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Reluctant Prophets and Clueless Disciples
Introducing the Bible by Telling Its Stories
By Robert Darden
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
PACKING FOR THE JOURNEY
It is a foolish thing to make a long prologue, and to be short in the story itself. —2 Maccabees 2:32 (KJV)
Myths and stories make order out of chaos. They explain things. Sometimes they are based in actual—at least as we would understand it—fact: accounts of real kings and real battles, real people in real places.
Other stories appear on the surface to be nothing more than fanciful fairy tales—wild stories of giants and monsters and superheroes. But just because it's a tale of a dreaded creature with a bull's head on a human body (or vice versa!), doesn't mean that the story itself can't be "true"—or at least have elements of truth. The principal elements of the story—dragons, ogres, and neurotic clown fish—may be the product of someone's vivid imagination, but the human emotions, the understanding of the human condition, may be absolutely dead on.
The best animated films—Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Spirited Away, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Shrek—are about crazy creatures who express very human sentiments and feelings in an honest, revealing way. Once you get past the fact that Shrek is a green ogre, he's like a lot of people you know! The stories of Moses, King Saul, King David, Peter, and Paul also reveal—perhaps inadvertently—the real people who are often hidden behind the theology.
How important are these stories? Or any stories, for that matter?
Well, for one thing, Jesus used stories almost exclusively to reveal the most difficult—often most important—truths about his ministry and the kingdom of God. We call them parables, but they're really mini-stories.
The Bible itself is full of stories, from the parting of the Red (or Reed) Sea to Pentecost. But the central truth of the Bible—God has a wonderful plan for your life and that plan is possible through a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—is a story too.
Here's something pretty neat: we are God's story. How we live our lives constitutes the elements of that story.
Life is a journey; it isn't a destination, as one of my friends used to say. We're in the process of becoming Christians. Our story, then, is the account of that journey. Who we meet along the way. How we respond. The barriers we encounter. How we overcome them. That's the story of our lives—as kids, as teenagers, as young adults, as adults, as senior citizens—as we try to be more like Christ.
It's a pretty confusing trip. Events are complicated. People are complicated. And story is how we make sense out of confusion. Joyce Carol Oates says that our "obliqueness" to each other is made clear only through story (from a speech at Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, 2004).
Look at it another way. In Genesis, the account says that God spoke creation into being: "Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). Skip ahead to the Gospel of John, which starts: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Creation is whispered into creation by the great lion Aslan in the Narnia books. Creation is also sung into being in J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Words are at the center of all this. And it is with words that storytellers tell the weird, wonderful, amazing, goofy, incredible, and sometimes downright unpleasant stories of our lives.
That's where we come in. It's not enough just to write the words—you've got to be the words! You are the words! Your life is a story that someone (or Someone) will read someday.
For me, that's always been a scary thought. I'm not sure what I'm doing—much less what everybody else should be doing. (My father worked at the gigantic headquarters of all U.S. military forces in the world—the Pentagon—in Washington, D.C. He said the best description of the Pentagon he ever heard was to imagine a flood. In the middle of that raging flood is a single battered log. Clinging desperately to that log are thousands of ants. And each ant thinks he's driving the log.) Reading the experiences and adventures of other people helps me. It helps to know that I'm not alone in what I'm doing or feeling. It helps me see different points of view. It helps me see how different people handled different problems.
Katherine Paterson has written some of the best books ever created for young adults (although they're great for all ages), including Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved. She says that writers write a story and invite the reader to create the meaning (in a speech at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, 2004). That means that every story is different for each person who reads it.
When the Roll is Called Up Yonder and my life's story is being read by Somebody Pretty Important, I'd kind of like a little help down here. I'd like to know everything there is to know about the story—the journey—I'm in the middle of undertaking. I want to know what I should be looking for. I want to know how to read the story. I want to know what to take away from the story, how to make sense of it all. It means that—in addition to the historical facts or fantasy elements of a story—it is important to pay attention to the story itself. How is the story framed? What is the storyteller trying to accomplish with this story? What's to be learned from all of this? The stories of the Bible are there for a reason. The parts of the story that are included—or omitted—are done so for a reason, maybe a lot of reasons. Wouldn't it make sense to understand why?
