Rob Bell’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is releasing this week. To mark the occasion, I’ve composed a clerihew about Rob. Yes, that’s right: a clerihew. I offer it here in celebration and anticipation of WWTAWWTAG:
Wrote a book about hell.
Other things he’s done include
Surfing and eating Mexican food.
Jack often asks me why I like The Lord of the Rings so much, and I usually tell him it’s because I think it’s one of the best stories ever told. What I really want to say is that I think it’s one of the truest stories ever told, but I don’t think he’s quite old enough to get the difference between ‘true’ and ‘real.’
Earlier today I read an essay called “In Praise of Stories” (one of the many excellent essays in The Christian Imagination) that touches on the same topic:
But what do we mean by a true story?… In what helpful sense is a fictional story about a boy and a slave on a raft, or, worse yet, a story about hobbits and wizards, true? Here is the answer: Any story is true, fictional or otherwise, that testifies accurately to the human condition.
It’s a wonderful thing to be proud of my son. As a general rule, it doesn’t take a lot: cleaning his room without too much struggle, eating his veggies without the same, cracking his own eggs in the morning, coloring inside the lines, saying his own prayer at dinner. But new heights of pride were reached only a few days ago when, after watching the 1979 made-for-TV cartoon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he turned to me and said, “Dad, is there a book of this movie?”
Why, yes. Yes there is. I took my old paperback off the shelf to show him. “Here it is, buddy. But it’s for older kids, see?” I flipped through the pages so he could see the astonishing number of words and relative lack of pictures. “I’ll read it to you when you get older.”
“Can you read it to me now?”
Some time ago, I wrote that stories “peel back the world and show us what lies beneath,” that they teach us about good and evil. I also promised to write about the qualities of a Good Story. So here goes:
If stories teach us about the nature of good and evil, then the best stories are those that do so truthfully.
Which is why I don’t like Twilight. Full disclosure: I’ve neither read the books nor seen the movies. And I don’t intend to. I dislike them on principle because I don’t think they peel back the world and tell us the truth about what lies beneath.
Some of you, I’m sure, think Twilight doesn’t peel back the world at all, that it doesn’t make any claims about truth or good and evil, that it doesn’t propose a worldview. But every story makes these claims. When it comes to worldview, there are no neutral stories; every story either reinforces the truth or denies it. The question, then, isn’t whether a story makes a claim about the world, but whether the claim made by a story (any story, every story) is more true than not. A story is good when it is true.
Several years ago, Becca and I were sitting in a restaurant booth with our good friend Bob, talking about education. Back before we had kids, our educational theory (or what we had of one, anyway) was entirely informed by Becca’s experience teaching English in middle and high school. Which is to say, we believed in the importance of public schooling—and we told Bob as much: “Public schools will never get better if good parents take good students somewhere else.”
Then Bob said something that would change our minds entirely. “Your job as parents is not to improve the public school system,” he told us. “Your job is to make sure Jack gets the best education he can.”
Bob is right, and for years that was enough. Being free from the obligation of sending Jack to a struggling public school—and the guilt of actually considering sending him somewhere else—was a welcome relief. But now that kindergarten is creeping over Jack’s horizon, I’m realizing that we can’t talk about giving Jack the best education we can without deciding what exactly makes a good education. In other words, What’s the point of education?
There are some people—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run anything else affects them.
These past few weeks have seen several conversations about (and clashes between) worldviews — those metanarratives that form a framework for understanding our cultures and places, and which direct so many of the opinions we form and choices we make every day.
I won’t be going into specifics about these conversations, or laying out a defense of my own worldview (which can be too often interpreted as forcing it down one’s throat), but I am interested in discussing the importance of having a stable worldview. And (despite a handful or recent accusations about my own close-mindedness) to lay out the reasons I believe it’s important to engage with people who disagree.
