May 5, 2016 / Theology
In this interview with The Other Journal, Marcia Mount Shoop explores the realities of race, gender, and capitalism as they relate to big-time sports today.
July 14, 2009
Narratives are purposeful and meaningful. When we consider recorded events, even our own lives, I believe we must approach them as narrative. We must envision them as a story, long or short, with a past, present, and future; we must see purpose and meaning or chance mistaking life for a series of random footprints in the sands of time. H. Richard Niebuhr illustrates this function of narrative in life stories by describing two potential histories of a healed blind man:
A scientific case history will describe what happened to his optic nerve or to the crystalline lens, what technique the surgeon used or by what medicines a physician wrought the cure, through what stages of recovery the patient passed. An autobiography, on the other hand, may barely mention these things but it will tell what happened to a self that had lived in darkness and now saw again trees and the sunrise, children’s faces and the eyes of a friend. Which of these histories can be a parable of revelation, the outer history or the story of what happened to a self?1
But in many respects, Western culture has forgotten the power of the narrative process. We have accepted the post-Enlightenment conception of life as linear and readily discernable and thereby lost our ability to make deeper meaning from story. The result has been to wean a generation away from the power of narrative and contribute to the malaise of meaning that is so evident in our culture .This movement has been particularly evident in many evangelical churches where, until recently, a larger emphasis was placed on looking for truth in the seemingly linear statements of scripture than the more narrative and poetic biblical literature, such as the gospels and wisdom writings.2 Epistles that are merely rendered as propositional slogans can provide deceptively strong walls to define our lives by in an age that prizes clarity, predictability, and expediency. Yet such poor readings of scripture will ultimately diminish the potency of God’s redemptive, sustaining grace and mercy to the size of a bumper sticker or the benign beat of a three-minute contemporary Christian pop song.
For example, without the poetic narrative imagination that grounds and sustains the biblical canon,3 someone could read Paul’s letters without ever being confronted with the need to search for meaning, locate the proper canonical context, or humbly seek the revelation of the Holy Spirit for our reading of the text. Passages such as “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” (Rom. 2:12); “Do not deceive yourselves” (I Cor. 3:18); “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2); “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3); and “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice” (Phil. 4:9) can seem fairly straightforward and leave the reader with a view that ready-at-hand pragmatism is the central concern of scripture.4 That is, the spiritual struggle isn’t thought to be in the act of interpretation but in how to put what is seemingly plain into practice.
However, when revelation is understood primarily in terms of isolated propositions, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees, or in this case, we risk missing the narrative of faith as played out through the storied lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Jonah, and Jesus. The narrative thrust of the scriptures is important because, as author Frederick Buechner points out, we are intrinsically woven into its tapestry-like plot line:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world, the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which he created it. That means that the Bible is a book about you and me, whom he also made and lost and continually seeks, so you might say that what holds it together more than anything else is us [. . .]5
In this essay, I will discuss three critical uses of narrative in the context of faith formation. In the course of this discussion, I will use scripture and other narrative sources, especially C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in conversation with Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century retelling of the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail, Le Morte d’Arthur, to show that nonscriptural sources can and should be used to make faith accessible to people who are resistant to things transcendent, people who Friedrich Schleiermacher, the nineteenth-century theologian and father of modern theology, termed the “cultured despisers of religion.”6 More particularly, I will focus on how narrative can provide direction, release, and integration in faith formation toward an articulation of our lives as things of beauty—what I will refer to as “the life poetic.”
Direction: Narrative as a Syllabus for the Eternal Quest
Few plot devices feature as prominently in the literary tradition as the quest, which for the purpose of this discussion I define as a chivalrous enterprise in the medieval romantic tradition, usually involving an adventurous journey. The theme of the quest is one that C. S. Lewis employs prominently throughout his Chronicles of Narnia series, most notably in The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As with most literature, especially in the fantasy genre, the text can engage the reader on multiple levels. For our purposes, there are four primary tiers of meaning a reader can engage a work in that utilizes a quest motif: the literal story level (the story is merely the story), the analogy level (the story is analogous to something else), the moral or character level (the story imparts a deeper meaning for how one organizes one’s earthly existence), and the anagogical level (the story directs the reader beyond itself, beyond comparisons or analogies, and beyond the earthly concerns of the moment toward a religious or mystical transcendence and deep awakening of Sehnsucht or joy).7 As we shall see in The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis carries the reader not only through the literal level of a quest story, but to an anagogical level where faith formation can take shape. This anagogical level is in the tradition of Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of the Sangreal” from Le Morte d’Arthur, where the quest for the Holy Grail provides a lens for our search for meaning as one “looking through a glass darkly” to view humanity’s broken nature and search for truth. As author Madeleine L’Engel writes, “there is an allegorical level to his [Lewis’s] stories, and, when he is at his best, an anagogical level”8 It is through Lewis’s use of the quest that the reader can engage in not just a story, but a what I refer to as “the life poetic,” where the truths found in the literal quest can be carried into the reader’s real-world quest for ultimate meaning.
