Monday, August 14, 2017

The Christian Story: Reclaiming Theological Imagination

If you ask Harry Potter fans for a compelling quote from the books, I bet most of them would choose something from the later volumes, or at least a line from the usual deep-stuff-with-Dumbledore that happens at the end of each book. Fair enough. But I think a crucial nugget of J.K. Rowling's thought is found in Book 1, Chapter 1 when we are told: "[Mr. Dursley] hurried to his car and set off for home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn't approve of imagination." 

Long before Ms. Rowling tests her characters in the crucible of good and evil, she puts her readers through an entrance exam: Are you open to my flights of imagination and fairy tale or are you a full time employee of the efficient, hard-boiled, workaday world? A similar test famously opens The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and continues throughout as a hallmark of someone's depth.

This week's homily is a sequel of sorts to last Sunday's sermon on beauty, love, dance, and worship. Josef Pieper, who was mentioned last week, gives warning in his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture about how we can become (by our own choice) captives, jailed in the workaday world. A few things can shake us and momentarily break us free from the prison—things like love and death. But we can also choose to live as people who don't only see the world exclusively as something practical and something we have to explain every part of. 

In the first part I focused on beauty, symbol, dance and ritual as things natural to us which argue that our natural state is not one of sheer practicality. In this second part I examine how our virtual obsession with stories, narrative, and imagination is a sign post that we are more than just explainers.

But we have to give ourselves permission to be storytellers. And we have to give ourselves permission to do so in fields besides sports, politics, and celebrity gossip. The Christian life will never be boring if the people who claim to love it are brave enough to dance it like they mean it and tell it like they believe it. But to do that we have to swim upstream against the trend we Christians have made for ourselves in recent decades. 

(Note: All four Masses' homilies had significant differences. I tried to present here the best blend of at least the latter two.)

19th Sunday of the Year: Story

On the internet right now there’s a fun little meme/word game to describe something at levels of bad, better, and best:

“Broke, woke, bespoke”

(Don't feel bad if you don't know the word "bespoke". I only learned it 4 years ago. It’s used to describe a suit or dress made from scratch or your measurements. So, a step above tailored.)

Apply to our readings:

Broke: Elijah in cave and God speaks. 

Woke: Elijah in cave. God not in the wind, not in earthquake, not in fire. Is in the tiny whispering sound.

BespokeAfter his greatest victory, against 450 prophets of Baal, Elijah has it snatched out of hands by Jezebel his archnemesis.

Races Ahab and a thunderstorm down Mt. Carmel and flees to escape them.

Elijah wants to die, lies down in desert. Told to continue to to Horeb. 

Horeb is another name for old Mt. Sinai, but God does even more for Elijah than for Moses whom he covered in a cleft so he couldn’t see God. Then he shows all the hallmarks of the old covenant:

But God was not in wind: he had raced the storm down Carmel
Not in earthquake; not in fire: he had seen that consume the sacrifice 

Not in those things.

Whispering sound 
Something different
Elijah listens
Converse with God: "I'm old, alone, tired."

God ends: "I know you have seen much. I have a final mission for you..."

Which one gets us?

What am I getting at here?

We were made for stories. Our minds were made for stories.

Think of the best homily you've heard in your life...

Can you recall more than 3 things out of it? (nobody can)

What were they?


Maybe, images and analogies.

Take note of that. What sticks with us: Stories and using imagination. 

This homily is a sort of "Part 2" to last week’s.

Encourage you to go find that homily and read or listen.

Easiest: go to parish website, click "Father's blog". Takes you to my site.

Or Google my name + father talks too fast

Not because I want you to gobble up my stuff, but
  1. it's summer and people are gone a lot
  2. I'm gonna quote that homily a lot in the next year 

Last week: Beauty, wonder, love, fascination 

Image: The ballerina who was asked to explain her dance and replied:  "If I could have said it I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

Talked about: All these things we do, but that we can't quite explain. 