Understanding the Story
One way to get a handle on that concept is to know a little about the various types of story forms. A storyteller uses each story form for a different set of reasons.
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. (Willa Cather, O Pioneers! [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 67)
The oldest stories scientists can date with any certainty are the great Mesopotamian myths from the fourth to the third millennium BCE (Before the Common Era), when the first major cities were being built in what is now Iraq. These are the tales of Babylon, Nineveh, and Assyria. Next to real-life kings mentioned in the Bible, like Nebuchadnezzar, Tiglath-pileser, and Ashurbanipal, are the extraordinary stories of the heroic Gilgamesh. When most of the world cowered in caves and rude huts, the people of Mesopotamia thrilled to sophisticated stories about a flood that covered the earth, great goddesses who slew monsters to create the earth, and powerful gods who descended into hell to retrieve valued friends. These ancient stories—preserved through the centuries by being cut into soft clay and then fired in a hot oven—were created to explain the unexplainable: the creation of the universe, how all of the creatures were named, why there are four seasons.
A second type of story—often called a parable—is used to make a complex concept understandable to a general audience. Jesus, of course, was a master storyteller and the many parables of the Four Gospels contain some of his most profound teaching. In the hands of a skilled storyteller, even relatively straightforward parables, such as the parable of the Prodigal Son or the parable of the Good Samaritan, yield great riches when studied in depth by discerning eyes. And they're often more complicated, with more layers of meaning, than they appear on first reading.
A third kind of story is a relatively modern invention. When we talk today about a three-act format in a play or movie, we're talking about the basic ingredients of most stories:
Act I: The hero and the problem facing the hero are introduced.
Act II: The hero responds to the problem.
Act III: Through the hero's actions, the problem is resolved.
English teachers have come up with names for the various kinds of modern stories. There is the Revenge Story—which is pretty self-explanatory when you think of films such as Rambo or Gladiator. There is the Conflict Story or, as one of my teachers once called it, "Two dogs, one bone." She could have said, "Two armies, one Helen of Troy" or "Two empires, one universe" or even, "Two girls, one cute boy."
But the most famous and most common story form is that of the Hero's Journey or the Quest. This may be the oldest story of all and, according to many writers, the most satisfying. It's what unites Gilgamesh with Gilligan's Island. Among the first writers to identify the common elements among the great stories of the classic cultures both past and present was Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Screenwriter Chris Vogler adapted that framework into The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Both contain fascinating insights into why some stories satisfy us more than others, why some movies endure to be watched over and over and others end up in the 99¢ bins at the video stores within a few weeks.
Using the concepts identified by Campbell and Vogler, here, in abbreviated form, are the basic elements of the Hero's Journey (and "hero" here means male or female).
– The Ordinary World –
This is where most great stories begin, good, old, boring, black-and-white Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. On the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars. In the quiet, comfortable shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In a familiar patch of coral in Finding Nemo. It's a day like any other day—which is precisely the problem. Our hero is bored, or stirred by old stories, or driven by an unexplainable urge to see beyond the safe borders of home. Nothing ever seems to happen in the Ordinary World. But suddenly, as Ray Bradbury writes, "something wonderful" happens (Let's All Kill Constance [New York: HarperCollins, 2003], 171).
– The Call to Adventure –
On this most ordinary of days, a problem or a challenge unexpectedly arises. Outside a nondescript hobbit hole, a most extraordinary wizard in gray appears. In a cluttered garage, a battered robot beams a holograph of a beautiful princess in desperate need. A small clown fish is bagged by a fisherman as his helpless father watches in horror. And in Camelot, Arthur hears of the Holy Grail, which may heal his wounded land. Something has happened that may take our hero away from the familiar.
