Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: July 2008

Crossing Time and Space Through Story

Storytelling allows me to moves across time and space. The grand story provides a foundation for movement across all stories. When I move through stories, I am entering the world of other people. I am entering their time (memories and vision) and their space (body and place).

I can move through stories (worlds) on multiple pivots points. Think of the elements of story: setting, dialogue, character, plot, symbols, mood, and pace. I can connect stories at one or multiple points. So I might move back through in the characters of stories. Take the king or ruler. I can read and experience the many variations of rulers across time through stories written in and about differing time periods.

The rulers make differing decisions, the rulers may be good or evil, the rulers may be young or old. In spite of their differences, they play the same characters. They are rulers because they rule. So I watch and experience their rule in different settings, times, and world. As I watch and listen and experience their worlds, I might see glimpses of my own world. I might gain insight into the rulers of my world or my own ruling decisions.

I can start with setting working our from my home to a variety of domestic dwellings revealed in stories from mud huts to castles. Each setting creates a place where relationships happen. So each setting speaks something of how place influences relationship and how relationships define space.

I might look at symbolic colors of red or white or black. Or I might consider the changing pace in stories from my world to ancient worlds. I might see how the same plot is replayed and repeated in different ages.

Each element of a story can be thought of like a jazz standard. Just as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock might play the same song or standard, they’ll interpret it in light of their own world. Their perspective will highlight unique nuances of the song and capture different experiences based on the time and place of the recording. Thus stories and story elements might be like jazz standards that are reworked in various ways across time and space. If I choose to explore these shifting expressions, I will take an element and watch how it is reworked in various times and places.

So I might learn to listen to other stories. First, I might learn to listen to the stories of the people around me, paying attention to all the elements. Then I might also pay attention or listen to the stories of my culture, other cultures and other times. Each of these elements and stories will shine new light into my own story.

Then I might work through these many stories to the grand story. The Christian story provides a fundamental influence on people born in the Western world. Even though many people see this narrative as a shackle from which they desire to be free, they still require a story to make sense of the world. The West has been so deeply shaped by this story, it is difficult to shake free from it.

They may curse the story but even their curses comes from the power of this narrative which affirms the individual human as distinct (with the ability to curse and bless). As opposed to narratives which deny our individuality and see that individuality as an illusion. In those worldviews, the curse that I utter is still an illusion of my own independence.

So for my reflections, I’ll try to consciously think and talk about how the Christian story provides a narrative that connects all stories. Back to my example of stories about rulers: I can work through all the various stories on leaders and kings and managers and people who rule. Then I can encounter the Biblical narrative.

In this narrative, Jesus is presented is the “ideal ruler” against the backdrop of other rulers such as Herod and Caesar. The sharp contrast of Jesus with other kings in his story and the stories throughout Scripture raises challenging questions about what it means to rule and how a ruler behaves.

I picked an obvious archetype of ruler. But how do I deal with lawyer or plumber or other character? What about mom or sister or friend? If I move beyond characters can I root setting or symbol or dialogue in a grand story? The particularities can be challenging and may not be as obvious as ruler.

But if G.K. Chesterton is correct and Jesus is the story in which all stories intersect, then I can work through each particular story element and find the roots in His story. This may require a deeper understanding of how I encounter Jesus in the story of Scripture. I think most people start with the gospels and try to think of the events of his life.

But actually the Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13-35) indicates that all of Scripture is witnessing to the story of Jesus. So I need eyes to learn how to read this grand narrative and begin to hear and see how His story is unfolded in the midst of stories about Abraham, Moses, David and so on. This is not something I do overnight, but rather I gradually work through this grand narrative, learning slowly and by God’s grace how to see the points of intersection and how to see the light of grace shining deep into the recess of my own story that is filled with pain, struggle, darkness and loss.

My Story, Other Stories and the Story

There are three levels of stories for each person. The personal story, the universe of stories and over-arching story connecting all stories.

Personal Story
I have a story that is really a set of many stories with me in the center. So normally if I think I my story, I am thinking of myself as the central character in the story. While I play a role in the stories of many other people, if I tell my story, I am telling it from the center. No matter how much I try to diminish my presence or perspective, I can’t tell a story outside of my imagination. If I read or act or direct or simply print another story, I will still influence with my perspective through the way I tell the story. My vocal inflection, my characterization, my decisions of motion or even my choice of typestyle influences the telling of the story.

So the first level of stories are stories told through the lens of my memory and vision with me as the center.

