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Real or Pretend – History Metaphorized: More real than reality?

January 7, 2013

I have recently been enjoying re-reading some of the hundreds of books I bought during my masters studies. At the time they were scanned rather than properly read, and I am finding it wonderfully enlightening to re-engage with them – and with the authors who have become like friends to me over the past few years.

A book I am re-reading at present is  Marcus Borg’s and Tom Wright’s work ‘The Meaning of Jesus – Two Visions’. Tom and Marcus write respectively from a conservative (though certainly not fundamentalist) and liberal perspective. In his work, Marcus frequently refers to ‘History Metaphorized’ as being a helpful way to see those many biblical passages that although unlikely to be historically accurate in a literal sense, are still absolutely true in a metaphorical sense. Indeed, as true as ‘history’ in what they teach us about God.

It was therefore interesting to revisit Brian McLaren’s blog this afternoon as see another very helpful explanation coming from the same point of view. I have pasted it below:

Q & R: Real or Pretend?

Here’s the Q:

I always thought I’d have some sagely advice to give my kids about Old Testament literalism, but when my 3 year old daughter asked me if the story about Elijah going to heaven was real or pretend, I froze up and had no idea what to say. It’s so hard to get the complexity across. I want to communicate the idea that scripture is real in the sense that it really points us to the mystery of God but pretend in the sense that odds are, nobody ever got into a flaming chariot and actually flew away. I don’t want to crush her spirit or make her think religion is pointless by just saying its pretend, but I don’t want to be dishonest. Any pointers?

Here’s the R:
I’m deep into the writing of my next book (which will be a kind of re-catechesis), and was just grappling with this question yesterday when I read your question. It’s easier to answer for 30 year-olds than 3 year-olds in some ways. Here’s what I wrote yesterday (incorporating your question into my next book, for which I thank you, as I do all my responsive readers whose questions help me greatly as a writer) …

Because the rules and standards of ancient storytelling don’t conform to modern standards of reporting and recording history, it’s tricky to try to correlate the most ancient Bible stories with modern timelines. We frequently find ourselves in the position of a mother whose little girl asked her if the story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was “real or pretend.”The question, of course, can’t be answered in a way that is simultaneously full, rich, and nuanced on the one hand and simple, clear, and satisfying for a three-year old (or some thirty-year-olds) on the other. A full and nuanced answer would require us first to explain that even so-called “real” stories are told from a point of view, with a rhetorical purpose that causes some background and details to be included and other information to be omitted. In other words, no “real” event can be reported without being interpreted – and interpreting events often involves moves that look a lot like pretending. (note – pretend that we don’t need to know what happened 3 hundred years before, etc.)

Second, we would need to explain that both real and pretend stories can be told for a wide variety of purposes. On one extreme, they can be told to deceive, oppress, pacify, manipulate, and hurt people, and on the other, they can be told to challenge people to think, to liberate and encourage them, to heal, comfort, and otherwise help them. Sometimes a “pretend” story can do a lot more good than a “real” story – as Jesus’ parables exemplify so powerfully. And sometimes a “real” story can do a lot more harm than a pretend story – as gossip exemplifies so powerfully. So the binary option between real and pretend quickly becomes complexified into four options (with all the gradations in between) – real-healing or real-harming, pretend-harming or pretend-healing.

We would also need to acknowledge that stories that begin as real often are embellished with pretend elements (and vice versa), as any salesman – or preacher – knows!

For a three-year-old, I think a good answer would be, “That’s a great question! Some stories are real, and some are pretend, and some of the very best ones are a mix of both. I think that story is a mix of both. What do you think?” Such an answer would invite the child to join the interpretive community rather than remain a passive consumer of interpretive products churned out by grown-up interpreters – who often could learn a lot from three-year-olds about interpretation!

So we might say that the stories of Genesis and Exodus are a mixture of fact and fiction, re-told and re-interpreted generation to generation. We might call them formational ancestral fiction – imaginative tales about a community’s ancestors that were created or adapted with a serious purpose in mind: to form character, faith, identity, solidarity, and shared values in a community.


a new year post-evangelical challenge for the church

December 28, 2009

What do we offer when we invite people to church, or say we are ‘Christians’ or ‘Christ followers’ in 2010? Have we thought about it? Do we really believe that a God who goes to such extremes for us is just looking for ‘signed up’ members of a confident religious-culture-club?

