Saturday, February 18, 2006

What I Do, and Why ...

My friend Phil asked me to respond to a few questions about the storytelling preparation process. I was going to just send him an email personally, but since it’s been so long since I posted anything, I decided to respond here. Here then, are Phil’s questions:

- What things do you think about in contemplating the material?
- What kind of questions do you ask yourself - particularly in this passage? (John 4:1-42)
- Do you ever notice that sometimes certain truths just pop out at you as you are going along that affect your Christian walk and you're not sure if you agree with it or not? Kind of like - you're not sure what just happened but, it sure was cool!
- I’d sure like to know what the personal meaning is for you on this story once you’ve worked with it for a while.

The first thing I do when preparing a passage is pull a W5; that is – who, what, where, when, and why. I know this seems rather obvious, but the fact is it’s the only way I know to understand any passage of scripture. What may differ however, is how I apply these interrogatives.

Given the turbulence of the times when the New Testament was written I find myself asking questions like, “Who benefits most here?”, “What axes do they have to grind?”, “Where are they on the social/political scale?”, “When did this happen in relation to other events in other parts of scripture?”, and “Why did the gospel writer include this story?”

One of the things that’s hard for Western readers to keep in mind when reading the Bible is that the people involved in these stories were much more passionate about their faith than one usually sees today; unless one looks to the modern Middle East. We look at the news, especially now, and often find ourselves asking, “What is the big deal here?” The current situation with the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed is a good example.

I would suggest that for most of us in the West the violence and destruction that has accompanied the Muslim response to the cartoons seems incredibly over the top. And yet, while the physical reaction may indeed be out of proportion, the passion for the faith that motivates it is typical of the region. This is because, for much of this part of the world, faith is not just a religious issue, but an ethnic one as well. Judaism, Islam, and other religions have a binding effect that unites their followers in ways not typically seen in Christianity. This was also true in Biblical times and this fact must be kept in mind when considering the interplay between people and groups in the stories found in the scriptures.

In the story of the Woman at the Well, two things must be kept in mind. First, the woman is a woman. Secondly, she is a Samaritan. Both of these factors make it highly unlikely that a Jewish male would stop and discuss the nature of worship with an unrelated woman in a public place. Note the woman is surprised He asked for the drink.

I won’t go into a dissertation on the passage (actually I started to but deleted it and got back on track), but these are the kinds of things I explore in a passage — why? Because it is only by understanding the interplay between characters that I can accurately relate their story. When two people of obvious differences come together, it would be inconsistent to tell their story with a buddy-buddy, pals-for-life flavour to their conversations. The woman’s voice, for example, should reflect the suspicion that surely would be present in this situation. So most of the questions I ask myself revolve around the issue of relationships.

The other thing that must be considered is the “Why?” of the story. Why was this story included in the gospel? Why does this story even exist? It wouldn’t if Jesus hadn’t started the conversation, so why did he? And most importantly, why am I telling it? Answering these questions will also affect the manner in which it is told.

Because this story is being prepared for a worship conference, I have been focussing on how it relates to the process of worship, even to the point of deciding where to stop the story. Most teachers stop with Jesus’ declaration that he is the Messiah in verse 26; but it seems to me that the act of worship also includes our response to worship. If this is truly the case, then the story must also include the woman’s response, which is to drop what she’s doing (she leaves her waterpot behind), and go tell her friends and family about the one she has encountered. Their response is part of the process of the act of worship. It leads, eventually, to their encounter with Christ and their personal realization that he is indeed the Messiah, in response to which they, in turn, worship Him as well.

In other words: Worship, if done in spirit and in truth, will result in others coming to join in worship. Worship is not a linear path to a final destination, but rather a circle which leads to the creation of additional worshippers. Worship turned inward (as in the case of the Samaritans and the Jews) becomes divisive. Worship turned outward (read inclusive) draws people into the worship experience and increases the volume of worshippers.

And that Phil, is the answer to your last two questions. We talk a great deal about being inclusive in worship, but I think we may have strayed from the path when it comes to determining just what being inclusive is all about. Far too often we look at it as the need to alter, adjust, re-invent, or even (shudder) water-down, what we do as believers in a worship service so that non-believers will be comfortable taking part in the service. I’m beginning to realize that this may be wrong-headed.

