As long as you’re a human being, particularly when you’re thinking about your life, you tend to think narratively. That is, as a series of events along a timeline, little dots in the past tracing up to where your feet stand in the present. We tell little stories about ourselves to ourselves all the time. And stories end one of two ways: well and badly. When you go to see a movie, you can probably tell from the movie poster whether it’s going to end well or badly. If it’s going to end well, the poster is usually bathed in whites and blues, with chunky font. If it’s going to end badly, you have more sombre tones, maybe even serifs on the font, and a couple of people looking wistfully out of windows or something. Well, actually, there’s a third way things can end – ambiguously. And you can tell you’re going to see a high-brow film – rather than a plain old movie, when things are going to end ambiguously. In fact you can almost feel the tingle of ambiguity the moment the soundtrack kicks in on the plain, unpretentious black background, as little white words fade in and out in the corner of the screen. That’s pretty much when you know you are in for Quality. Why is quality necessarily ambiguous? Because life is not one long happy streak; neither is it imploding doom. Triumph is followed by difficulty, especially the difficulty of dropping down to the mundane. If we do not talk about nuances, we are never talking about reality – we are merely editing it for the highlights, or milking it for its terror.

I feel like there is something of a strange genre divide when it comes to the sort of secular narratives that are sold as literary and the sort of narratives the Christian ghetto churns out about itself. Christian narratives have to end well – isn’t that the premise? Sure, there’s going to be some major struggle along the way, obstacles to be overcome – but that’s the point – they’re overcome. When I walk into a Christian book store, I feel like I’m being inundated by a sea of smiling success: missionaries whose church plantings flourished, even if they themselves were sacrificed in the task, addictions overcome, there is even a genre of testimonies about how Christ can get you slim (I did a paper on this for a religion class). I worry about the fact that there is this disjoint, the fact that we are not talking about our failures. Because, if we are not talking about our failures, we’re not talking about reality. If  our narratives are telling us  that everything is going to be a long draw up to triumph, they would be absolutely correct, but only uplifting for a moment, and utterly unhelpful in guiding us in reality as experienced. Because reality as experienced is a choppy affair, with periods of triumph and periods spent flat on one’s face on a pavement, as well as periods of feeling very little at all.

This is why it continually intrigues me that the kind of narrative we find in the Bible is often utterly, compellingly ambiguous. It’s the sort of thing that drags up more questions than answers (ever notice how Jesus almost never answers his listeners’ questions directly? He has a propensity for taking up a completely different track that only begins to answer the question, and then only tangentially – one of his favourite tactics is to answer a question with another, even more befuddling question) What, for example, do we make of something like this?:


Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
21 The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met {Moses} [b] and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched {Moses’} feet with it. [c] “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) Exodus 4

The church I grew up in has turned a strange strain of extremist Calvinist. I remember being a teenager in the teen service where we were not allowed to talk to one another, had to leave a chair between one another so we could “silently reflect” before the sermon and after the sermon, and they slowly got rid of refreshments and after-church games and anything of the sort. The air-conditioner was always on at full blast, and the sermon droned on for an hour and a half, the principle being that the longer and more bored we were the holier we were becoming. Unsurprisingly, our numbers dwindled – I certainly was not about to invite my friends to church, because I was afraid that it would scare them off church forever. But even this was taken as a sign of success – the church developed a remnant mentality, where the fewer people there were, the more likely we were on the right track – after all, anything that was popular was “worldly” – so shouldn’t church be as unpopular as possible? I also remember it came as a huge, rushing relief when my sister and I finally found we could talk freely about our unhappiness with our parents (though not with the other adults at church) – that it wasn’t some sinful tick that made us feel bored or ashamed of our church, but the fact that there could be something wrong – very wrong – about how things were evolving.

In the first chapters of Revelation, the seven churches represented by the seven lampstands are all imperfect churches. You could even say they had failed in terrible ways. Loveless churches, compromised churches, corrupt churches, even a dead church. But they still have their stars, their angels. They are all true churches of Christ. Listening to the narratives churches tell about themselves, you’d think there were only hale and hearty churches around. I remember this passage preached in my poor, cold church – we would nod sagely at the searching question “which church do we think we are?” hope fervently and piously that we were the “faithful church”, and then pass on in slightly embarrassed silence the nagging doubt that we were not. Heads bowed, we would walk out the door and pick our personalities back up.

Let’s talk about the churches we actually go to – their flaws as well as graces. Not the lovely chirpy happy places we tell other people they are to entice them to come, but how they really are. They are still lampstands – failure, even protracted failure – is inevitable. If we can start admitting that to ourselves, perhaps our narratives will come closer to reality, and then the fruitful discussions can ensue. Movie posters are also a pretty good indication of how many stars out of five the movie is going to get – “from audiences” and “from critics”. The current triumphalist narratives Christian presses tend to churn out are likely to get rave reviews from the audiences and be panned by the critics. While it’s always nice to be a crowd-pleaser, we should take seriously why they’d be panned by the critics. Maybe it’s because what we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about failure is real life. After all, if even the hall-of-famers of Hebrews 11 seem to have odd little stories that sound unflattering, or ambiguous, or just plain confusing about them in the Bible, shouldn’t it make us nervous that our stories don’t sound like theirs?

More on the Bible and Narrative

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