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When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity

When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity

When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity

When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity


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Tired of church as you’ve known it? Thirsty for a fresh look at Christian faith? American singer/songwriter and author Tyler Blanski was, too. So he set out on a Holy Pilgrimage to rediscover the saints, stars, and beauty of Christianity for the twenty-first century. Rich with deep application for living in the modern world, When Donkeys Talk is an invitation to become enchanted again with Christ and his world.

Tyler reminds us that God works in unexpected, unusual, and miraculous ways and that he inhabits and speaks through the wondrous world he has made. Blanski redefines “magical” to help us see that the world is guided by a hand greater than science and materialism. Using scripture, the wisdom of the church fathers, and respected theologians and Christian thinkers from centuries past, as well as a creative and humorous narrative, you will find the wonder of our ancient faith still alive and well.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310334989
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 01/22/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Tyler Blanski is a writer and musician from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He studied Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hillsdale College. Tyler is the author of four previous books, including Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred.

Read an Excerpt

When donkeys talk

A quest to rediscover the mystery and wonder of Christianity
By Tyler Blanski


Copyright © 2012 Tyler Blanski
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-33498-9

Chapter One

Holy Pilgrimage

If I were to tell you that I had a talking donkey, you would probably chuckle and pour another drink. If I were to insist that I was entirely serious, you would probably back away slowly and, with no masked alarm, look for the nearest exit. Nothing ruins a good party like a story about a miracle. "It was a trick of the nerves, an illusion," those who dared to hang around would counsel, surveying me with concerned puppy eyes. "Have you taken your medication?" I do not have a donkey, but if I did, I would want it to be a talking donkey.

It all started with eggs, hash browns, and bacon—the holy trinity of breakfast. Sitting at a local bar in the a.m., quaffing down cheap coffee, eavesdropping the gossip about a politician at a nearby table, I heard a fellow omnivore exclaim, "Who sent her crazy ass to Congress?" The phrase caught my attention because growing up I was a skateboarder who wore long chains that jingled and had long hair that was greasy, and my friends would remark, "That's some crazy-ass hair, man." Crazy ass connotes something loony—with a comedic, cool, or half-baked twist. I looked up from my thick-cut smoky strips and saw the Democratic donkey emblazoned on a diner's shirt, and that's when it all came together. Crazy. Ass. The donkey. The Holy Trinity. I remembered the Bible story of Balaam and his crazy ass, and in a moment of rare epiphany, I realized I had never taken that story seriously. In fact, I had never taken most of the Bible that seriously. I had somehow turned the historic stories of God-on-earth into "life lessons," as if Christianity were a kind of therapy. I had turned a blind eye to the possibility that the Bible stories are not only life-rattling, but historically and ontologically true—Christianity not as a personal belief but a public fact.

In the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, a book written long before Jesus Christ was born, there is a story about a pagan named Balaam. Back then paganism was the popular science. Gods, not forces or principles, were why rocks fell, ocean tides swelled, and crops grew. Everyone believed in gods, even the "secular" Gentiles, sometimes even the Jews. From the Hebrew perspective, it could be said that to be "secular" was to be non-Jewish: though the Gentiles believed in gods, they did not believe in the one true God. So it is strange that this Gentile, Balaam, would be a prophet. Though he was a pagan, Balaam believed in the one true God. According to legend, Balaam had the gift of knowing the exact moment of God's anger—he was a superprophet, a soothsayer, and God spoke to him in dreams and visions. Scripture says, "The Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth" (Num. 23:5 KJV). His very name means "to swallow." The Israelites had just spent forty years wandering in the desert and were about to cross the Jordan River into the green land of Canaan. They had already begun conquering its inhabitants, and the king of Moab was afraid he was next in line on the Israelite knock-off list. He sent for the prophet Balaam, "the swallower of people," to rain down curses on the Israelites. And so Balaam saddled his ass, the donkey he had ridden since he was a boy, and waddled his way to the king of Moab.

