinist story; for every story, yes even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment. And this is the reason why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came.

That is why the Athenian democracy killed Socrates out of respect for the gods; and why every strolling sophist gave himself the airs of a Socrates whenever he would talk in a superior fashion of the gods; and why the heretic Pharaoh wrecked his huge idols and temples for an abstraction and why the priests could return in triumph and trample his dynasty under foot; and why Buddhism had to divide itself from Brahmanism, and why in every age and country outside Christendom there has been a feud forever between the philosopher and the priest. It is easy enough to say that the philosopher is generally the more rational; it is easier still to forget that the priest is always the more popular. For the priest told the people stories; and the philosopher did not understand the philosophy of stories. It came into the world with the story of Christ. And this is why it had to be a revelation or vision given from above. Anyone who will think of the theory of stories or pictures will easily see the point. The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.160)

Chesterton's last line concerning storytelling reminds me of a something Prof. Harold Senkbeil once told us (and repeatedly for good reason) during class at seminary, "The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.'  But here we are, already getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can tell the story - and the Gospel is the greatest story of all - we must know what that story is. For that is the greatest danger with assumption, that the story goes unsaid, unread and untold.

Human beings by nature (and I dare say, by design as well) are storytellers. We love stories. We tell them to our children. Our children tell us stories - sometimes of the most fantastical, imaginative sort that we wish we could have their narrative powers as we once did in our youth. But even adults tell stories, sometimes they are short conversations on the phone or a recounting of the days events at dinner. Still other times stories may be told rapidly and under 140 characters through text messages and tweets, not a very complex (or perhaps enlightening) story, but a story nonetheless. We simply can't help ourselves. "Mom, you'll never guess what happened at school today!"  "Daddy, hurry and come over here now, I've got to tell you something; no it can't wait."  "Honey, I've got some good news for you..."  "Daddy, again. Read it again!"

It's almost as if we're wired to tell stories. In fact, I think we are. God made man in his own image and that image includes, a rational mind, a relationship (albeit a mysterious triune one) and a constant communication. We see all these in place before and after the fall in mankind. Although after the fall the mind, man's relationship (both with God and fellow man) and their communication are totally and completely corrupt; yet man still uses these gifts. And more importantly, God uses them too, namely, he restores them in a the new man and restores them in His Son. Perfect God. Perfect Man. Perfect story teller.

The point is this, that even in this fallen world, storytelling is bound into the very pages of man's history, from the moment the Scripture opens, there is storytelling. The question becomes, well, what sort of story is this? That we shall answer soon enough.  That man is a storyteller can only mean that God himself is a storyteller. This is why he uses human language to communicate - Hebrew and Greek - to be specific, prophets, apostles, disciples and evangelists. Evidently, creation was one story that God did not want to keep to himself, but rather to share and hand down.

And perhaps we overlook that fact when we read John 1 at Christmas. We must never go the way of the Gnostics and forget the flesh. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. And neither must we forget the Word that was made flesh. We are not lovers of the flesh for mere epicurean chaos.  It's no coincidence that the Word made flesh taught in large part through stories, parables and otherwise, and contained in them was all the wisdom of the philosophers, all the beauty of the mythological, and yet all the truthfulness of history. The Word made flesh never left words behind. And surely not for his sake, but for ours. He spoke to the crowds. He spoke in the synagogues. He spoke over the water. He spoke forgiveness. He spoke from the cross. He spoke in the resurrection. He spoke blessing. And none of those are past tense. He still speaks. That is the Greatest story, it continues in the resurrection, an eternal epilogue where each chapter is better than the last. Perhaps heaven is a bit like that, a book that you can't put down, the pace quickens, the story gets better and the book never ends.

We need words. We need story. Just as man needs words and story to communicate earthly things, so too, we need words and story to communicate the things of heaven that have come to earth. This is why apologetics - both the tough-minded and tender-hearted - and storytelling have found such great companionship together. Both sides of the brain are addressed in Christian apologetics. Jesus does this all the time where evidence, logic and reason are painted onto the storybook page we call, the parables. St. Paul did it in Athens, combining Stoic rhetoric, narrative and driving to the Gospel entirely on the pages of heathen philosophers. And this is what is needed today. We need to continue to communicate the greatest true story through storytelling. We need more literary apologists of the Great Eucatastrophe. Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Sayers, Williams, Barfield and others have paved the way. It's time for us to learn from the J.K. Rowlings of the world and pick up the pen. We can learn so much from Harry and others. Comfort in the midst of deathly grief. Joy and hope beyond the grave. That was Harry's hope because it was first the Christians' hope. And now the readers', if they have ears to hear.

I've called this right-brained apologetics before. And the term seems appropriate. But Chesterton recognizes that both sides of the mind are applied when it comes to defending the faith because Jesus speaks not to part of our brain but to the whole thing, indeed the whole person for he himself is the great everlasting man who combined in himself both the beauty and imagination of story with the wisdom and perspicacity of philosophy. Literature serves apologetics not as a means to an end. Rather it is both means and an end in itself. Literature communicates. And literature, within the leaves of its prose, points to a story greater than itself. Here in storytelling, man continues the work of tending to God's creation; here we are sub-creators always writing in the image in which we are made. Here, in the Gospel, both the breadth of storytelling and the depth of wisdom find their conclusion and epilogue.

[Christianity] is one among many stories, only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies, only it happens to be the truth. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 161)

 For the Son of Man has leaped off the pages of eternity and into the scroll of history. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And his Word still dwells with us on the written page, on the retina's wide gaze and upon our lips as the storytellers continue to tell somebody else. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

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