Today we begin yet another tradition for the Interfaithfulness blog: Wild Card Wednesdays. This means that if you will come here on Wednesdays, you will never know WHAT you might find, because the theme could be anything from productivity hints (I’m a productivity junkie), to book reviews, thoughts about just about anything, whether religious or not! In other words, come here on Wednesdays to be surprised!
For today the surprise is that “stories” are not just for little children but for adults who are not through growing up. Is that you?
One of the endless fascinations of the Jewish study of Scripture is learning to pay attention to the details of how things are said. Our sages found significance in repetitions of words, in spelling variations, and in parallels between how something is said in one place, and how it is said in another.
And as we examine Scripture, we see that routinely and often Scripture speaks in figures of speech.
Since the Enlightenment, the time of Immanuel Kant, about 1750, we have been conditioned to speak instead in principles, in bullet points, in what we have been trained to call “facts.” We are taught to use discursive reasoning that proceeds to a conclusion through rational arguments.
But the Bible authors don’t favor this approach. And increasingly in our day, the Postmodern period, people prefer metaphors, pictures, and stories to factual arguments.
In our day, if we are going to win people’s hearts, we must first capture their imaginations.
Look at a typical New Covenant passage in John 11, the famous story about Yeshua and the raising of Lazarus.
When Yeshua hears of Lazarus’ illness, he does not go immediately to help him. He waits two days before beginning a journey which will take two days more! Then, when on the way there, we read this:
7Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8″But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Judeans tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”
9Yeshua answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. 10It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”
Notice . . . he uses a figure of speech, but doesn’t interpret it. This is what he USUALLY did . . . he used figures of speech, or amplified figures of speech, that is, parables even in speaking to his closest disciples. But why?
We know that he says in one place that he did so so that people who were not really ready to deal with who he was would remain strangers to his meaning. In other words, one needs to really want to know if one is to know. As HaShem says through Jeremiah, “You will seek me and you will find me if you search for me with all your heart” (29:13). The intentionality is a prior condition to discovery, even discovery of meaning.
I believe Yeshua spoke as he did to cause even his disciples to wrestle with meanings, so as, in the process, to form within themselves a sense of what he meant, rather than just laying it out for them. In fact, when you lay things out for people in discursive ways, you set up a “agree/disagree” polarity, whereas if you speak in stories and metaphors, you invite them into a voyage of discovery that goes deeper.
It is similar to what a therapist does: rather than telling you explanations for patterns of thought and behavior she detects in you, she she causes you to discover the meaning yourself. You might be defensive against being analyzed and described. BUt when you discover things yourself, the your defenses are down and you own what you discover.
The text goes on.
11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
Notice, again he is using a figure of speech. He wants the disciples to think about what he means, to figure it out, so that they might remember it and own it. But they don’t. Look what happens instead.
12His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13Yeshua had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
Then, in verse 14 we read something most significant.
14So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
I love that verse 14: “So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” Here he is blunt: here he tells them “plainly.” But he does not always or often speak that way. The text says, “THEN he told them plainly,” reminding us that he had not been speaking plainly until then. In fact, such plain speaking is not his normal habit! He prefers metaphors, camels going through eyes of needles, people plucking out their eyes, rivers of water gushing out from one’s inmost being, seed being sown by a sower—frequently pictures, figures of speech, parables.
Why didn’t Yeshua ALWAYS tell things plainly to his disciples? Why didn’t he use bullet points and spiritual laws? I believe it is because when we use figures of speech, metaphors, stories, parables, we draw people in, and make them engage their minds, hearts, emotions, imaginations in deciphering meaning.
Mere data is the corpse of experience needing the color and motion of metaphor and story to make it live. Metaphors, similes, figures of speech, and especially stories resurrect data and bring it to life . . . and here I am not speaking of Commander Data!
Commander Data is an artificial life form, like the standard apologetic arguments we often use. It is tragic that we have been conditioned to speak of our faith as data, but it doesn’t really breathe. In fact, our sound byte words are often like just so many corpses awaiting resurrection, like Lazarus in the tomb.
We are living in an era fast losing patience with sound byte theology, with bumper sticker religion, with pathways to transcendence reduced to four spiritual laws, and with rational argumentation such as one might hear from Commander Spock. People want spiritual truth that lives, feels, breathes, that works, that lives in community, that laughs, loves and is fully alive. And that will require more than a bullet point salvation explained with a Harvard outline. As Elie Wiesel said, “God created people because he loves stories.” And if we are going to attract people to a deeper encounter with this God, we are going to need to learn to love stories too.
That’s the story for today. Until next time, “Live long and prosper!”