But God took issue with Balaam's plans to curse his chosen people. On his journey, an angel of the Lord appeared before Balaam and his ass and unsheathed a sword to block their path. Balaam couldn't see the angel at first, but the ass could. Much to the amusement of Balaam's entourage, the terrified beast scampered into the byway fields carrying the bouncing Balaam with it. Embarrassed, Balaam whisked the donkey back onto the path only to be flung against a wall further down the road when the angel appeared a second time. His feet bruised and his face rouged, Balaam whaled on the ass with a stick. As they inched along, the angel appeared a third time and frightened Balaam's donkey to the point of paralysis (donkeys are very stubborn—unlike horses, you can't cajole a donkey to do anything that is not in its best interest). Outraged, Balaam beat the ass with his stick yet again, or, as the King James Version puts it, "he smote the ass with a staff" (Num. 22:27).

The Lord then made the donkey speak. "What have I done? This is the third time you've beaten me!" Balaam answered, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you!" But the donkey retorted, "Am I not still the ass which you have ridden since you were a boy? Have I ever taken such a liberty with you before?" And then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes and he saw the angel standing there with his sword drawn. Terrified, Balaam fell flat on his face, and the angel told him he could continue his journey to the king of Moab, but he must not curse the Israelites; rather, he must bless them. And, as the story unfolds, we see that his prayers of blessing actually changed what happened to the Israelites.

This is in more senses than one a crazy-ass story. Here we see an ass, well known for its dopiness and obstinacy, illustrating more spiritual insight than the great pagan prophet of Mesopotamia. A "dumb ass speaking with [a] man's voice," is how the King James Version phrases it (2 Peter 2:16), saving the life of its master, a soothsayer who voices omens and auguries from God. Though the tale is ironic and funny, it is deadly serious. God, it would seem, can use anyone—from a heathen to an ass—to accomplish his will. Sadly, like Balaam, we often go blundering on our way, blind to the warnings of God until he has to use "asses" to stop us. But the love of God is more real than the law of gravity. Angels are everywhere. Any donkey could be a talking donkey. We just need God to open our eyes as he did Balaam's. And so as a Christian, and Christians believe in a lot of weird things, this story has become my coat of arms for what I believe to be one of today's most important battles: our (mostly quiet) presuppositions about what to expect from Christendom.

"Christendom" is God's kingdom expanding through that large, loose communion of saints, the church, whom Cyprian calls "the bright army of the soldiers of Christ." Saint Ambrose calls it "God's kingdom, which is the church." To become a Christian is to become a part of a loose and sympathetic clump of people from different walks of life and different age groups but all experiencing the same weather, same hardships, same topography, same eccentric impulse to follow Jesus. It's a personality cult really. This Jesus, this Christ, this "luminous Nazarene," as Einstein called him, is a personality with whom to reckon. These Christ-followers say Jesus the Christ (Greek for "Anointed One") is fully human and fully God and that he has broken into our world, our time. They say you can know him and be known by him and be loved by him and that his love can transform your life—this very day, this very moment. They have been saying this for millennia. Generation after generation of creative artists and linear left-brainers alike are drawn by tractor beam to his wisdom, his moxie, his unfathomable love. And they are in awe of him. They say the God of history, the God of the ages, has broken into their lives and started a renovation of the human heart. They say he changes everything—relationships, food and drink, history, even the unseen mysteries of space and time.

Nonetheless, some of my Christian friends (I used to be one of them) do not like Balaam's crazy-ass story. They enjoy the other donkey stories, like the one in which a donkey blinks at the newborn baby Jesus, or in which Abraham loads up his donkey as he heads off to sacrifice his son Isaac, or the one in which Jesus hoofs it into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to be sacrificed for the world while crowds shout "Hosanna!" In these stories, at least, this domesticated hoofed mammal of the horse family with long ears and a braying call is just a normal, old donkey.

But I'm curious: if I can believe in Jesus (that immaculately fertilized ovum), why can't I believe in talking donkeys? Is not my whole presupposition that the world is miraculous? "Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?" asked Paul, as if it happens all the time (Acts 26:8). Few forget, having read it once, how God spoke to Moses "in flames of fire from within a bush" (Ex. 3:2). Fewer still can ignore how in Matthew 26:75 Jesus employed a rooster to communicate to his disciple Peter. Or what about the poetry of the war-horse in Job 39:25, who "at the blast of the trumpet ... snorts, 'Aha!'" Or what about when Moses parted the Red Sea (Ex. 14:21–22) or when Joshua commanded the sun to pause in the sky, and it really did (Josh. 10:12–13). If I already believe that God himself was tortured to death and then rose from the dead, and that the actual blood of Jesus has the power to forgive sins, why would I doubt for a moment that Elijah called down fire from heaven to burn up a sacrifice (1 Kings 18:36–39)?

