Posts Tagged With: narrative

Searching for Atonement in Re-written Stories

I recently finished listening to Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement as I drove to and from several long distance meetings.  Over the miles I was drawn into what I thought was merely a novel about a budding writer, Briony Tallis, who is learning to see life as a story through her writing of plays and novels.  With this perspective, she wants to more actively construct the storyline of her life.  [Spoiler Alert.  The rest of this post contains descriptions that reveal the novel’s ending.]

In the span of one day she attempts to involve her cousins in a new play, without much success and happens upon a moment of sexual tension between her older sister, Cecelia, and a childhood friend, Robbie Turner. Her way of understanding these and other actions of the day evolve into a narrative in which she is the protagonist who steps in to right situations.  This seems to be a harmless method of growing up until one of the constructions becomes a crime – claiming that she saw Robbie leave the scene of her cousin’s assault.

Continually I’m fascinated with the idea of story and how we interact with the narratives surrounding us.  How much agency do any of us really have to change the stories before us?  Whatever the real answer, the possibility of change gives me hope.  I don’t feel weighted down with the oughts in life when the possibility of tweaking my story is before me.  I can choose to reorient my life – take more time to write, create a strategy for ministry, plan vacations, and reach out to friends.  This is all part of writing a living story.    We can even seek to right wrongs by seeking forgiveness for the ‘crimes’ we enact, as Briony attempts.

In the novel, all seems to progress toward a redemptive ending as the story moves forward.  Briony eventually seeks to atone for the actions that led to Robbie ending up in prison and being injured while fighting in France at the beginning of World World II. The writing of a novel explaining her part in the original crime is part of this attempt to make amends.  In hearing the retelling of this story, I knew I was in the midst of a powerful time of atonement.  While training to serve as a nurse, Briony takes a day off to visit her estranged sister and finally take responsibility for what she did.  Unexpectedly, Robbie is with Cecelia, just having returned from France.  Briony can now ask for forgiveness from both.  She leaves the pair, if not with unconditional forgiveness, at least with a list of actions that will move towards making amends.  It seems she has successfully rewritten her story.

At this point in my listening I was thinking of stories I needed to attempt to rewrite.  Perhaps reconnecting with lost friends or reaching out to family members.  Whatever the situation, it could be possible to make corrections.

However, as the novel moves to the present day something doesn’t feel right.  Briony is at a birthday celebration.  But the lovers, where are they?  It turns out the the novel she had written, though supposedly based on finally telling the truth, is more about the truth she would have liked to have shared.  Yes, she does fully concede her role in the crime.  However, the lovers were never reunited, both were killed in the war – one the result of a battle wound and the other of a bombing.  The actual story could not be rewritten,  atonement never truly made.  A deep chasm was and would always be present.

I was on my way home from work when the story reached this point and even when I was in the driveway I could not turn off the car.  What?  That story of reunion was made up?  It wouldn’t be possible to right the wrong?  Although this story of many layers was fiction, it rang truer than I would have liked.  I started thinking about the story lines on which I am working.  Are there any I need to rewrite before it’s too late?  What chasms in my own stories will never be closed?  My optimism for loose ends finally being worked out one day was appropriately crushed.  It was clear that I even as I work to re-write stories, atonement will often have to come from outside of my efforts.

Categories: Readings | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

Categories: God's Story, Journey Living | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Opening Up God’s Story

My earliest memories include hearing by mother reading me Bible stories before bed and learning the same stories in a Sunday school class.  However, I have to be honest.  Even though I remember stories from that beloved nighttime ritual and those hour-long classes on Sunday mornings, I can’t say they really left me with any life-changing ideas.  The stories were nice – Noah surviving, Samson winning, God caring, Jesus dying and rising.  I knew the stories, and believed they were true, but they did not really change me.  They were a bit too neatly wrapped with cute pictures and closed-answer responses.