From the weird ways children express affection, to folding the flag off a casket, to why churches are tall and we use incense. 

We have this desire to be practical and to explain.

Sometimes we can't. 

We strike our breasts in contrition. Fall in faces on Good Friday. Ring bells at the consecration.


I don't know exactly.  "If I could say it, I wouldn't need to dance it."

Two things argue that—while modern man focuses on the practical and the explainable—it's not our natural setting as human beings. 

Our love of beauty: world of symbols and extravagance 

Our love of story: world of imagination and narrative 

This is what excites us, but we buy into our own self-created lie that we have to make everything rational and practical. 

I asked in last blog: "Have we Christians limited ourselves to prose, and then been annoyed that there isn't enough poetry in the world?"

We love stories

If we are honest, it's the main way we process our world

A big story

and our story

And sense that we're part of a bigger story

Whole branch of psychology: narrative psychology 

"What's our own story?" (Personal narrative) 

"What's the story we hear about the world?" (Controlling narrative of how we understand everything) 

Anybody here ever find themselves kind of narrating their own story in their head as they go about their day?

When I first heard somebody in the realm of narrative psychology talk about this tendency I assumed it's because my generation grew up with Ferris Bueller's narrating his Day Off and with Morgan Freeman narrating our movies to us. 

Presumed it a fault: Self-reflexive; something from a “Me generation"

Something more to be made fun of than to be encouraged.

But psychologists and historians of human psychology seem to think that all people do this. 

In a tribal societies, you sit around the campfire and hear the stories of your people and you picture yourself in your story as part of some big story

In Ancient Greece: epics, Iliad and Odyssey 

We have then a crisis on Christianity:

We are not only failing to trust that beauty and symbols can speak deeper than words, but also a failure of storytelling.

People fall away because we aren't dancing like we mean it, or aren't telling the story like we believe it.

And we have the greatest story. 

From Adam to Abraham. 
Moses to Jesus. 
Peter to Paul to John Paul the Second

"Wait. Are you saying people should believe or not believe something just because of how enthusiastic (or not) the messenger is?"


I'm not talking about mythologies now

We get excited for Narnia, or Middle Earth, or Westeros exactly because the stories are well told. 

It's all they have.

We can make our arguments for historical truth

That was the entirety of the Easter homily

Can make the case

But most people don't live by logical arguments. 

Our failing as Christians:

Don't tell story like it's really true,

Don't tell story like it matters,

Fail to explain that the story is ongoing and we've been invited in. 

You may object: Yeah, Father, but that’s not me. 

I'm a 5th generation farmer. 

I'm so Czech I've got dumplings and gravy flowing through my veins.

Just a salt of the earth Nebraskan.

I'm not a story guy.

I'm not an imagination guy.

The heck you ain't....

Tell me about 1994

Tell me about Tommie Frazier and the blood clots

Tell me Brook

Tell me the story of Matt Turman, the hometown boy, and Oklahoma State and Kansas State

Tell me about Cory Schlesinger and the beauty of fullback traps 

See, I knew you had it in you

Every Nebraska becomes a mix of William Shakespeare and Garrison Keillor when football comes up.

We love stories but we only allow ourselves to let them only into certain corners of our mind. 


Modern Church has said we need reason, not imagination.

Need theology manuals, not stories.

This is a mistake.

We need to reclaim theological imagination.

Speaker at a priest study day: Americans claim to be eminently practical, but totally give themselves over to narrative and imagination in three things: celebrities, politic, sports

1) Celebrities & Reality TV

Kim and Kanye, 
Brad and Angelina,
Are Nikki and Miley fighting?
How are Selena and Taylor doing? 

The Bachelorette: did she make the right call this last week?

2) Politics: controlling the narrative

Reagan and Bill Clinton; Trump and Obama 

All about the narrative. 