I used to tell myself, "Christianity is not miraculous; Christianity is safe." I did not want a God who was bigger than me, who would shake things up. Safe is what I wanted, and sadly, safe is what I got. But lately I have longed for something more than a Christianity that looks like the advertisements and suburbs of the twentieth century. I want to discover the God who really lives and breathes, the God who changes everything about what it means to be human. Christianity is not safe. It opens up a world brimming with hellfire and judgment, damnation and salvation, real evil and real good, and most of all real love, the kind of love you have elsewhere known only in faint imitations and foretastes. Christendom (for it really is just that, the Christian world) is full of talking donkeys, burning bushes, floods, talking serpents, crowing roosters, and disastrous apples that, if bitten, will steal your immortality.

It is full of deep magic.

In the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, this ordinary guy decides to don an old suit of armor and set out on a knight-errant in search of adventure. He dubs his buddy Sancho a squire. The two of them embark on elaborate horseback quests that they think are real, even though they are not. They attack windmills that they think are ferocious giants.

I want to invite you to join me on what might turn out to be a not-so-wild goose chase. Because there is, after all, something rather ferocious and giantlike about windmills, don't you think? I want to saddle a donkey and clip-clop through "the Olde World." We're looking for relics of a bygone era—an era when donkeys talked and stars shone bright and saints weren't naysayers. We're hoofing it to church and to the old books. Like the Christians of yore, we want to live a life in God's presence. We want to dust off what C. S. Lewis called "the discarded image" and Owen Barfield called "that discarded garment." We want to wake up to the possibility that Jesus could communicate to us by way of donkey—or dog or cat or rubber ducky. Our mission will be to wake up, to become enchanted. I'll leave it to you to decide if anything we discover is worthwhile—and you can also decide who of us is the handsome knight and who's the stout squire.

And so what you are holding is an invitation to go on a holy pilgrimage. It's a treasure map. And it will lead you through some of the most beautiful and dangerous terrain in Christianity, lands long forgotten or neglected, lands it will take a holy renaissance to rediscover. If I had to capture what I'm looking for with a word, I would call it belief, the kind of belief that invites me to live the childlike faith Jesus says is the entry door of his house, the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:15).

Chapter Two

In Search of Magic

To begin my pilgrimage, I marched across the street to see my neighbor, Stephen the Philistine, an old college buddy of mine. His height, his amazingly voluminous mustache, and his brilliant blue eyes lend him a handsome but fierce charm. He's called Stephen the Philistine because, even though he knows more about Christianity than most Christians, he just doesn't believe. He will not stand hypocrisy. He also loves women and adventure and Bombay Sapphire gin. Christianity has all of this, I've told him—just not the way he wants it. Anyway, I stomped across the street to announce to Stephen the Philistine that I was writing a Christian book about my crazy-ass theory.

"I love it when people say ridiculous things," he said, looking at me like I had just toddled out of the church nursery.

"Yeah?" I asked, feeling mildly heartened.

"Sure," he said, waving his hand. "But Christians don't. Your silly book will ruin you."

I gulped. "Well, at least decapitations and drownings and burnings at the stake are no longer church practice."

"Right," said Stephen, comfortingly. His eyes looked bluer. "And the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are on your side too."

"Mind if I have some of your gin?" I asked.

"Not at all," Stephen replied, and fixed me a strong Christian drink.

Despite the comforting words of an old friend, I walked back across the street to my apartment, and worry swept over me like a cloud. I called Stephen on my cell phone.

"Yeah," Stephen said in a clipped tone.

"What if people think I'm a heretic?"