If the baby in the manger grew up to say that his manifesto (Luke 4:18-19) was to pronounce good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to announce the year of the Lord’s favour’, i.e. jubilee, was he not talking about so much more than this? – Has the church ‘spirited away’ God’s very earthy good news for his very solidly material creation? After all, where did Jesus say we meet him? And to whom does he say … “depart from me, I never knew you”?

In its honest desire to avoid preaching ‘works righteousness’ has the evangelical church thrown the Christmas baby out with the bathwater? is it being sucked down the dualist drain that separates the spiritual from the temporal, down a rather wide and easy ‘way’ of affirming a comfortable postmodern individualism in which Jesus is an other-worldly personal saviour, therapist, lover and solver of all our individual problems, but not physical Lord?

It has been said that the Church is the one and only ‘intentional agent of the kingdom of God (the kingdom being where God’s love, mercy, justice and compassion rules and reigns), and as such it is something other than Church unless its love of God is inseparable from its love of God’s mission to the ‘outsider’. Dualism is so dangerous because it is the ‘way’ that ultimately separates worship from life, and that keeps apart rather than reconciles God and his creation. It ignores Jesus’ central message that to love God demands loving our enemy, and hence it turns a church into the church of Laodicea – one that thinks it is strong when it is weak, lukewarm, missionless, self-obsessed. (Revelation 3). And yes … it thinks it is strong. The Laodicean church of Revelation would also fail to see itself in this description.

Were not the ‘works’ paul speaks of, those of religious observance? … and if so, to what extent has evangelical dualism become the new religious legalism of self-obsessed postmodernity. Become the very thing it so desperately seeks to eschew? One that proffers a ‘sacrifice of praise’ in preference to a costly living faith?

It is high time to call and assist each other, and the Church, back to mission spirituality if we are to really know Christ as personal saviour now and for all eternity, and if our worship is to be accepted by a loving God who is the I AM, who never changes, and who 400+ years B.C. sent Israel into captivity for the very same reasons – because they thought they owned him as their ‘personal’ saviour, while ignoring the plight of those around them.

Recommended Books:

Surprised By Hope (Tom Wright) – what Christians really hope for

Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Rob Bell) – a walk through the mission of God

Post-Evangelical (Dave Tomlinson) – why committed evangelical Christians recirculate and eventually leave

The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – a challenge against cheap grace from a 20th century martyr

Happy New Year.

live nativity around truro – reflections and questions

December 24, 2009

Got all dressed up with some other dodgy shepherds this afternoon as part of truro methodist circuit’s live nativity – complete with donkey, 2 lambs, 3 chickens, joseph, 2 marys (one with live baby), inn keeper & family, 3 wise men, etc etc. (and a singing star).

I must admit that I have previously been a little sceptical about this sort of caper. after all, what are our (we churchy type’s) motives for taking snap shots of the christian narrative into the streets once or twice a year? Can we really presume that the portrayal of an uncontextualised and uninterpreted narrative from the days of the roman empire can have any significance to post-christendom, postmodern people? Furthermore, when we stop and consider, what have we ‘insiders venturing outside’ gained from the exercise? does it make us feel a little more worthy to see the open-mouthed incredulity of those who have not been told the sunday school stories? Perhaps public humiliation is a little less painful than self flagellation, but basically has the same effect. We can go home knowing that we have carried our cross among the great unwashed and succeeded in being ‘fools for Christ’. Perhaps we can absolve ourselves of our own equally keen consumerism once the required ‘missional outreach to the real sinners’ box has been duly ticked.

Perhaps there is some truth simmering in such criticism? After all, what happened this afternoon was on the surface a display of a two thousand year old narrative taken, in the main, quite out of context to the complexities of the Missio Dei of the here and now – God’s purposes in continuing to rescue his creation through the lordship of Jesus Christ in a deeply individualistic and postmodern late 2009. Barring the punchline in the final address, good as that address was, wasn’t this essentially an uncontextualised historical play?