Get that head of steam of people buying into your story

Whether: businessman who is going to return America to greatness; the self-made man who understands the coal miner and the auto worker

Or: son of an immigrant, married to the great-great-great-granddaughter of a slave, who studied law at Harvard and became the first black President

It all about the narrative

3) Sports. 

Everything is an epic poem told by Homer

But in the voice of the guy from NFL Films: "The frozen tundra of Lambeau field"  

Championship season story
Heisman trophy story

Bob Costas has made millions from storytelling

You don't care about the women's 200 butterfly 

But then the Rudy music starts…

And Bob: "She grew up in a tiny town in Belarus…”

“She and her brothers carried the water from the well each day to fill the town pool after they milked their goats .”

And on and on...

Tonight she represents little Zajamačnaje at the Olympic Games."

And you’re rooting for her; crying when she wins.

Suddenly care about the South African ping pong team. 

Because he activates our imagination. 

People say church is boring for them. 

Only because we won't give it the benefit of the doubt we give to ESPN, and the Bachelorette, and Game of Thrones. 

We suspend our disbelief and turn on our imagination for presidential candidates

Why not for our faith? 

We have the capacity to see the story, 
to get excited about it, 
put ourselves in it. 

Take away that prejudice. 

The Bible story

Crazy, twisting, God-bless-the-broken-road kind of story of Jesus' family

And yet we hesitate to engage.

Jeff Cavins has spend his adult life trying to get people to read 14 books of the Bible twice, before trying to read the whole bible so they can see the core story.

Church story

Church history: Fr. Rowan and I have both taught Church History and it’s hard for us that people don’t get excited.

I spent 5 years in Lincoln, 5 in Hastings and kids whined about Church History and I wanted to cry, because I love it.

But you gotta tell it like the epic movie it is. 

And the story goes on: Last year I told the story of the Czech saints using the stained glass windows and the parishes of this county. And you ate it up! Why? Because I told the story using lots of little stories.

Reacquaint ourselves:

Grade school kids hear it all as story. We lose some of that in high school. And as adults we have become utterly practical and boring.

Consider taking RCIA and hearing the story again. Coming soon on Tuesdays.

Diocese just unveiled our new Pope Benedict XVI School of Catechesis. Four semesters, six hours on one Saturday a month, high level adult formation in the Bible, creed, sacraments, prayer, morality, church history, and faith and reason.

(And since I'm one of the schleps they talked into helping with it, I should probably promote it.)

Start reading our Bibles on our own.

Get in the story. 
Activate out imagination

Conclude with a quote from a movie and book, The Lord of the Rings, in which characters actually discuss whether or not they would ever be part of stories others read. 

Frodo : I can't do this, Sam.

Sam : I know. It's all wrong By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo.

The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy.

But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.

Those were the stories that stayed with you.That meant something.

Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now.

Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding onto something.

Frodo : What are we holding onto, Sam? 
Sam : That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

[9:00 conclusion]
We’re part of a great story, and our stories fit in that.

We know there is stuff worth fighting for and we have to recognize our place in that story

Dive into the story: recognize its glory in our lives and our chance to be glorious in it as well.

[10:30 conclusion]
See the story

Give ourselves permission to get into it again

Get swept up in narrative, and see it as a story that we are living in too. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

'If I Could Say It, I Wouldn't Need to Dance It"

"Love is the perfection of the unnecessary." "Beauty will save the world." "Let them be born in wonder." "Only the lover sings." "If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

When you first think of Christian religion, is your first reaction to think of beauty, wonder, love, and dance? Do we not more often think of mysteries that need explaining and hard teachings that need defending? 

Has our modern impulse toward the practical and the explainable hurt our experience of the Faith? Have we boxed ourselves in and only allowed ourselves to do that which we can give rational explanation of? Have we limited ourselves to prose, and then been annoyed that there isn't enough poetry in the world?

Sunday Celebration of the Transfiguration 

We interrupt your regularly scheduled 18th Sunday of ordinary time to bring you:

August 6th: The yearly feast of the Transfiguration 

And collectively, the priests and deacons around the country say "Ugh!"