"Tyler, Christians always get angry when you challenge their stereotypes about God and magic and science. Don't worry. Even if we actually lived in medieval times and still shouted at one another names like "heretic," folks couldn't really call you a heretic—and you couldn't really call them heretics for disagreeing with you either."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because, as far as I can tell, no part of your crazy-ass theory calls into question or contradicts the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed—or the Apostles' Creed, or the creed of Saint Athanasius. You're the theologian. You should know this."

I nodded, but Stephen, of course, cannot hear nods. He continued into the silence: "Regardless of whether anybody agrees with you or not, just be grateful to have them as your travel companions. I'll be happy to sign the naysayers up for a jousting match—you know, the kind where noble knights on horses best one another with lances. Or we could all just sit and talk over a friar's red ale."

I weakly laughed.

Greatly cheered by Stephen the Philistine's words, I threw my phone on the couch and wrote down a few questions: What does it mean to live in a world where donkeys can talk? What does it mean to be a God-created man or woman? Where do we belong in the universe? What does it mean that God not only reveals himself through words but actually became human, incarnate? What are Christians doing, exactly, when they get baptized or receive the Lord's Supper? Is there meaning in the universe that even pagans and secular people can discover, and how do we integrate that with our faith? How did Christians think about church before the age of televisions and cars and corporations?

In a quest to answer questions like these, I am straddling a donkey, holding the reins of a bygone era, perhaps another one to come. I want to discover God's story in reality and on trails overgrown and neglected.

In my early attempts at reconnoitering, I rashly continued to make public my intentions. With much gusto, I announced to family and friends and even my publisher that I would travel Christendom in search of magic. Nearly everyone had some grim admonition or reprimand. The old forest of Christendom is full of peril—bears, feral bobcats, and wild boars, loony hillbillies from the medieval backwoods, lethal old heresies and fables that burrow their way into the brains of hapless hikers and send them off in apostasy and blasphemies. Spooky shapes loom out of a fog thicker than wood smoke. Just read about the visions of Hildegard of Bingen or the impulses of Francis of Assisi, and you'll start to get the idea. Inconceivable things could happen to us out there. Then there is the vexed matter of Saint Denis, who was commissioned to convert the people of Gaul and did such a good job that the local pagans got angry and beheaded him. After something like a blind Easter egg hunt, Denis just picked up his head and kept on preaching. He has become the patron saint for headaches. Then there's Saint Fiacre, who was looking to build a new monastery. The bishop offered him as much land as he could till in one day. He turned up the soil with his staff, toppling trees and crushing huge stones. A suspicious woman told the bishop that Fiacre was using witchcraft. But the bishop recognized that this was the work of the Lord, and Fiacre built his monastery, which, incidentally, barred women. He's the patron saint of gardening and, um, taxi drivers.


Excerpted from When donkeys talk by Tyler Blanski Copyright © 2012 by Tyler Blanski . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Fernando Ortego 7

Acknowledgements 8

Part 1 A, Crazy-Ass Theory

1 Holy Pilgrimage 11

2 In Search of Magic 18

3 A Deepening Conversion 23

4 A Restoration Project 29

Part 2 Atomland

5 Taking the Donkey to the Dentist 35

6 Christendom and Atomland 41

7 Saving the Appearances 45

8 No One Is Listening 52

9 Breakfast at the Modern 55

Part 3 The Coherency of Creation

10 Can Reason Be Trusted? 65

11 Smuggling from the Egyptians 69

12 How to Know Everything 76

13 A World of Desires, Not Laws 79

Part 4 In Thrall to the Heavens

14 Our Camping Trip 89

15 But Much Less Like a Ball 93

16 A God-Bathed World 103

17 The Love That Moves the Stars 113

Part 5 The Sanctification of Time

18 The Yule Log Burns 121

19 A Star in Bethlehem 125

20 In the Year of Our Lord 130

Part 6 You Are Mat You Eat

21 Deep Magic 141

22 Dinner at Winston's 144

23 The Spell to Break the Spell 152

24 Re-membering 158

25 Dying with Christ 164

Part 7 Final Participation

26 Death by Water 171

27 The New Community 178

28 Reorienting Our Loves 183

29 Come, Have Breakfast 189

30 A Holy Renaissance 191

Epilogue 194

Notes 197

Bibliography 213

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