Although the characters, place, and time differ dramatically from book to book, the basic plot of a quest story remains constant on the literal level. A hero is called upon to undertake a journey or task that is vital to either the individual or the community. Others are called upon to assist the hero, and instructions are provided for the journey. As the quest progresses, obstacles occur, and at times of great despair, help from outside the traveling party appears, usually of a supernatural kind. And at last, there is some form of goal attainment.9
In both The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, Lewis sticks to this formula. In The Silver Chair, Eustace and Jill are “called” from outside of their world and into Narnia for the purpose of a quest:
“Please, what task, Sir?” said Jill.
“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world [. . .] you would not have been called to me unless I had been calling to you,” said the Lion. ”[. . . .] “And now hear your task. [. . .] I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost Prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back into your world.”10
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children (Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace) are brought into Narnia to join an in-progress quest that is led by King Caspian who tells the children the task before them:
“And where are we heading for?” asked Edmund. “[. . .] Well, on my coronation day, with Aslan’s approval, I swore an oath that, if once I established peace in Narnia, I would sail east myself for a year and a day to find my father’s friends or to learn of their deaths and avenge them if I could.”11
In both cases, the travelers are given instructions to guide them on their quests. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the travelers are to sail east “for a year a day through the Eastern Seas beyond the Lone Islands.”12 In The Silver Chair, Aslan gives instructions in the form of signs:
“I will tell you, Child,” said the Lion. “These are the signs by which I will guide you in your quest. [. . .] Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”13
As is basic to a quest story, the travelers in both The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair encounter numerous distractions and obstacles that get in the way of their goal. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the travelers encounter obstacles through their journey in the Lone Islands, such as their surprise capture by Governor Grumpas at Narrowhaven: “But hardly had they raised their cups to their lips when the black-haired man nodded to his companions and, as quick as lightening, all the five visitors found themselves wrapped in strong arms.”14
While throughout The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the travelers are distracted from the goal by physical obstacles, such as the capture by Governor Grumpas and the transformation of Eustace into a dragon, the travelers in The Silver Chair deal with numerous mental and spiritual distractions as well from the signs that were given to them by Aslan. This is demonstrated when the Green Witch is interrogating the travelers as to the true identity of Aslan and the Sun:
The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. [. . .] Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan.15
A common element of a quest story is the coming of help from outside the group on the quest, usually of a supernatural variety. This help often enters the tale when the hero does not expect it and when it is most needed. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this is displayed when Eustace becomes a dragon: “He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” At the moment of Eustace’s greatest despair, Aslan arrives to help: “I was laying awake and wondering what on earth would become of me. And then [. . .] I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly towards me.”16
The attainment of the goal is just as essential to a quest story as any other element. Yet, it is often the case where a secondary goal attainment will occur during the journey that was not planned by the travelers and it is often the secondary, unplanned goal that gives the quest its transcendent purpose. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the seemingly primary goal of discovering the whereabouts of the Seven Noble Lords is attained and the crew of the Dawn Treader “all reached Narnia in the end.”] A secondary goal attainment was that of Eustace’s redemption as a result of his journey to Narnia: “Back in our own world everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved, and how “you’d never know him for the same boy.”17
Apart from its strength as a literary device, the theme of the quest provides a powerful anagogical medium for the reader to engage in as well. The story can capture the reader with the plot and action of the story, while also imparting higher ideals that the reader can integrate personally into the real world. An example of this is vividly displayed in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, perhaps the most famous of quest tales. In “The Tale of the Sengreal” from Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain, the purest knight of the Round Table, puts out the call to the quest for the Holy Grail:
Therefore I make this vow: to set off in search of the Holy Grail tomorrow and not to return for at least a year and a day without seeing it more clearly, but to accept it as in accordance with God’s will if this is not vouchsafed me.18
Note here the similarities between Sir Gawain’s call to the quest and King Caspian’s call in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the king states that “I would sail east myself for a year and a day to find my father’s friends.”19