Universe of Stories
The second level of stories are stories from the world around me. My stories are within these stories. These are stories told by family and friends as well as strangers. Thus these stories are told from a center outside myself. Even if someone tells a story with me as the main character, it is still being told from their perspective, their world, their memories and vision. This level includes all stories from all history, so it includes great literature, plays as well as tales told and retold by friends and strangers. It is a brimming, exploding, unwieldy world of stories that start and move in endless directions.

Think of this second level like a universe with planets upon planets and galaxies upon galaxies. The vast web of stories extends beyond the ability of my imagination to even begin to grasp. This universe of stories contains every known and every possible story created by humankind. Every emotion, every plot, every character, every symbol, every detail from every human story is within this grand drama.

The Grand Story (Meta-Narrative)
The third level of stories is the grand story that connects all stories. This story provides the primary lens for all stories. Through this lens we define right and wrong/good and evil. Through this lens we can find points of connection with other stories. Through this story we define words and symbols and characters.

Many people never consciously identify this grand story. In other words, this story influences them in a passive manner. They may not be able to articulate a clear narrative even while appealing to that narrative to make sense of the world. For many, it operates in the background.

Some people suggests that there is no grand story, there is no meta-narrative. While they might deny the existence of an over-arching but they would have difficulty suggesting that we don’t unconsciously appeal to some kind of meta-narrative in the way we process our stories. Some people appeal to the grand story by appealing to our common humanity. This appeal is rooted in a grand story that suggests humans are connected by virtue of our humaness (aka – the brotherhood of man).

What is a story and What is my story?

There are probably many ways to define a story and many fancy words to make the definition virtually unintelligible for the rest of us. I was thinking today that on a basic level most, if not all, stories contain a beginning, middle and end. Otherwise, it may simply be an observation. A story indicates motion or change that allows us to speak of a beginning, a middle and an end.

Why a middle? Why not a beginning and an end. Well, I was thinking the “middle” is the transition from beginning to end. No matter how long or short, it somehow connect the start from the finish. Now the telling of story can alter the order of beginning, middle and end in variations such as end, beginning and middle (and back to end again). The variations can be wide-ranging:

beginning, middle, beginning, middle, beginning, middle and end (this is the beginning constantly being redefined which alter the middle and leads to a different end).

middle, end, beginning (I can’t remember but I think memento worked like this).

The various ways we tell a story are not limited just to the structure. We also tell it from a perspective or a point of view. And I don’t just mean through different characters or an omniscient narrator. We might tell it from the point of view of a victim. The same story will look very different it told from the pov of a tireless hero.

Each story contains thousands of other stories. A good example is the Simarillion, where Tolkien tells some of the many stories before the Lord of the Rings. Our personal story works the same way. A story from my life can be as short and simply as the visit to a drive through window at a fast food restuarant. While I may not retell the story often, one day something happens that makes it memorable: bad service or maybe a surprise. That night I tell the “fast food restaurant” to my wife. If the reaction is strong and the story lodges in my memory it may be repeated. If it is really interested, it may be repeated by people beyond my circle of friends.

So stories can take on a life of their own.

The fast food story is one of a many possible stories within a given day. Additionally, there are epochal tracks or repeated scenes/event/stories that combine to former a larger story over time. These stories may be stories may have a defining center that connects them: husband and wife, family, identity, vocation, community, forgiveness, and so on. Different little stories within my life and connect and reconnect with different centers to tell the same story.

I may tell the story of vocation, explaining how I ended up as a bi-vocational minister. Some of the stories within that story when seen from a different angle might combine with other stories to tell the story of my identity. Then again the some of the stories might reform around another center and combine with other stories to tell the story of my 20-year love affair with my wife.

By thinking of my stories in this light, I might begin to see that the stories I tell are not actual events but events filtered through memory combined with imagination/creativity. So a story is creative work that I engage in. I don’t tell the meta story that overarches my life. God tells this story. Sometimes, I see glimpses of his story being told through me, but most often I am clueless as to the richness and fullness and connectedness of that story which connects all stories.

With in mind, I must realize that the story I am telling, I am creating. I am using characters, plots, settings, pace, mood, symbols and more to tell the stories. I have certain lines that I uses again and again, much like the move lines, “I’ll be baaaaaacck” or “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Rarely do we step back from our preoccupation with telling or thinking our own story to analyze. But sometimes it may be helpful.