Two reasons:

1 ) we just preached on it 5 months ago, in Lent. 

2 ) it's hard to preach on. 

In the seminary they warned us: the more theological the feast, the harder to preach. 

So, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Assumption...

But even, Christmas and Easter sometimes. 

But also, the Transfiguration is just hard to understand 

Hard for even the preacher to understand, so it's going to be hard to preach...

...because we like to explain.  

We saw that trap back in June on Trinity Sunday: our temptation to explain. 

The Trinity at least is a big, mysterious doctrine. 

Today, August 6, the Transfiguration, the whole scene is hard to understand.

Weird place.
Weird things happen to Jesus.
Weird group.
Weird things said by Peter. 
Weird final thoughts from the Voice and from Jesus himself. 

What is that all about??

Reminds me of a story: 

One of the great ballerinas of all time 

After one of her performances, somebody asked what the dance meant.

Her reply was perfect, but also very honest:

"If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

I love it. 

"No, sir.  I can't explain what it was about, Mr. Spectator Sir."

"If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

We have this drive to want to make things practical and this drive to explain them. 

I don't know if that a modern thing. 

I don't know if it's an American thing.  

But it's definitely a thing we do. 

Things have to be immanently practical and we have to be able to explain it all. 

I don't think that's actually our natural state, but it's where we've gotten to. 

Think of all the careful steps of two servicemen at a funeral, stiffly, sharply, folding the American flag off of the casket.  

"Why do they do that?" a kid might ask quietly. 

"I don't know, kid. But I like it."  

I mean, you could explain: 

"It's for reverence."

There probably some symbolism worked out.

This many folds,

This many turns,

This side up.

You could explain that. 

And that might help a bit. 

But probably the best thing would be if the soldier turned to the kid after giving the flag to the widow and said:

"If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

Honestly, the drive to be practical and to explain things has probably been harmful to Christianity. 

We've trained ourselves that everything needs to be able to fit in nice little boxes in our heads.

And that all the things should be explainable to 2nd graders. 

Or at least to an adult. 

But why?

If we can't exhaust the meaning of folding a flag, can we really hope to cover the depth of our religion?

Two things argue against the drive to be practical and explain everything: 

Our natural love for beauty.  

And our natural love for stories. 

These are not practical, and often then don't really explain things.

Next week I'll talk about stories. 

Today I'm just talking about beauty. 

Beauty is done in a lot of ways in Christianity. 

Beautiful art. 

Beautiful voices singing beautiful music. 

Beautiful lessons: Prodigal son and the thankful leper and Peter asking Jesus to call him to walk on the water. 

Beautiful moments: 
water poured on baby, 
the oil smeared on the hands of someone on their deathbed, 
the hand lifted in absolution. 

These aren't practical though. 

They're not logical and rational and easy. 

Definitely not self-explaining. 

No more than our scene of Transfiguration is. 

Cuz they're not instruction manuals. 

Not even theological pamphlets. 

Why do you process around the church and down the stairs with the Eucharist on Holy Thursday?

"If I could say it, I wouldn't need to dance it."

Incense is a classic one. 

"Why do we use that?"

Quote a Psalm: metaphor for our prayers rising to heaven like incense. 

Book of Revelation too. 

"Ok, but why go around the altar swinging it? Why swing at cross, and gospel book, and the people?"

Do as a sign of reverence.  

It's a sign that they're holy, set apart. 

Marking it off

Cool image: like carving out the altar in smoke to show it's special. 

Seminarian : smoke rising, lifting it up above this world. It's between earth and heaven now. 

Might've made that up. I don't know. 

6 year old boy : "You using smoke to make a force field around it to protect it from enemies!"

"High five kid! That's as good as anything I've got."

Because: "If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

Not just liturgy either. 

Why do nuns where veils and habits? 