In the “Tale of the Sangreal,” the Holy Grail represents a search for healing and ultimate wholeness through king and country, which were intertwined. As the various Grail knights come in contact with the Holy Grail, they would be healed of both physical and spiritual ailment. Sir Lancelot has a vision of a wounded knight calling him to healing:
“Sweet Jesu, when shall I see the Holy Grail and be cured? Surely, lying on this litter, I have suffered for long, for a trespass which is not great. [. . . A] silver table bearing the Holy Grail appeared before the knight. Sir Lancelot recognized the Grail, having seen it before in King Pelles’ castle. The wounded knight lifted both hands and spoke again: “Sweet Lord, I pray you that as you are present in this Holy Vessel, so will you cure me of my malady!” So saying, he knelt before the Holy Grail and kissed it, and thereupon was cured.20
The healing of Eustace Scrubb, both physically as a dragon and mentally as a boy (who Lewis suggests almost deserved such a pitiful surname given what a mess he was at the beginning of the tale), represents a similar image to the healing offered by the wounded knight in “The Tale of the Sangreal.” After his physical transformation into a dragon, Eustace at first realizes that people value him for this transformation—he is fearsome and can perform helpful tasks such as lifting large objects. He celebrates and is celebrated for embracing the evil that has become his life. Yet once he wishes to return to his true nature, he cannot free himself from this facade that he has become. The task of release is greater than he is able to accomplish. After multiple failures at cleansing himself of his dragon nature, Eustace listens to Aslan:
Then the Lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke it—you will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. [. . .T]he only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off [. . . ]. I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.21
In both accounts, the healing vision of Sir Lancelot to partake of the Grail and the de-dragoning of Eustace under the claw of Aslan, the true quest speaks not only at the literal level but also at the anagogical level—contact with the Holy is the key to healing and wholeness.
The anagogical levels of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are evident from the beginning when King Caspian is explaining the quest to the children:
“I would sail east myself for a year and a day to find my father’s friends [. . .]. But Reepicheep here has an even higher hope.” Everyone’s eyes turned to the Mouse.
“As high as my spirit,” it said [. . .] “Why should we not come to the very eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan’s own country.”22
Reepiceep’s high hope of finding Aslan’s country represents just one example of how the literal level of adventure in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair transports readers to an anagogical experience.
In discussing the theme of the quest in relation to Malory’s “Tale of the Sengreal” from Le Morte d’Arthur, Lewis writes the following:
The human tragedy becomes all the more impressive if we see it against the background of the Grail, and the failure of the Quest becomes all the more impressive if it is felt thus reverberating through all the human relationships of the Arthurian world. No one wants the Grail to overthrow the Round Table directly, by a fiat of spiritual magic. What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned to those tendencies within it which must work its destruction. [. . .] It is in such a tragic glass that most men, especially Englishmen, first see their sins with clarity.23
As with Le Morte d’Arthur, Lewis’s fiction also becomes “all the more impressive” when set against the life of the reader. Aslan’s healing of Eustace, the admonition of Jill to “Remember the Signs!”, and the resurrection of Caspian at the end of The Silver Chair are images that the reader can retrieve and revive through their day-to-day lives. The story then moves from the pages and literally moves the reader to grasp that possibilities held in narrative can be embodied in our lives. This is what is meant by a “living myth” as stated by Marjorie Evelyn Wright in regard to the Narnia books in her research on the role of mythopoetic cosmology in C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien:
These stories [the Narnia Chronicles] satisfy the requirements for the “living myth”: They have correspondence with Man’s condition in the modern world, yet serve all times and all conditions in that they are set in eternal mobility.24
As Lewis states, most people will only see their falling short from grace through the “tragic glass” of myth, specifically the quest for the Holy Grail. The theme of the quest is therefore a powerful motif, more “impressive” due to its relation to the human drama. As the historian and biographer Frances Gies writes, the theme of the quest has been developed by artists through the centuries to show that “further than the theme of the Grail, building a story on the knight’s search, beyond adventure, human love, and even the brotherly spirit of the Round Table, [the quest motif] naturally searches for the meaning of life itself.”25
In turning to scripture, the narrative examples of the quest abound. What does it look and feel like not to know exactly where God is leading me? The narrative of Abraham being called by God. What does it look and feel like to be led astray during my personal quest? The narrative of Job’s temptation from his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar to turn his back on God due to his great misfortune. What does it look and feel like to abandon my personal quest set forth by God? The narrative of Jonah. What is it like to trust God in the face of overwhelming odds? The narrative of David and Goliath. What does it look and feel like to have God call you on a quest that seems irrational? The narrative of Gideon’s circling the walled city. And what will it be like to return to my quest after searching for meaning apart from God? The parable of the Prodigal Son.