“My Little Warrior” is a guest post by my wife, Becca, who blogs at www.beccasbalancingact.com, where this post first appeared. She is a phenomenal writer — a better writer than I am — and when I read this post I felt a twinge of jealousy before realizing how well it fits into my series on Story. I wish I had written it; it’s that good. But The Rib has done it already, and with more eloquence than I ever could. Not only is Becca a phenomenal writer, but she’s also an incredible woman, wife and (as you’ll see below) mother.
Tucking Jackson into bed tonight was especially precious. Not only because we continue to work on the art of snuggling, but because he asked me, “Mom, can you tell me a story?” and I replied, “Yes. I want to tell you a story about God.” I began the creation story describing something I can’t comprehend myself: nothingness. I tried to describe the emptiness that existed before God made the world. And if Jack was a little bit older, I would have parked there for a while because not only was I trying to imagine the unimaginable, I was trying to do so through the lens of a child. It was overpowering. Jack currently has no concept of outer space other than knowing, “Hey! There’s the moon!” And my understanding isn’t much greater than his. So even though the depth of my own fascination was swelling as I spoke to him, I summed it up quite simply: “God decided to make the world because it was a very good place, including oceans, mountains, animals, and even people.”
First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a linguist. I’m not qualified to discuss why we choose the words we use, or the history of language development, or the differences between regional or national dialects. I am, however, interested in digging deeper into a conversation we had with our Cable group last night. (For those not in the know, a Cable group is what our church calls a small group.)
Here’s the short of it: A few days ago, Gary and Kacie were having a friendly marital debate about what a burglar has done in the past. Kacie said that the burglar burgled while Gary insisted that the burglar burglarized. So they called another Cable couple: Chris is an English teacher, and he put the question to his wife, Cara, and a carful of people. He came back with a unanimous burglarized. Sorry, Kacie.
While sitting around the lunch table a couple of days ago, one of my coworkers mentioned that she had a professor who hated Disney stories with a passion. They’re too simplistic, the professor said, too black and white. They don’t represent the real world, which is much more complicated than good guys against bad guys.
I disagree — not that the real world (especially the people in it) is more complicated than good good guys and bad bad guys, but that such stories are too simplistic. If such stories are anything, they are too powerful.
There isn’t a boy in this world who can resist the siren call of adventure on the open sea. So when a pirate ship showed up in the harbor beyond the hill, the boy ran home, packed a bag, kissed his mother goodbye, and sprinted to the quay and up the gangplank, where he asked the weathered captain if he could join the crew. The captain, of course, said yes, and Scrappy Jack, at 2.5 years old, became the youngest pirate boy to ever sail with such a ragtag bunch of ne’er-do-wells as this.
The other day, while discussing some not unsubstantial family problems, someone asked me, “How is it, Josh, that you turned out the way you did?”
I assumed this was meant to reflect positively on me, and replied, “Only by the grace of God.”
In retrospect, my response sounds a little trite; it’s the sort of insincere response that people often give without thinking much about what exactly they’re saying. But I meant it. I mean it. I’m not sure of much in this life, but I am sure of this: I could very easily have walked a different path to end up in a much darker place and as a far worse person. And I’m not on my current path—a path of faith and hope and grace and life—because of anything I did. No, I’m walking this path in spite of anything I did. Left to myself, left to my pain, my past, my family, my circumstances and the natural consequences of my too often foolish decisions, I would not be here. But for the grace of God.
When I pulled up to the parking lot of Engedi Church last night, I was surprised to see how many cars were there. Certainly more than I had expected for a Monday night — nearly as many as I find for a proper Sunday morning service. We had shown up at the abandoned strip mall-turned church building-turned temporary movie theater for a screening of Reparando, a documentary film about Guatemalans who are “embracing the pain of their past to repair the next generation.”
After watching the trailer, I had planned on seeing a powerful film. What I hadn’t planned on was seeing such a moving testimony about the power of the gospel to transform lives. The documentary follows the stories of Tita and Shorty, two Christian leaders who work passionately to improve their community, La Limonada (‘lemonade’). La Limonada is an asentamiento, an urban slum community that, if I remember correctly, is home to some 60,000 people. It’s the largest slum in Central America. This is a story that needs to be heard.