– Refusal of the Call –
Usually, the hero reluctantly refuses the challenge at first. He may be afraid. She may have other duties she thinks are more important. When Gandalf sees the hobbit Bilbo Baggins for the first time, Bilbo says, "Good morning! We don't want any adventures here, thank you," and slams the door in Gandalf's face. Luke sadly returns from Obi-Wan's hideout to resume work at the family hydroponics farm. In this, we identify with the hero. We're all reluctant heroes. Superman and Conan the Barbarian are infinitely less interesting because they do not hesitate; they have no fear. The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock always selected non-heroic stars, like Jimmy Stewart, to capitalize on his ordinary-ness. There is an "everyman" quality about the best heroes. They're more like us. We can identify with them better.
– The Mentor –
One of two things work to change the mind of the hero. The first might be an event. When Luke returns to the farm, he finds that stormtroopers have callously murdered Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Dorothy is unwillingly transported by tornado to Oz. Or, in City Slickers, the hero's best friend's life is falling apart (as is his own) and the Billy Crystal character agrees to go on a trail drive to save the friend's sanity. The second thing that can change the hero's mind is the appearance of the mentor. In the stories of antiquity, it is usually an older, wiser man or woman. In the newer stories, it can be the crusty drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, Merlin in the Arthurian legends, Glenda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz, Curly in City Slickers, Morpheus in The Matrix, Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings. (Ever notice how Obi-Wan and Gandalf look and sound so much alike?) The mentor is often more powerful than our hero, and sometimes gives our hero a special weapon (a ring or a light saber), a special tool (ruby slippers or a cloak of invisibility) or piece of information (a riddle or a rhyme), but the mentor cannot accompany the hero the entire journey. Why? Because then it wouldn't be the Hero's Journey!
– Crossing the First Threshold –
This begins Act II, when the hero really commits to the quest or challenge. It is also where the adventure really begins. From this point on, the hero can't turn back, even if he or she wants to. Sometimes there is a Threshold Guardian, a gatekeeper, but the hero quickly learns—in tales like The Never-Ending Story or The Princess Bride—the Threshold Guardian isn't always an enemy. Sometimes he or she (or it!) is just a friend you haven't made yet and conflict isn't always the best way to gain information.
– Tests, Allies, and Enemies –
In the movies, this is the longest part of the film. Our hero must slowly learn the rules of this Brave New World. This can be done in an inn (The Last Homely House in the hobbit stories) or a cantina (Star Wars), or by befriending those you meet along the road (The Wizard of Oz). It's here that the first tests or obstacles begin appearing. Our hero struggles to overcome a single orc, but the lessons learned from that encounter enable the hero to handle two orcs and a goblin the next time. Our hero survives—just barely—and, if he or she learns from defeats as well as victories, is now equipped to handle even more deadly challenges. In the great stories, these tests/obstacles escalate quickly. Each barrier becomes more and more difficult to overcome. And, for the tests to be truly challenging, there must be a villain worthy of our hero—Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Dragon Smaug—behind the tests.
– Approach to the Inmost Cave –
We're two-thirds of the way through the story now. Ahead is the most significant test of all, the stronghold of the enemy. This is the Death Star (Star Wars), the Wicked Witch's fortress (The Wizard of Oz), the dentist's office (Finding Nemo), the Castle Perilous (the Arthurian legends), the madman's island hideout (The Incredibles). Alas, the mentor is no longer with our hero (and his or her band of boon companions). He (or she) may be dead (Obi-Wan and Curly) or away on pressing matters elsewhere (Gandalf and Glenda the Good Witch), so our hero is now left to face the gravest challenge alone, armed only with the knowledge accrued from the difficult adventures and experiences encountered along the way. Our hero's sternest test yet is entering the Inmost Cave (again, an allusion to the ancient stories of King Arthur), which constitutes crossing the second threshold.
Excerpted from Reluctant Prophets and Clueless Disciples by Robert Darden. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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