As stated by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the quest is conclusively more than a literary device, it is life itself:
The unity of human life is the unity of a narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are frustrated, abandoned, or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest. [. . .] It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptation, and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood.26
In this way, MacIntyre reminds us that the human life is framed by unity and not discord. But this is a narrative unity rather than merely the reflection of data points that populate our days. What seems random and haphazard is instead the effect of plotting the meaning and context of our lives on too limited a canvas. For our lives to move toward that for which we are created, we need to embrace the reality of fiction in our existence—the reality that much of what is truly real and enduring requires an imaginative leap as much as a critical and reasoned reflection.
Release: Narrative as the Canvas to Steward Personal and Collective Pain
Turning from the role that narrative plays in providing a direction for the life quest, we see that narrative is also capable of moving us from suffering to acceptance of the potential healing and redemption that are found on the quest. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “Notes from the Underground,” the protagonist states that the only true proof of our existence is through our pain. He argues that whereas everything else in life can be argued to be an illusion, no one would purposefully choose pain; it possesses a self-identity apart from our id impulse to pleasure and is hence a verifiable reality. Lewis argues that pain is “God’s megaphone to awake a sleeping world.”27 He sees pain as God’s means of grabbing our attention and showing us how much we need him.
The use of narrative in relation to the processing of pain is multi-purposeful. First, narrative provides a means of organizing the internal chaos that results from childhood. For instance, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim makes the following observation:
The child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and he often experiences mortal anxiety. More often than not, he is unable to express those feelings in words or he can do so only by indirection: fear of the dark, of some animal, anxiety about his body. Parents tend to overlook [. . .] those spoken fears. The fairy tale, by contrast, takes these existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death. Further, the fairy tale offers solutions in ways that the child can grasp on his level of understanding. [. . .] As a child listens to a fairy tale, he gets ideas about how he may create order out of the chaos that is his inner life.28
It is through narrative, in this case fairy tales, that children learn how to engage themselves and understand social structures and reality. When deprived of the right kinds of narrative, children will not fully assimilate salient developmental questions such as “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” “How did the world come into being?” and “What is the purpose of life?” Without such questions being asked early on, a child’s world will remain, on many levels, an unresolved chaos of mystery and pain.
Second, the use of narrative provides a template to organize pain in a way that can be constructively expressed and therefore released. Therapists utilize open-ended questions as a means of drawing people out of their pain and learning to express what’s going on internally. Statements such as “Tell me about your first childhood memories,” “Tell me about your relationship with your father,” and “Tell me about dinnertime with your family” are representative of this notion. In this “tell me” framework, adults can create a safe environment, like an internal cinema, where children can watch the events and circumstances of their pain unfold before them as both player and spectator.
Pain is a human constant, yet what we do with the pain in our lives varies greatly. For many people it is an almost intolerable burden. In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Mr. Halloway makes the following observation to his young son Will, illustrating the burden of pain and the potential for sin that all people endure:
Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town [. . .] is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light [. . .] and men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells [. . . .] For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two.29
Frederick Buechner expresses this idea in relation to the parable of the talents and our failure to acknowledge the reality of pain in our lives:
To bury your life is to stop growing [. . .] the buried pain in particular and all the other things we tend to bury along with pain, including joy, which tends to get buried too when we start burying things, that the buried life is itself darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth and the one who casts us into it is no one other than ourselves.30
To release our pain and suffering for the sake of others is what Buechner sees as being a good “steward of your pain”—investing not only our joys and gifts with others, but to be fully investing all of ourselves into the life of the Kingdom of God as a testimony of God’s providence. To be investors in accord with Jesus’s parable of the talents found in Saint Matthew’s gospel is what it means to walk with others on the journey of life in both dark and light. This is what it is to tell the story of our life as we sojourn with others and not to walk in silence, but to speak and interact along the pebbled path of life, leaning on each other and bandaging our wounds through the sharing of our personal and collective scars. It is to be real as the Velveteen Rabbit was, with all its fur rubbed off and two buttons missing. It is to be cut to the heart with the claw of the great lion who, as Lewis suggests, is “good, but not tame.”
