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Library Learnings: There’s another way of understanding stories


“There’s another way of understanding stories”

Bambi, a Life in the Woods, is a work of fiction: the roe fawn at the centre of this 1923 classic tale is the creation of Austrian writer Felix Salten’s imagination. Nevertheless, the novel affirms reality: human beings can and do start devastating forest fires. As if that were not distressing enough, young readers, and children who view the 1942 Disney animated film version, can be daunted when a hunter shoots and kills Bambi’s mother—this, too, can happen in real life. (This blackhearted moment has been “traumatizing kids for generations,” Google reports; why “you may cry, even as an adult.”) 

And so it has always been: history is forever being fictionalized, but novels can, and sometimes do tell readers hard truths. (Did you know that, long ago, “myth and history had no neat boundaries between them”? As Jim Burklo points out in Tenderly Calling, a recent “Featured Book” in our church Library, “Libraries in the Greco-Roman world did not have separate sections for fiction and non-fiction.”)

Amidst the many non-fiction books about religion-and-such that line the shelves in our Library are a number of stories that, while imaginary, ring true: they could be gospel, so to speak, honest to God in what they affirm. So they can be insightful and ideational to those on a spiritual journey. In what follows, seven of these novels will be pointed up; the four which are underlined were once highlighted as a “Featured Book” on the ssucedmonton.com/library webpage, where the write-ups can still be found. Do read on, and see if these works of fiction do not tell certain truths.

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What Pilate wanted to know

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate wanted to know…as should we all, maybe nowadays more than ever. But Jesus, though on trial for his life, did not reply to the prefect’s question. This would be dictionary.com’s answer: “The true or actual state of a matter”. Mind you, this is only the first of 11 definitions. And another one might be, for the purposes of this writing, the most apropos: “Ideal or fundamental reality, apart from and transcending perceived experience, [as in] ‘the basic truths of life’.”  

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 In her 2012 novel, The Liars’ Gospel, British writer Naomi Alderman has four very different persons tell the Jesus story: his mother, Barabbas, Caiaphas, and Judas. The Guardian was enthralled: it is “a daring and accomplished work”; “it is a remarkable achievement”. The New Statesman, in its take, was more particular: “The Liars’ Gospel shares a central preoccupation with the nature of truth and the inherent slipperiness of words and memories.” This is apparent in the first telling—Mary’s. Addressing a young Jewish resister to the Roman occupation, she starts at the beginning:

“‘It is a story from long ago,’ she says, ‘when I first became pregnant with my child, Yehoshuah [Jesus].’ […] She continues to tell the story. She thinks of how all the stories she has ever heard must have come to be. There are only three ways: either they were true, or someone was mistaken, or someone lied. She knows that the story she is telling is a lie, but she says it anyway. Not in fear, and not in anger, and not even in hope of anything that is to come, but because it brings her comfort to see that he believes it. Even such a simple, foolish thing as this. It brings her son back here, for a moment, back to her side…. It is too good a gift to turn down, this opportunity to return him to life….”

 What if Jesus returned to Earth, not in the glory of his Second Coming, but to run for the presidency of the United States? That is the extravagant premise of Roland Merullo’s novel, American Savior. It’s a book—one of this Massachusetts’ author’s 18 novels—that is surely more relevant nowadays than it was when it was printed in 2008. Its publisher describes it as “a passionate and penetrating look at the America that is, and the America that could be.” In it, Jesus, recruits a motley crew to run his campaign, including newscaster Russ Thomas, who explains Jesus’ reappearance:

“It was becoming clear to me that what Jesus wanted from us was not pious obedience to a narrow set of rules, but a smart, limitless open-mindedness that allowed us—in real life, in actual day-to-day, modern American life—to treat the other person the way we would want to be treated. Gay people, Jewish people, dumb people, rich people, poor people, women, men, right-wingers, liberals, soldiers, and anti-war protestors, maybe even animals—we were supposed to see through the disguise they were wearing, all the way down to the ‘I Am’ in them. That was it. That was the big commandment. I was almost sure.”

Jesus himself puts it like this: “The important thing is to push down on the barriers at the borders of your thought patterns, to go beyond labels.” And, “I never came to be worshipped, not the first time and not this time. I came to be emulated. That’s what people didn’t get. Followed, as in being an example, as in making your interior world resemble mine. Clear?” And, “I shall teach kindness and compassion. That’s what I’ve always done. And it has always made certain people angry and violent.” And, “if you had a president who could show you the route to that place [your own sacred nature], what a difference it would make in your lives, and in the culture of the world!” 