I might try focusing on other characters. I might consider using a different pov, or a different tone. I might look for other symbols or lines or settings that are already inherent within my stories but I’ve overlooked. I might find a different center, a different connecting points for my little stories. By doing so, I might discover that I could tell my story as a story of sacrifice and suffering at the hands of other in a new way and recast it as a story of power, choice and heroic overcoming of struggles against all odds.

Enough for now. Hopefully, I’ll write more on how I connect my stories with other stories outside myself (literature, arts, history and even the Bible).

Stories upon Stories upon Story

Last weekend Rick Doughty, Brad Getz and I did a retreat on story. This was the second retreat in my series of retreats on wisdom. We started with Meditation upon the 10 Commandments, followed by The Wisdom of Stories (last weekend), then we’ll do “Acting Wisely: the Translation of Wisdom into our Active Life,” and finally we’ll conclude with “Creating the Future with Words of Wisdom.” These four retreats follow Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s “Cross of Reality,” moving from inward (meditation) to backward (storytelling) to outward (active life) to forward (wise words).

A few thoughts recapping The Wisdom of Stories may follow in future blog posts. I’ll focus what I write primarily on the notes that I used in preparation although I may reference Rick and Brad’s thoughts as they come to mind.

Each person’s life is filled with stories. When asked to tell my life story, the answer might actually be, “Which one?” For I am moving and have moved in multiple stories. Whatever I tell you will be an extraction from the wide web of stories. My wide-ranging stories are within a context of a storied world. And then there are many contexts for stories. For instance, if I consider setting as the basis for context, my stories are set within the context of family and friends’ stories that are set withing the context of a communities’ stories set within the context of a culture’s stories set within the context of the stories of the Western World set within the context of The Story (of stories) – The Word of God.

Stories pivot on multiple points some of which include setting, characters, plots, words and lines, action, symbols and images, tone/mood and pace. Each of these pivots reveals a particular dynamic to a story. Some writers capture the essence of certain pivots better than others. Charles Dickens certainly masters characters and settings. While his plots are often intricate and delightful, I think his real genius lay in creating characters within settings.

Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne captured mood. For me, the feeling captured in Young Goodman Brown is one of the richest aspects of Hawthorne’s dark tale. I personally think this is particular genius of M. Night Shymalan. His stories create a mood that overarches the story. Some critique the story or the characters but the mood is his real gift.

Pace is the tempo of the story. Some recent films have played with pace both increasing pace or decreasing pace to almost a motionless state (Into the Great Silence). Andrei Tarkovsky films slow down pace, which make his films almost unbearable for some people. At the retreat someone mentioned “Napoleon Dynamite” as a great example of a movie tinkering with pace. Good observation! This may be why the movie seems for some to have no point or no action. It’s capturing an almost suspended state of time. “Run Lola Run” is a great example of a film that goes the oppositie direction and is breathless in it’s movement forward. The Bourne films (like many action films) speeds pace to a blinding fury.

Pace makes me think of Louie Armstrong. I once heard Wynton Marsalis say that Louie’s great genius was in capturing the changing pace of the American life. America was moving from an industrial nation to a communications nations where life is non stop 24/7. Louie’s phrasing both with his coronet and his voice plays with pace.

Sometimes setting is the driving force. Gormenghast tells the tale of a castle with endless halls and twists and turns. The story cannot be extracted from the setting. E.M. Forrestor’s Howard’s End plays with setting (both social and physical) in his fateful tale of a house in the country where two women are connected by being joined to the place.

Think of the power of words and line in stories. They can leave the story and take on a life of their own. “I’ll Be Baaack!” or “Go Ahead, Make My Day” became cultural catch phrases used in everyday life to create new meanings. These trendy phrase might be contrasted with the genius of Shakespeare who gave the world words and lines that continue to drive the way we think and talk. Just consider a few of the following (with thanks to Absolute Shakespeare):

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
“This above all: to thine own self be true”.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”.
“Brevity is the soul of wit”.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
“All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts”
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”
“For ever and a day.”
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
“Off with his head!”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And the list of familar quotes goes on and on and on. We’ve used his quotes verbatim and we’ve altered them to create new meanings or new contexts, but the the quotes appear on the mouths of many people who’ve never read one line of Shakespeare. His words live on and shape the way we frame our world.

Sometimes an image becomes so striking within a story that the image like the lines above takes a life of it’s own. We speak of a “scarlett letter” as a public disgrace. Hitchcock took common everyday images and turned them into images of terror. Aladdin gives us the “magic carpet.” Pinochio gives us a nose that grows and grows. These images are extracted from stories and used on our everyday discourse to convey meaning and ideas. Sometimes is less than honest and we mention that their nose might be growing.