Integration: Narrative as the Intersection of Internal and External Histories
Where a narrative shape to our lives provides both a direction for our life’s quest and a means of release from the pain that is part of our journey, the life poetic is also a commitment to seeing the intersection of our narrated life with the stories of those who have gone before us, those who share this season of time, and those who will inherit our stories in the future generations. As theologian James McClendon put so succulently, biography is essentially theology if read properly.31 In this way, I would argue that history when read through biography also takes on the depth of theology in its desire after ultimate concerns. And although history at its base is the rendering of facts and events, narrative serves as the frame within which history is displayed, revealing the fullness of our story as it intersects with the fullness of history’s larger story. This is what the theologian David F. Ford calls providing a “middle distance perspective”:
The middle distance is that focus which best does justice to the ordinary social world of people in interaction. It portrays them acting, talking, suffering, thinking, and involved in institutions, societies, and networks of relationships over time [. . . and] helps to translate one mode of experience into another.32
As we look at history in a purely objective sense and as utterly distinct from us, we are unmoved, or better yet, removed from a personal sense of affinity, and in many ways, we are without a sense of spiritual mooring to a past or a future. Without a deep and imaginative orientation to the past and ultimate future, it is impossible to fully embody our lives in the present. As we are reminded by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, the three grand Christian virtues are faith, hope, and love: the past is apprehended through reflection upon our faith and those who have lived lives of faith before us,33 and our future is lived with a repose of hope that creates the context of the present for us to love and be loved. In this way, if we are without faith and hope (or disconnected from our past and future), we cannot love (in the present). In the middle distance view, we live in the present as part of history from a middle distance, tethered between a constantly re-membering past of our faith and the coming promise of our future as one filled with hope. So we are not isolated from the events of our world, and history walks with swollen feet in the desert with us, wonders about the purpose of life in this world, like we do, and laughs at the humor found in the eyes of a newborn child, as we would. This view is accomplished through the story of history, which is our past framed in smiles, tears, jeers, stumbles, and leaps. As put by H. Richard Niebuhr:
It may be said that to speak of history in this fashion is to try to think with poets rather than with scientists. That is what we mean, for poets think of persons, purposes, and destinies. It is just their Jobs and Hamlets that are not dreamt of in philosophies which rule out from the company of true being whatever cannot be numbered or included in an impersonal pattern. Drama and epic set forth pattern too, but it is one of personal relations. Hence we may call internal history dramatic and its truth dramatic truth, though drama in this case does not mean fiction.34
Niebuhr continues this idea by suggesting that our internal history and the history of the world, particularly God’s history, are correlated:
To be a self is to have a god; to have a god is to have a history, that is, events connected in a meaningful pattern; to have one God is to have one history. God and the history of the selves in community belong together in inseparable union [. . .] the God who is found in inner history, or rather who reveals himself there, is not the spiritual life but universal God, the creator not only of the events through which he discloses himself but also of all other happenings. The standpoint of the Christian community is limited, being in history, faith, and sin. But what is seen from this standpoint is unlimited.35
Writer and theologian Eugene Peterson suggests that life “is not managing a religious business but a spiritual quest.”36 Yet without the challenge of the quest, many in our society settle for the pithy and the quaint rather than the mystery and the wonder that is the fullness of the life poetic in God.
We are members of a disillusioned society. People in Western culture have been force-fed bumper-sticker slogans for the past five decades and lost their sense of spiritual mooring, both in regard to community and themselves. Propositional Pop Psychology has stripped much of the dynamic flesh from our humanity, yet it is merely a symptom of a deeper societal sickness—fear.
The challenge that is presented in the work of theorists such as philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of personhood37 and Alasdair MacIntyre’s narrative approach are helpful in moving beyond the overt rationalism and dismissive irrationalism that characterizes much modern and postmodern discourse. The drive in modernity for control, clarity, and ease, often manifested in cold rationalism or high-minded atheism, is merely the mirror of many postmodern attempts, through irrationalism and relativism, to embrace play over progress, to embrace a seemingly indifferent stance to absolutes, wallowing in uncertainty without attempting to seek for answers, and to embrace laughter coupled with cynicism in the face of attempts at order and taking of responsibility. Granted, there are many helpful, constructive renderings of modern and postmodern critiques. However, in some of the expressions of modernity and postmodernity, what we are left with are essentially shadow selves of each other in their respective disillusionment that comes from a loss of this “middle perspective.”