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The truth we are all after

In his sermon, “The Truth of Stories,” Frederick Buechner, simply a fine writer and preacher, professed this: “Jesus did not say that religion was the truth, or that his own teachings were the truth, or that what people taught about him was the truth, or that the Bible was the truth, or the church, or any system of ethics or theological doctrine. There are individual truths in all of them, we hope and believe.

“But individual truths were not what Pilate was after, or what you and I are after either, unless I miss my guess. Truths about this or that are a dime a dozen, including religious truths. The truth is what Pilate is after: the truth about who we are, and who God is—if there is a God—the truth about life, the truth about death, the truth about truth itself. That is the truth we are all after.

“It is a truth that can never be put into words, because no words can contain it. It is a truth that can never be caught in any doctrine or creed, including our own, because it will never stay still long enough, but is always moving and shifting like air. It is a truth that is always beckoning us….”

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 Of the several books here and now being highlighted, none is more outrageous—intentionally so—than Christopher Moore’s LambIts subtitle says it all: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. The Messiah’s best bud since they were kids together in Nazareth, Biff narrates the Jesus story, concentrating on “the missing years,” those between Jesus’ birth and the beginnings of his ministry, which the gospel writers ignored. And what adventures the two chums had, ranging through the Middle East and on into China and India. But, scattered throughout, are discernments [“Faith isn’t an act of intelligence, it’s an act of the imagination”] and serious moments indeed, as when Biff avenges Judas for his betrayal:

“‘I couldn’t let him live,’ Judas said. ‘You can’t have someone like him alive.’” [Here, pay attention to the turncoat’s reasoning.] “‘He knew he had to die,’ Judas said. ‘How do you think I knew he’d be at Gethsemane…? He told me!’ ‘You didn’t have to give him up!’, I screamed. I wrapped the sash around his neck, then pulled it tight over the crock of a cypress branch. ‘Don’t. [Judas, again.] Don’t do this. I had to do it. Someone did. He would have reminded us of what we’ll never be.’ ‘Yup,’ I said. I shoved him backward over the cliff…. the sash twanged when it took his weight, and his neck snapped with the sound of a knuckle cracking.’”

 The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is altogether different from Lamb: it’s serious, it’s provocative—intentionally so. As the publisher observes, “Above all, this book is about how stories become stories”. The work of British writer Philip Pullman, it’s part of the Alfred A. Knopf Canada “myth series”: “Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives—they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.” 

The author begins his 2010 novel by noting, “This is the story of Jesus and his [fraternal twin] brother, Christ….” And of a mysterious, unnamed “stranger”—is it not “the Church”?—who seduces Christ into both domesticating and augmenting his brother’s life and teachings: “‘Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue [he instructs Christ]. Keep a record of what your brother says…so that we can begin the work of interpretation.’” 

Christ—today, we’d label him a spin doctor—tries to resist the temptation, but cannot: “[H]e couldn’t help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. […] [Of] how much more memorable and moving the story would be! And how much more profound the death that crowned it! There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. …he had already made some of them up.”

In fact, Christ actually longed to tell the story of his brother’s life and death, “not just for the sake of making a record of what happened: I want to play with it; I want to give it a better shape; I want to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences, and if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make it a better story. The stranger would have called it letting truth into history. Jesus would have called it lying.”

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In our honest pursuit of truth

In an online posting this past August, Mitch Randall, CEO of Good Faith Media, asked, and answered, the question, “What is Truth?”, in this way: “The Greek word for ‘truth’ used in John 18 is very interesting. The word is alethia, meaning, ‘truth, but not merely truth as spoken; truth of idea, reality, sincerity, truth in the moral sphere, divine truth as revealed to man….’

“While alethia leans more to moral truth that guides life, the contemporary definition of truth seems to include the notion of fact. […] I tend to lean towards truth as a moral interpretation of the facts before me. With honesty and integrity, I attempt to interpret facts in order to form ideals, values, and morals, that guide my life. […] Truth can seem elusive, ever-evolving through time and perspective. However, truth is rooted in our honest pursuit of it….”