Another thing too neatly packed for me is church doctrine.  Like Sunday school lessons, doctrine can flatten out God.  Yes, it may make it simple and easy for people to know exactly what they must believe.  It helps to weed out errors and can put a person at ease.  But what kind of ease is it?  Underneath I feel something is missing when someone says don’t worry, all you have to do is simply believe in the Gospel – Jesus came, died, and rose.  This may be true, along with much well-thought out doctrine. But to me, it also leaves out something – the soul of the Bible

When I look at the Bible I see more than a list of facts, a set of dogma which leaves me cold.  Or, a nicely formed children’s story.  I see a truth – not a tidy creed – but a narrative of people living in the midst of relationships, God’s interactions, and questions.  Yes, God is there in the midst, but not in a flat, uni-dimensional way – a cardboard form that can easily be torn and manipulated.  It is a dynamic, multi-dimensional truth of God that we can’t understand, but we can trust even without knowing everything about it.

Mystery exists in this narrative.  It’s easy to see God in the victories of the Bible – Daniel  being saved from the lions and Peter escaping from jail.  However, sometimes God is hidden behind questions – when we wonder why he hardened Pharoah’s heart or question why he wanted Israel to completely decimate some of their enemies.  God’s description cannot be neatly stated once you piece together the truths throughout the Bible.  It seems contradictory at times.  Yet, in these enigmas we see God at work in the midst of unexplained suffering – the kind we regularly encounter even today. This is a story I can hold onto.

Running the race, leaving the land, wrestling, following the cloud – the images used in the Bible to describe people’s interactions with God are active.  Even those related to the law – share them with your children, write them on your hears – don’t refer to only a mental affirmation.  In the Bible we don’t have so much an end point to reach, but a story to live.  Because God can not be contained in a cleaned-up children’s story or a neatly formed doctrine, we are not alone on this journey.  God does not remain safely on our shelves.  He ventures out with us – and eventually we may even turn and venture with him.

Categories: God's Story | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Isn’t the Story I Signed Up For

Over the past decade I was supposed to be setting up a new life – landing an academic job after finishing a Ph.D., moving to a new apartment or condo, enlarging my network of friends, and trying new endeavors – all encouraged by my greatest supporters, my parents.  I could step out knowing they would always be there to keep pushing me or to hold me when needed.  I could picture – and almost touch and taste this life.

However, instead of striking out into new lands, over the past seven years I have been sitting in hospital waiting rooms four times waiting to hear the outcomes of major surgeries, hearing the diagnosis of cancer for both parents, and watching my father die.  I would be no where else but with my mom and dad through their unexpected health struggles.  However, this is not the story I had imagined.

Listening to friends and students, I know I am not alone in feeling that something majorly wrong happened to my story.  Whether our plans are to get a specific job, marry that one person, or move to a dreamed of location – these certainties often disappear and we’re left with questions.  What do we do now?  How do we change our narrative – especially when our identity has been so caught up in our prior plans?

Holding onto these imagined stories, no matter how good, often inhibits the possibility of fully living into the story before us.  As with most people, the stories I’ve created about my future have been exciting and good.  They have led me to where I am now, even if the final images don’t match.  But they have also encouraged me to ignore or just try to get through the scenes that I don’t like.  If I can just get through this next surgery then my mom will be healthy and we can get on with life.  If I can just stand and smile for thirty minutes at a social event, I’ll be able to leave and get to the activity I really want to do.  Any possibility of interacting with people during these other times is ignored so that I can keep on track with the narrative I’m writing.

Looking back at these missed opportunities, I’m beginning to more fully accept that I should look at my story as more than a narrow path along a plot line.  It takes place in the interaction of the characters in their surroundings.  It’s a movement, not a well wrought narrative with a tidy ending.  What if the story ahead doesn’t have the trappings of that happy ending, but a relationship with the one who is good – God – and with other people along the life journey?  What if I live into the story before me instead of constantly rewriting a safe one?  Now that would be a story to sign up for.

Categories: Journey Living | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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