Yet if we situate our uncertainty in the tension, if we strive for faith rather than propositions, and if we embrace our suffering not in isolation but in communion with our brothers and sisters, we will reside in the uneasy yet necessary middle perspective of humility, welcoming grace and mercy. And then we can begin the process of integration both with our neighbor and God.
In John Boorman’s 1980 film Excalibur, which is based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the Grail quest of Sir Percival is exemplified as a narrative that demonstrates the true integration of our lives that is to be found in the quest. At the point of his greatest despair in searching for the Holy Grail, Sir Percival beholds a vision that will direct him to the resting place of the Grail. With this beatific illumination, Percival is reminded of the integration of all things in the healing of the broken land and the dying King Arthur:
Grail Figure: What is the secret of the Grail? Who does it serve?
Perceval: You, my lord.
Grail Figure: Who am I?
Perceval: You are my lord and king. You are Arthur.
Grail Figure: Have you found the secret that I have lost?
Perceval: Yes. You and the land are one.38
This unity of all things—the integration of particular life stories into the grand narrative of all things for the healing and redemption of both self and world—is the summative attainment of the quest narrative. It is the acknowledgement that the healing of one will in part be the healing of many—the land and the king are one—that offers a powerful reminder as to the role that our particular stories will play as they become interwoven into the lives of others. Similarly, the context for the healing and redemption of the world is in part not necessarily far off. As with the illumination of Percival, it is never what we have lost, but we have forgotten that becomes vital in the life poetic.
In Luke 22:19, when Jesus gathers his disciples together in the upper room and institutes the Eucharist, he does so through binding himself to the Passover as its source and substance by stating that “This is my body broken for you [. . . .] This is my blood that has been shed for you for the remission of sin.” He moves into the space of salvation for our world intimately rather than merely being a spectator from a distance.
As Christ pours himself out into this, he calls the disciples to now do this work as well in verse 19: “Do this in remembrance of me.” This type of work—do this—is rendered in the Greek as poiete—the word that is the cognate for our English term poetry. This is a deeply creative term that goes to the heart of what it means for us to be God’s people in these dark and desperate times. This is our identity in the world as we hear in Ephesians 2:10, “For you are God’s workmanship (poiete), created in Christ Jesus, to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” At the very heartbreaking reality of who we are—we are called to a life of direction, release, and ultimate integration with our Creator—a poetic integration that is prepared in advance for us to do. This is what it means to be on the quest and embrace the life poetic.
At the beginning of this essay, I discussed the danger in dismissing too readily a narrative approach to our lives and thereby dismissing the deep narrative of the scriptures that seek to form and transform our lives. Frederick Buechner brings this thought full circle:
If we think the purpose of Jesus’ stories is essentially to make a point as extractable as a moral at the end of a fable, then the inevitable conclusion is that once you get the point, you can throw away the story itself like the rind of an orange when you have squeezed out the juice. Is that true? Or is the story itself the point and truth of the story? Is the point of Jesus’ stories that they point to the truth about you and me and our stories? [. . .] The truth of the story is not a motto suitable for framing. It is a truth that one way or another, God help us, we live out every day of our lives. It is a truth as complicated and sad as you and I ourselves are complicated and sad, and as joyous and as simple as we are too. The stories that Jesus tells us are about us. Once upon a time is our time, in other words.39
The story is our story, yours and mine. As Percival understands through the beatific vision, our lives, our stories, are intimately interwoven into the stories of this world. The healing of the world in part begins with the healing and redemption that is readily at hand in our own lives and then committed to the world as confession and testimony. Additionally, unless we are willing to deeply read the life poetic that we have been given and of those around us, we will be left only with a shadowy tale that is without flesh and blood. This is a challenge to our reading of scripture as well. It is on one level about a man with an ark, a man interpreting dreams for a king, a pearl of great price being found in a field, a women who receives the word that she will give birth to the living Word, a man lost beside a pool who has found his sight, and young English schoolchildren asleep in the mane of a lion in a land whose signature is an ever-lit lamp post and a broken stone table. On the other hand, it is about faith, miracles seen and unseen, reaching out to the neighbor, and glimpsing God with eyes of child-like wonder. As Mark put it, “He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:34). In looking at the power of Christ’s ministry as a life poetic, it is small wonder he communicated so much in narrative.