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In 1951, the Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist saw his novel Barabbas published, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature. Yes, of course his tale is fictive—the story of the criminal Pontius Pilate freed is unknown. In this void, Lagerkvist has crafted a story with a “sense of spiritual torment,” as is explained in the preface, and “deep stirrings of faith”. Ultimately, Barabbas, the man whose life was exchanged for Jesus’ life, is called to stand before a Roman governor, as Jesus stood before Pilate. There is pathos in their exchange; and the malefactor’s longing to believe is palpable:  

“The governor…went and stood in front of Barabbas, and as he turned over his slave’s disk…, he asked: ‘And you? Do you also believe in this loving god?’ Barabbas made no reply. ‘Tell me. Do you?’ Barabbas shook his head. ‘You don’t? Why do you bear his name on your disk then?’ Barabbas was silent as before. ‘Is he not your god? Isn’t that what this inscription means?’ ‘I have no god,’ Barabbas answered at last, so softly that it could hardly be heard. […] The Roman…seemed surprised. ‘But I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘Why then to you bear this Christos Iesus carved on your disk?’ ‘Because I want to believe,’ Barabbas said, without looking up….”

  In the waning pages of Putting Away Childish ThingsKate Riley “would like to be with people,” she declares, “who are wrestling all the time with what this means for Christians”—she’s referring to what she calls “the big questions. You know, like the nature of reality, and what we’re like, and how we should live, and how religions should address these questions.” And where is that most likely to happen? “[I]n an intentionally Christian context, like a seminary.” As she explains, “[T]he awakening of the mind to the sacred is the great adventure.

The late Marcus Borg, a progressive Christianity trailblazer, lived this adventure, and shared it in many non-fiction books. And in this, too, his only novel. It’s chock-a-block with his thinking, which he has his heroine, Kate, voice. She is, as the book’s publisher puts it, “a popular religion professor at a liberal arts college in a small midwestern town”; the author was a popular religion professor, albeit at a major university in Oregon. Here is just one of many of his/her understandings found in this dulcet yarn: 

“[T]here is a difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the New Testament”—after all, “the gospels combine memory and testimony”—and, furthermore, “Jesus’ message was neither about himself, nor the saving significance of his death.” “Though the New Testament affirms…that the death of Jesus served the saving purposes of God, Enlightenment historical scholarship sees these as retrospective post-Easter interpretations. Within this framework, Jesus did not see his own purpose to be his death. Rather, he was executed for what he was doing.”

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Being truthful without being factual 

“The identification of truth with factuality is a cultural product of the Enlightenment,” Borg-and-Kate explain in this novel. “The success of the scientific method led many people to think of truth as what can be verified, and what can be verified came to be identified with facts. Within this framework, if something isn’t factual, then it’s not true. So, in the minds of many people over the last few hundred years, truth and factuality became the same thing.”

But there’s another way of understanding stories. “It sees them as true even though not factual. Or, perhaps more precisely, it sees that their truth does not depend upon their factuality. Its foundation is the simple notion that stories can be important, meaningful, truth-filled, and truthful without being factual.”

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 Of the novels here pointed up, none is more provocative and controversial than Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. Following its publication, in Greek in 1955, this work of historical fiction was banned by Christian groups worldwide, and its author was summarily excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. As writer and blogger Zack Kulm explains, “the novel took what was widely accepted in the New Testament, and turned it all on its head.” Most infuriating is its “dying vision of Christ [on the cross], where he’s tempted with the chance of a normal life instead of the crucifixion.”

In his imaginings…and this is one of the book’s most powerful moments…an aging, pastoral Jesus is confronted by an angry St. Paul: you shirked your duty, the apostle explodes! “[T]he crucified and resurrected Jesus has been the one precious consolation for the honest man, the wronged man. True or false—what do I care! […] ‘What is truth’? What is falsehood’? Whatever gives wings to men…that is true. Whatever clips a man’s wings—that is false. […] I don’t give a hoot about what’s true or false…or whether he was crucified or wasn’t crucified. I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don’t struggle to find it—I build it. I build it taller than man, and thus I make man grow.

“If the world is to be saved, it is…absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify you, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not. […] Body, crown of thorns, nails, blood—the whole works is now part of the machinery of salvation—everything is indispensable. And in every corner of the earth, innumerable eyes will look up and see you in the air—crucified. They will weep, and the tears will cleanse their souls of their sins. But on the third day, I shall raise you from the dead, because there is no salvation without a resurrection. The final, the most horrible enemy is death. I shall abolish death. How? By resurrecting you as Jesus, son of God…! […] 

“I don’t even need you any more. […] I shall become your apostle, whether you like it or not. I shall construct you and your life and your teachings and your crucifixion and resurrection, just as I wish. Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth did not beget you; I begot you—I, Paul, the scribe from Tarsus….” 

—Ken Fredrick