The Jesus Story

Sixteen hundred years ago, a man asked a friend for advice. The man was anxious because he had gained a reputation as a teacher for speaking well, but when students were brought to him for instruction, he became tongue-tied. He was particularly upset because at times in the course of a long narration he found his speaking profitless and distasteful even to himself, and he was worried that his teaching was doing more harm than good. “Help me!” he begged his friend. “Tell me what to say!”

His friend replied: "First and foremost, you need to enjoy what you are talking about." Actually, that is not quite what his friend said. It was somewhat more formal. But the gist was the same. "In reality," the man's friend replied, "we are listened to with much greater satisfaction...when we ourselves also have pleasure in the same work; for the thread of our address is affected by the very joy of which we ourselves are sensible, and it proceeds from us with greater ease and more acceptance."

"More to the point," his friend insisted, "you need to lighten up." Again, I paraphrase. This is what his friend actually wrote:
Now if the cause of our sadness lies in the circumstance that our hearer does not apprehend what we mean, so that we have to come down in a certain fashion from the elevation of our own conceptions, and are under the necessity of dwelling long in the tedious process of syllables which come far beneath the standard of our ideas, and have anxiously to consider how that which we ourselves take in with a most rapid draught of mental apprehension is to be given forth by the mouth of flesh in the long and perplexed intricacies of its method of enunciation; and if the great dissimilarity thus felt (between our utterance and our thought) makes it distasteful to us to speak, and a pleasure to us to keep silence, then let us ponder what has been set before us by Him who has "showed us an example that we should follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2:21).
I know just how Jesus felt. Augustine--for it is Augustine, the great teacher of rhetoric, who is speaking--continues:
For however much our articulate speech may differ from the vivacity of our intelligence, much greater is the difference of the flesh of mortality from the equality of God. And, nevertheless, "although He was in the same form, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant [being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even] death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8).
Ivan Kramskoi, "Christ in the Wilderness" (1872)

Sometimes of late, I just want to give up. My colleagues are baying for my blood...okay, not quite...but they aren't happy with me. Friends try to correct my speech, telling me if only I would stop using naughty words, I would find more receptive listeners. Former students tell me that they are dismayed at my description of what it has been like for me being a Christian in the academy. And nobody it seems...okay, I exaggerate, my Facebook friends have been rocks...but nobody outside my Facebook salon seems to want to listen long enough for me to explain what it means to be Christian. They just assume that they know what I think--and condemn me.

It's my own fault, I suppose. I haven't really tried to explain, not lately, at least. It is so hard to know where to begin when everything I think and see is infused with the understanding of what it means to be part of this story, the story of God's descending into the world through the womb of a virgin to take on flesh.

Like Deogratias, Augustine's friend, I flounder, worried lest I bore my listeners or drive them away.

Maybe I should say something about how Christianity isn't about believing a set of propositions, but about God's loving relationship with his creation. Or maybe I could make the historical argument that I draw on in my forthcoming book, about how Christianity developed from the ancient temple tradition, not at odds with, but in fulfillment of what the ancient Hebrews believed about the LORD they celebrated in the psalms. Or maybe...but no, my colleagues could still accuse me of teaching lies.

And, in a way, they would be right. Not that I am lying about being Christian or what Christianity means, but because to them, nothing I can say will sound like anything other than a fairy story.

Because it is.

The greatest fairy story ever told.

J.R.R. Tolkien said it even better than Augustine:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.... There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.... [This] story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men--and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
Conversion, if you will, is an exercise in telling oneself a different story, an exercise in seeing through a different lens, a different account of what it all means. How can I help you see the story that I live through unless you yourself can find yourself inside it?

This is what Deogratias asked Augustine: not for instruction in how to lay out the tenets of the faith as a list of propositions, but for advice on what to say in his narratio, the story that he was trying to tell. The difficulty he was having was a storyteller's difficulty, how to help his listeners realize that the story was about them. Deogratias knew the story, but it came to him in a flash (what Augustine calls a "rapid draught of mental apprehension"): how God loved his creation so much that He entered into it so that He, as Maker, might remake it from within, so that He, as Artist, might repair his own work, which He loved.