Jesus does not water anything down for the woman or her fellow Samaritans. He instead declares that when we come before God truthfully, on a spiritual level (rather than just physical) then the differences between us will become meaningless. We will not worship one way or the other, but rather in a way that draws people to Christ by virtue of its truthfulness. People will not, ultimately, be drawn to God by the method or location of our worship. They may be impressed by the quality or genre of our singing, but that is not what will create in them a desire to experience God. They will want to join us when they see for themselves that our love for God is a genuine expression of who we are and most importantly, of who He is.

What we do and where we do it will cease to have any importance when the union of our spirits with God through Christ and the truthfulness of our relationship with each other as believers becomes the driving force behind our worship. When this happens - others will want to experience the same thing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Not-So-Savage Curtain

Like a lot of people in this world, I am a fan of the Star Trek franchise. Now, before those of you who aren’t hit the Back button, this article is not about Star Trek per se, so please bear with me.

One of the episodes that stands out in my mind, is an original series episode called The Savage Curtain. In it the crew of the Enterprise travel to a planet called Excalbia. The unique thing about the living rocks that inhabit Excalbia is their culture has no experience with the concepts of “Good” and “Evil.” In an effort to understand this concept, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on the planet’s surface along with an assortment of characters extracted from kirk and Spock memories including Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan. They are divided into the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and forced to battle it out to the death. A few skirmishes and much philosophizing later, Kirk and company emerge victorious and the Excalbians come to the following conclusion...

"It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me... any other difference between your philosophies."

After a few more philosophical observations and a memorable quote from Abraham Lincoln (There is no honourable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending.) everyone survives and the crew moves on to its next assignment.

So... why the trip down Trekkie memory lane? Well, what always stuck in my mind about this episode was not the debate over the classic battle between good and evil but the aliens involved. The Excalbian spokesman makes the claim that the very concept of good and evil is unknown to them. This seems nearly impossible. Could a society with no concept of good and evil, or right and wrong actually survive? Would they not at the very least come to the conclusion; harm me = evil and help me = good? Could such a society exist?

Well actually, we are supposed to be just such a society. At least that’s what Juan de Valdes suggests. I wrote about Valdes a few weeks ago. Those who haven’t read the article will find it here. This morning, over coffee, I was reading a book of excerpts from Valdes’ One Hundred and Ten Considerations. Check out consideration number 106 where he talks about man(kind) in the spiritual sense:

He was placed in the garden called the earthly paradise. But after he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he lost the image of the likeness of God. He was expelled from the earthly paradise and retains the knowledge of both good and evil. I understand it is unnatural to man and foreign to his first creation to remain excluded from the earthly paradise. Likewise I understand it is unnatural for him to possess ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’ By what I experience in man’s restoration, in his regeneration, and in his being made a new creature, I realize that he does recover the image and likeness of God.

Think about that for a moment; it is unnatural for him to possess ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’ The scriptures seem to re-enforce Valdes’ interpretation as God asks Adam how it is he knows that he is naked (Gen 3:11). The knowledge of this simple fact indicates to God that Adam has transgressed, as it is knowledge Adam would not have if he had remained obedient.

It is an interesting notion that if everything had not gone awry in the Garden of Eden, then the human race today would, just like the fictitious Excalbians, have absolutely no concept of good and evil. Morality plays would not exist and neither, I imagine, would the entire arena of philosophy. (A good thing perhaps?)

I will confess that this idea is entirely beyond my comprehension. I find I cannot adequately imagine a culture that is devoid of these most basic of concepts. I realize I am being repetitive here, but really, to think that if everything had gone according to God’s original intent then we would exists in such a pure state of innocence that terms like “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong” would be completely meaningless and serve no useful purpose in our lives.

If Valdes is right then in the next world we will be restored to this state of innocence. It is no wonder that scripture is so lacking in details of the next life. It will obviously be beyond our comprehension. I can hardly wait!