This past week I drove from Boston to Toronto at the invitation of my daughter to attend a conference titled: Particles of Narrative: Language, Metaphor and Children's Literature. It was sponsored by Trinity College at the University of Toronto. More than one person looked a little skeptical when I explained what I would be doing during my time away from the church. Although no one was blunt enough to put their doubts into full sentences, I received comments like, "Really?" or "Oh, I didn't know you had an interest in that" or the simplest response that summed up all the confusion, "Why?" My initial response was to try and gently remind people that there is more to my life than what they see on Sunday, using the opportunity for genuine sharing about things that matter to me in addition to the pulpit and spiritual concerns. Explaining that my daughter studies literature as her career and that she and I share a love of children's literature helped some understand the realities of the pastors family a little bit better, even when the family members are adults themselves. The idea that mothers and adult daughters could study together was found by some to be quaint and others to be intriguing; either way it's a new window on the complexity of the people who lead the church, which I think is a good thing. The more fully developed the characters, the better the story we live with them. However, I also started thinking differently about my attendance at the conference myself. Whereas initially it was something that I've shared with my daughter for a long time and was looking forward to enjoying on it's own merit, as I repeatedly explained myself to others I, too, began to wonder how it was connected to my primary interests in the context of church. How would this time with writers of children's literature in Canada end up being integrated into the rest of my life?
It was an amazing conference in which a wealth of material was shared. We began with Phillip Pullman's presentation about how the smallest units of story acquire meaning and emotional power and grow into metaphor that is multivalent in it's communication. To illustrate his concepts, he poured a glass of water and used the act of pouring as an example of such a basic story unit. The poured water traveled through a lot of incarnations, including Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, as it acquired and revealed meaning. Subsequent speakers used metaphors from chemistry to explore what happens when readers read a story, from physics, and from the social sciences to explore how metaphor is created and how/why it works. Spiritual issues hung like dew in the air as they surfaced in the metaphors and were revealed in the course of narrative. Where did we come from? Where are we going? How shall we treat each other along the way? What about death? Is there anything after it? How do we cope with grief, or war, or poverty or abuse? Such issues were described as true, or genuine, or real issues, though never in religious language. It was a delight to hear these truths spoken of from so many different perspectives and yet without conflict or competition for "the one right truth".
What I would like to share for your consideration here is a remark made by author Kenneth Oppel. His topic was "The Myth of the Ending". In the course of his remarks he explored what makes for a good ending and why, addressing the apparent conflict between wanting both "and they lived happily ever after" that closes a story off and wanting an ending that demands continued engagement. (Sequels even!) It was his opinion that stories with closed endings ultimately end up on the shelf as closed books. We may enjoy them tremendously and recall them as fond memories, but they do not live on within us. Books with open endings, endings that continue to engage the reader with possibilities and challenges and opportunities, those books are likely to be opened and reopened as the reader continues to engage with the story. Ideally, an author wants to tie up enough of the story to provide satisfaction to the reader that the central themes have been honestly dealt with, but still leave enough undone to engage the reader in exploring possibilities themselves.
At which point the connection between children's literature and The Greatest Story Ever Told began to be made in my mind. We in the church claim to have two things: the Truth, and the Story. We want people, children of all ages, to open the Book and read the Story over and over and over again. We go back to it in small narrative pieces every Sunday. So why are so many Bibles sold annually and so few of them ever read? And even fewer than the number read might be the number that are genuinely engaged with. I wonder if it isn't the church's propensity for the closed ending. As I considered it, it occurred to me that many preachers consider it their goal to explain the particle of story they are exploring until they've wrung every bit of meaning out of it for public consumption. While that may impress the heck out of the people who are listening to the pastors scholarship, it doesn't bode well for engaging with the story itself in the context of their own lives. In which case, the preaching has fallen flat even if the preacher is deemed a rousing success. Jesus never engaged in what we recognize as modern preaching. He told stories, stories that demanded an encounter, open ended stories that engaged people's lives. Seldom today does preaching do that; it doesn't even set out to do that. Instead, we take his open-ended story and dissect and display it till all it's parts are available for viewing. Gone is mystery and personal response or meaning. The tradition of the church has created an unspoken law that preaching shall have a closed ending, one that can be identified and approved for public consumption. How boring is that? While there is security in being told what to do and when to do it and how often and in what manner, there is also the stifling of life. Is it really any surprise that people want more than that? It may be a healthy impulse that keeps our pews from filling up!
Consider too, the "end of the Christian story". This is complete conjecture on my part, but I'm willing to bet that if a street survey were taken, a lot of people would be able to identify Jesus as someone who should be believed in so that we can go to heaven. Heaven has pearly white gates guarded by St Peter. Sometimes you get anything you want in heaven (or it wouldn't be heaven, duh!) and sometimes you just get to sit around and sing songs with the angels to make God happy. Most people would prefer the first choice, leaving the second to those who are religious. I doubt sincerely that many people would identify Christianity as having an open ending. But doesn't it? And if not, why not?
I believe that our story isn't done yet; not Jesus, and not ours. I also believe that the openness is deliberate on God's part, deliberate so that all people can engage with it and respond to it, not sit it on a shelf or a coffee table for effect. Why is it that writers of children's literature can see what it takes to tell a good story, while we, who are charged with telling the greatest story, tie it up in knots and divvy it up into little fragments that resemble anything but life? There are a lot of possible responses to that question; one I'd like to offer is that the institution of the church has gotten to be very good at containing violence and describing concretely how we should go about that- exactly how we should think, speak, and act in order to be the church. However, it has done so at the cost of the life of the story, a story designed to be open ended, to engage it's readers/hearers in challenge and crisis and mystery as well as history and tradition.
I left the conference with a determination to keep the scriptures open ended, to remember that the Bible doesn't say "The End" on the last page of text, it says "Amen", meaning "so be it". Whether we hear that as present or future tense, it implies that the greatest story ever told is also the never ending story, a story of BEcoming. I can't wait for the text of the material presented to be available; it will make some fascinating teaching materials for preaching! It may be that focusing on the never ending story will offset the church's role as a container of violence....and maybe, just maybe, the story will influence the church that claims it so that even we take it down off the shelf and engage with it- again and again and again...