It was a story that began many ages ago, when God first made the world and human beings turned away from him. It is a story of great sadness and many defeats, as over and over again God attempted to turn his creatures back to him, only to watch his prophets be shunned and his creatures stray. And yet, He loved his children and wanted them back. So He did an even mightier work, He became a creature himself. Imagine if Tolkien could enter into his own story, be there with Merry and Pippin as they waited at the gate of Isengard for their friends to arrive or with Frodo and Sam as they struggled to find a way down the cliffs of the Emyn Muil. Not just as the author whom we, as readers, know crafted the work, but as a character himself.

And then imagine that the characters realized that they themselves were in a story. A story that went back to the beginning of time, and that somehow was all leading up to the moment in which they found themselves, as it were, stranded and losing hope.
"...I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?" [asked Sam].
"I wonder," said Frodo. "But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to."
"No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it--and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got--you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?"
"No, they never end as tales," said Frodo. "But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later--or sooner."
"No, they never end as tales." One of the things that less sympathetic readers have chided me for over the past few months is my propensity for drawing parallels between Milo and Jesus. (They seem not to have noticed my propensity for comparing myself to the Virgin Mary.) But what other story would Milo, as a Christian, find himself in? The story doesn't care, it just wants to be told. Or, rather, the Story-teller wants us to find ourselves inside this Story, the supreme story of which all other stories are merely counterfeits.
Because stories are important.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling...stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time....
Except, of course, it doesn't. We only think it does because we are so sensitive to stories.

It makes sense to me that it is my colleagues in history and medieval studies who have felt most angered by my writing about Milo. I challenged them to see him through a different lens, read him as part of a story other than that by which they have tended to order their understanding as scholars. Like the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus challenged, they know the way we are supposed to read the evidence of history. They know what patterns to look for and how to read the signs. They know that there is no such thing as a Story-teller, only human tellers of stories. They know that the Story behind it all is one of struggle and survival of the fittest. They know that truth lies only in the way in which they interpret the evidence at hand.

Which puts them at terrible risk. What if the story they have been telling is wrong?

They don't see it that way, almost no one in academia does. It is why it is so hard to describe the experience of faith to those habituated to a different story-line. It is not about having access to more or better facts, but about ordering those facts according to a different narrative, a narrative in which the very same facts take on radically different meanings.

What does it mean to have faith? For my own part, faith is a habit of thinking analogically, through stories. Rather, through a particular Story that carries the truth of all stories. It is not about proving something scientifically, as it were, but about seeing the patterns by which we, as creatures, live out our lives as artists made in the image and likeness of a Maker, who loves us and desires nothing except our love in return.

Within this Story, our actions take on certain meanings that they would not, could not otherwise. But it is also a Story in which we, as creatures, are called upon ourselves to create, whether biologically, as parents, or aesthetically, as artists, thus the great mysteries (as Tolkien constantly emphasized in his stories) of marriage and art. The one thing that this Story forbids--the great sin of this Story--is the desire to dominate other people's will, to force them either to believe or to act in any particular way. Such is Evil, and thus, again in Tolkien's story, the power of the One Ring: to dominate and rule.

"My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus told Pilate (John 18:36). I did not come to rule. "[But] taking the form of a servant...he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." Christ is the lens through which Christians read history; Christ is the model in whom Christians are called to recognize themselves. To be Christian means to find oneself in the same story as Christ. The Story in which God so loved the world that he entered into it in order to give his children eternal life (John 3:16).

Do you really expect me tell this Story with anything other than the utmost joy?


Augustine to Deogratias: On the catechising of the uninstructed (ca. A.D. 400), trans. S.D.F. Salmond, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887)

Gospel as fairy story: J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966)

Sam and Frodo in the same tale still: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987)

Stories taking shape: Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad (London: Corgi Books, 1991)

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