… Ok, but conversely there was a real sense that the ‘otherness’ of God was on display. Personally speaking, i felt a sense of mystery, expectancy and tension in the air. There was humour as well as reverence, the ancient met with the everyday, people were engaged in conversation, often simply to be offered prayer cards to be completed and placed in a letter box by the church should they wish … christians offering a taste of the kingdom of God and expecting nothing in return. I can attest to many a knowing smile and cheerful banter that could only have helped to break down the barriers of mistrust. And finally, just possibly, someone may have been prompted by the Spirit to seek out the true message behind this quaint little narrative cobbled together from two largely separate and conflicting ancient accounts. After all, belief in the various components of the narrative itself is neither here nor there – it is what the narrative says of God and his mission to his creation that is at issue here.

Is God God? Is Jesus Lord? Did this baby come to defeat the powers of evil? Has God’s new world begun in this baby? – This is the heart of the gospel.

This is what demands the same personal response in ad 2009 as it did in ad 30. If by showing a little humanity, and the ability to laugh at ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable we assisted some to reevaluate what it might mean to be wholly human in the image of a God who cared enough to become wholly and gloriously human – as humans can be, then it was a worthwhile exercise.

What do you think? … Was what happened this afternoon evangelism in the sense of proclaiming the good news as public truth, or was it just an extension of the christian ‘culture club’ – a pious pastime for us theological thespians? Although I personally believe that it was at least potentially the former, the spirit in which such activities are  done and the way they are perceived really do matter … while Jesus commissions us to the former, he has no time whatsoever for religious posturing.

If you were there what was your experience? Did you have any significant engagement with anyone? (no names please). any thoughts on other similar events you have attended? … And most importantly, if you don’t normally ‘do religion’, what do you think?

Sincere thanks to maggie for organising an excellent event, and to tina for the photos. If a picture paints a thousand words, many words were spoken this afternoon.

sing christmas – jesus enjoys an evening out

December 22, 2009

Had a great time at the Kings Arms, Tregony on the Roseland this evening. about 60 regulars and others, along with cybervicar (the organiser), were involved in the local-radio carol service link-up, with hearty singing and numerous thoughts and prayers placed on the nativity scene. In that Luke says Jesus was born in a pub car park (stable in those days), it really felt as if he had come back to where he was always more comfortable – in and around the people. thanks to Darren and Kay (landlords) for the mince pies and hospitality, to Radio Cornwall, and to Gareth for organising the evening for us. A wonderful start to the Christmas season.

spiritual places for private seekers

December 21, 2009

a couple of years ago our congregation of about ten people opened our village chapel, provided a prayer area with easy chair and table lamp, reading material and paper-covered pin-board, and left it unmanned. this resulted in the young people of the village using it to hang out, and the posting of numerous amazing prayers and calls for help. others from the village also used it, but it was the response of the teenagers that was most surprising and encouraging. this ultimately resulted in the commencement of a youth club / drop in and lasting friendships with many young people.

my belief is that the reason this was so successful was that it was a completely unthreatening and trusting venture, and God was able to use the risk we were prepared to take for his kingdom purposes. however, I am open to the idea that this may work with a staffed premises, and would like to hear from anyone who has been involved in a similar venture. how did it go / is it going? what have you learned? how is God using your venture?

messy church – messy enough?

December 21, 2009

The number of attenders at our messy church, run at the village school every two months, is currently about six times greater than attend traditional church at our methodist chapel on a sunday morning. The messy church has been running every couple of months for a year, and the progress is wonderful with a lot of good work being done. However, although developing a sense of social community, we are yet to become an intentional community of outward-looking kingdom-oriented disciples. The potential to outchurch our inherited churches in this regard is stunningly obvious – but how do we help these wonderful people to journey where the inherited church often will not go – to follow Jesus in every aspect of their/our very messy lives and communities?

Does anyone have personal experience of, or know of examples where messy church is moving on (or even) overtaking its parent church in the discipleship steeplechase?  look forward to hearing from you. meanwhile, I will be re-reading Messy Church 2