All the elements I’ve mentioend thus far (plots, settings, characters, words, lines, images, tone/mood, pace) are conveyed in stories and may be the pivotal element in a story that connects with us or speaks to us. We may not remember anything else from a story but the element that moved us. In fact, we can dislike a story while loving a single element that impacts us.

This impact may be called inspiration. Stories and their elements “in-spire” us. We breathe in their influence. We are in “spired” or in “spirited” by the power of the story. Just as we breathe in oxygen and it keeps us alive, we breathe in these elements and they shape the way we understand and communicate and act in our world. The “inspired” stories become a source of wisdom that shapes us and gives us insight in the midst of living.

In the past, I’ve written about Memory and Vision as the life span of a person. I think stories fundamentally capture the movement between memory and vision, extending from our own story to the stories around us to The Story (the Word of God). I contend like Chesterton that the Bible tells The Story and all other stories are subsets of this story. There is a movement of energy, of vitality, of spirit that moves between these stories. As I consider this movement, this conversation of stories, I might begin to think more deeply of the “Holy Spirit” breathing upon creation, but more on this later.

Beer Makes the World Go Round

With Jeremy’s recent post on teetotalers, I figured I should follow suit with a post on beer. George Will recently set the country straight by explaining why beer is fundamental to a civilized world. As he says, “No Beer, No Civilization.” Even if you don’t imbibe, you might find Will’s insights provocative.

In Praise of Pasture

Notes on “To a Scrap of Pasture Pushing Itself Between the Slates of Pavement”

Bobi Jones sings a song a praise “To a Scrap of Pasture Pushing Itself Between the Slates of Pavement.” As he looks out upon the square in the middle of town, he sees a blade of grass growing up through the pavement. He hears God singing through this pasture, and revealing in image His wisdom in parables, His holy presence, His birth and death and resurrection.

Though we pave over the earth, His song cannot be stopped, and “His lightning will tongue-lash freely from the earth.” In this small blade, Jones sees a “deluge” and an “eloquent greenery” that “narrates His life and speaks in parables on all sides.”

Jones calls us to look with him,
“When we look, there are angels near the stage
And the mist at the back, its head in feathers.”

These words call to my mind the image of Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God in the temple. Isaiah sees the Lord “high and lifted up” and the “train of His robe filling the temple.” Around the throne he sees angels, covered in winged and hiding their face and feet before the holiness of God.

In the middle of a town square filled with people moving to and fro, God reveals His holy power and glory in a single blade of grass. This blade of grass becomes a “thin place” where the glory of God is revealed, shouting aloud the wisdom of God. But the simple pass by and miss the awesome display of God’s wonder.

The song that is sung is the song of the Word made Flesh. For in the blade of grass, Jones sees a mystery. He “watch(es) Him being born there.” This blade of grass speaks to Jones of the nativity and the irrepressible life of Christ, but the image of pasture also speaks of grain that is formed into bread.

As Jesus proclaimed, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains a single grain.” Jones sees this grain springing up in bread that feeds the people of God with the bread of heaven, the Lord’s Supper. Jones writes,
An herb whose flesh’s heap of crops we taste
In the tasting it turns to wormwood like each scrap that grows
But I know beneath my ribs the coming of the hour’s astonishment.

The supper is bitter for in partaking of His body broken for us, we are entering into the communion of death. Jones writes that the bread is literally beneath his ribs being digested. In the meal of death, we partake of life anew.

The bread of heaven nourishes. Even as our body draws nourishment from the physical bread, our whole person draws life from the bread of Christ. In His death, we know life. For in His death, we can participate in the great mystery of life after death.

Each day we rise, we taste the sweetness of death in Christ and the hope of life after death. His irrepressible life is at work in us. So no matter what happens in our world. The fools of the world can try to extinguish God’s word and life and power from the earth, but they cannot, for it springs afresh in us, in a little blade of grass bursting through the pavement, and in all creation.

He’s performing. The foolish civilization of today can
Kill Him and bury Him deep. The inherent will frolic through the soil.
In the hand of the grassblade the creation trembles,
And it sows eternity itself: tender is the land.

Forget About It

Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Fr many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others. – Ecclesiastes 7:21-22

Reminds me of something Maximas the Confessor says in his Four Centuries on Love. He cautions us not to remember the evil words or actions of our friends for in doing so, we will make it harder to love them purely. It’s so easy to be offended. But so much more fruitful to love forgetfully.

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