Tag Archives: truth

Faith and Literature — A Vocational Intersection

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. Today I offer the first section of my remarks. I’ll follow with the second installment on Thursday.

I suppose we all have a variety of ways we could frame our vocational journeys. Here’s one for me:  my vocational journey has been one of seeking the truth, seeking after The Truth, trying to understand the truth, and how we can live truly before God, with each other and in the world.

Having lobbed that opening salvo, let me step back for a minute and tell a little about myself. I grew up as the oldest child of Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) parents; my grandfather was an LCMS pastor. I came to this institution (Luther College) at age 18 intending to be a musician. I discovered that music was much more an avocation for me than a vocation. In other words, I didn’t want to work that hard or practice that much. I felt like I had to figure out quickly what I wanted to do with my life — a misplaced notion, to say the least. I determined pretty quickly to pursue a vocation as a pastor in the church. Because I had been raised to observe a sharp distinction between denominations, I transferred to an LCMS college, eventually attended an LCMS seminary and entered pastoral ministry. I was very much steeped in the notion that theology was a set of propositional truths. My job as a pastor was to make sure people knew the truths necessary for their salvation.

The first 15 years of pastoral ministry was a long journey of discovery towards authentically engaging the scriptures, the church, people, and what it means to be a pastor. I discovered through experience that story is fundamental, basic, and essential to human existence. We eat, sleep, poop, have sex — but mostly we tell stories. When we talk to each other, that’s what we do. Some of us tell stories exceptionally well. Those stories help reveal the truth — about life, about God, about being human, about how we relate to each other.

Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite novelists. For years, he was the chair of the Creative Writing program at Stanford University.  He used to tell his students, “We have no agenda but to tell the truth.  Of course, what I’m getting at is the deep truth about human life that is not always accessible through mere facts.”

Jesus told stories.  His parables are known far and wide both inside and outside the church.  When we try to understand Jesus’ parables, we have to know that they tell the truth slant, to use a phrase of Emily Dickinson. They evoke rather than prescribe. That’s true also of literature and the way it speaks to matters of faith and life.

An important discovery and a really life-changing vocational moment was when I came to see that the Christian faith is fundamentally relational; it is not propositional, it is relational. The mystery of the Trinity is a relational mystery, not a propositional truth. Throughout history, God has interacted with people relationally, not propositionally. God bids us to live with one another relationally. Relationships don’t rest very well on propositional truth. It just may be that the only way to even begin understanding anything true about God is to tell stories about how God is and what God does, which is exactly what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do.

We can treat relationships clinically; when this happens do this; when that happens, do that. There’s some value to such exercises. We learn a lot and we learn differently through story. In the Wendell Berry story, Jayber Crow, Jayber, an introverted, balding bachelor-barber, has a deep affection for Mattie Keith Chatham, an attractive neighbor-girl. Mattie grows up, marries the local all-American boy,  bears, rears, and begins burying their children. When he realizes that Mattie’s philandering husband Troy will never be faithful to her, Jayber breaks off with his own girlfriend, and vows to be the husband Mattie deserves, even though his relationship with her will always be one-sided.  As Jayber’s one-sided passion for Mattie grows, so does his compassion, and he is able share in the sufferings of all his neighbors. In this story, romantic longing becomes the seed not only of a deep and broad human love but also for salvation itself.

(In the next installment, I offer more examples from a few of my own favorite authors, and reflect briefly on my vocation as a writer.)

Which Truth?

tecumseh“Excuse me. Could you tell me which way to Wheaton?”

It’s a Friday morning, mid-morning (my day off). I’m in downtown Glen Ellyn, a smallish western suburb of Chicago. I’m walking toward the Prairie Path, a rails-to-trails recreational path that runs right through our small downtown.

She appeared harried, confused, and anxious as she approached me asking for directions. I point to the west.

“How far?”

“About 3 miles.”

I know how far to Wheaton. On that morning, I was about to run along the Prairie Path, precisely to Wheaton, where I would turn around and come back for a six-mile run. Actually, it’s only about 2.5 miles to the center of downtown Wheaton, 3 miles to the far western edge. That’s where I was going because I needed to get in a 6-mile run.

She also asked me where the train station was. I pointed to the brick building about a half-block from where we were standing. She walked toward that building as I began my run.

It was only later that I started asking myself about why she wanted to get to Wheaton and how she was going to get there.

From my house — not so far from the train station, it takes about 10 minutes to get to Wheaton by car. So close, it’s hardly worth thinking about. If she ended up getting on the train, it would have taken even less time.

Not infrequently, I ride my bike over to a coffee shop in Wheaton.  It really doesn’t take that long and I enjoy the 20 minute ride along the Prairie Path.

If I have to walk to Wheaton, however, I think twice about it. No longer is it a 7 minute drive by car, or a 20 minute ride by bicycle. It takes 45 minutes. That feels like more of a commitment.

On that same recreational trail, I run distances that greatly vary, from 3 miles to 20 miles. It’s a near-constant source of wonder to me that the distance I run is often not the critical truth that I experience.  Long runs sometimes seem short and short runs sometimes seem so very long. I can go out for 8 mile and it feels like it’s been 3. And I go out for a 3 mile run and it feels like 8. The distances haven’t changed. Only my experience of those distances. I suppose the different perceptions of the distance wouldn’t matter, except that there’s often an important truth that underlies my experience. On the days when the short runs seem long, I start that reflection process: what’s going on? Stress I need to pay attention to? Did I get enough sleep? Have I been training too hard (rarely is the answer to that question “yes”!).

So, why do I spend these paragraphs stating the obvious?

  • How far we’ve come or how far we have to go is not measured in miles.
  • Value is not most importantly measured in dollars and cents.
  • The weight my brother or sister is carrying is not felt in pounds.
  • The amount of time I have left in my life has little to do with the number of days or years before I die.

As a people, we could use a bit more reflection on the deeper truths that lay buried beneath the truths we can measure. These deeper truths reveal things like character and vision. These truths become especially significant when we have conversation about what kind of persons we want to be, what kind of church community we want to be, even what kind of nation and society we want to be.

The most important truth in any given situation at any given time is probably not the kind that’s measured in miles.