1. H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Story of Our Life,” in Why Narrative?: Readings in Narrative Theology, eds. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 29.
2. See James Wellmen, Evangelical vs. Liberal (New York, NY: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2007).
3. See Walter Brueggeman, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1989).
4. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references in this essay are from the Today’s New International Verison (TNIV).
5. Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction (New York, NY: Harpercollins, 1992), 44.
6. See Frederich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks,  1958).
7. The Victorian poet and essayist Matthew Arnold referred to the German Romantic notion of Sehnsucht as a “wistful, soft tearful longing” in On the Study of Celtic Literature (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1907), esp. 117-118. This notion of a “wistful, soft tearful longing” is evident throughout much of Lewis’s writings. For further exploration of this four-fold deep reading of texts highlighted in the thirteenth century, see Robert Sweetman, “Micah 6:8 as Spiritual Exercise in the Search for a Christian Excellence,” The Other Journal 12 (2008), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=385.
8. Madeleine L’Engel, “Forward,” In Companion to Narnia, ed. Paul F. Ford (New York, NY: Collier, 1986), xiii.
9. An excellent review of the place of the quest in comparative literature is Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series 3rd edition (New York, NY:New World Library, 2008).
10. C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1952), 18-19.
11. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1952), 16.
12. Ibid., 15.
13. Lewis, Silver Chair, 19, 21.
14. Lewis, Voyage, 33.
15. Lewis, Silver Chair, 157. Italics are in the original citation.
16. Lewis, Voyage, 75; 87, 88.
17. Ibid., 216; 216.
18. Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, ed. by Keith Baines (New York, NY: Bramhall, 19888), 365.
19. Lewis, Voyage, 16.
20. Malory, Le Morte, 376.
21. Lewis, Voyage, 90, 91.
22. Ibid. Emphasis added.
23. C. S. Lewis, “The Morte D’Arthur,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 109-110. Italics in the original.
24. Marjorie Evelyn Wright, The Cosmic Kingdom of Myth: A Study in the Myth-Philosophy of Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no. 0090, 1960), 65.
25. Frances Gies, The Knight in History (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1984), 76. In particular, Gies is referring to the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach and the various depictions of the Grail quest through centuries upon centuries of reimaging the quest in song, poetry, and painting as the context for providing a map for life’s search.
26. Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and the Concept of a Tradition” in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, eds. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 104.
27. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1938), 45.
28. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991), 74-75.
29. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1962, 1997), 135. Italics from the original.
30. Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, 99.
31. See James William McClendon, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Portland, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002).
32. David F. Ford, “System, Story, Performance: A Proposal about the Role of Narrative in Christian Systematic Theology” in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, eds. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 194-196.
33. In Hebrews 11, the writer of Hebrews frames faith as a biographical rather than purely doctrinal apprehension—a look to the embodied lives of faith of the patriarchs and prophets of old that have created a tradition of lived faith upon which we now stand. This great “cloud of witnesses” provides a depository of faith that we are reminded of and hence re-membered by, pulled together and woven into the tapestry of their stories lived through us.
34. Niebuhr, “The Story of Our Life,” 35.
35. Ibid., 38.
36. Eugene Peterson, Reality and the Vision, ed. Philip Yancey (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1990), 20.
37. Paul Ricoeur represents one of the great philosophers of identity formation that is able to draw together both modern and postmodern traditions through his narrative location of personhood. Key texts for reflection upon Ricoeur’s work include Oneself As Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Time and Narrative, vol. 1-3; especially vol. 3, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), and Memory, History and Forgetting (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
38. Excalibur (1981), directed by John Boorman. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/quotes.
39. Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, 309, 310.
Jeff Keuss is professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of A Poetics of Jesus, The Sacred and Profane: Current Demands in Hermeneutics, and Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity, and Mission at the Crossroads. Keuss is the co-chair of the Paul Ricoeur Consultation for the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board for the journal Literature and Theology (Oxford University Press). When he is not blogging at Theology Kung Fu (http://senseijfk.wordpress.com/), he is often playing Scrabble with his wife and losing horribly.