Variety of answers:

Simplicity for poverty

Takes away temptation to vanity and worry 

Witness to the world

Sign of a bride of Christ

All the order looks the same

But if you went up to a nun and said "Sister, why do you wear a special veil and habit, she might just say: 

"If I could say it then I wouldn't need to dance it.

The explanations of some things are just beyond us, but they still feel reasonable, natural. 

How does a four-year-old act?

Comes up, stares at you, you stare back in wonder, maybe smile at the kid, and then...

Four-year-old explodes: "BYAH!" <arms thrown wide>

And then runs off. 

What was that about? 

"Uh. It means I like you."

It doesn't have to make sense. 

How do you lovers act? 

Kind of ridiculously. 

"Only the Lover Sings" by Josef Pieper

About beauty in sacred art and music. 

The natural response when we are filled up.

Love is about the perfection of the unnecessary. 

The unnecessary...that we want to do anyways. 

We have candles all over our churches. 


They're covered in "unnecessary" ornamentation.


We ring bells at the elevation, we put ashes on our heads, we beat our breasts, we lay a large white pall over a casket. 



Good Friday 

Enter in dead silence. The only day of the year.

Servers and ministers are kneeling, but the priests fall flat on their faces.

They lay prostrate on the ground, like the apostles in today's gospel.


It's a sign of reverence

Well then what's genuflecting?

That's our standard act of reverence. 

And what is bowing? 

It's our sign of reverence...when we're on our way to do other stuff.

Is this like a double extra special kind of genuflection?

Why on that day? 

Why not on Easter? Jesus busting out of the tomb triumphant!

It's the one day of the whole year Jesus isn't even there in the tabernacle. 

"I don't know.  If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

Why do old churches have such high ceilings?

In 8th grade social studies, Miss Reynolds told us that the medieval cathedrals were made tall to make people look up and think of God. 

Ok, could be. 

Another person told me they're high so that on a hot day the heat would rise and leave cooler air on the floor. 

I thought: "Wow, that's a lot of work with hand-cut stone for a horribly inefficient air conditioning system!"

And I think if I ever meet the architect of Nôtre Dame in heaven, and ask why it's tall, he's going to say:

"If we could have said it, we wouldn't have needed to dance it. Out of stone."

On Trinity Sunday I talked about us not needing to feel we need to explain everything.

Instead we need to worship.

And worship is much more like a dance then like an explanation. 

The Christian faith is heavy on explanation, but even heavier on dances. 

Easter vigil: the greatest of dances. Many little dances within one big dance.

Start with a bonfire, give everyone candles, go into a dark church, sing a song about candles, then up to seven readings telling the whole story of salvation, then we bless water, baptize people, sprinkle more people...and then have a normal Mass!

So much stuff it's almost overwhelming.

This year on Holy Saturday on Facebook I asked people which they preferred: all the many layers of song and readings and extra rites, or when we try to keep it a little shorter for more people to come and find it more accessible.  

People were pretty split.

One person made the argument that they thought the Church over the centuries had intentionally overloaded the Vigil so you could never quite pay attention to all of it. 

I said, "That sounds stupid."

"No, there is something about how you can never quite know if you caught it all. So much stuff of symbol and story washing over you that passes in and out of focus. And you walk out not sure if you understood it, but thinking 'That was amazing.' Intentionally overwhelming."

Lines up well with the rest of Catholic Faith.

We tell you for years "Pay attention. Pay attention. Look up front, kid. Focus."

And then we fill the church with all this Catholic Eye Candy: Stained glass, statues, stations...

It's like the Church knows (after centuries of practice) that we're going to get distracted. It's going to happen. So she makes sure we are distracted by cool Catholic stuff.

To wrap up, let's come back to the Transfiguration with this new sense of things.

We can explain some things:

Moses and Elijah: stand for the Law and the Prophets, the whole old covenant 

Peter's strange offer: when you see amazing things, you might say gibberish

"Keep it Secret", because cool things become cooler when you have to keep them secret

But if we ask the question:

are they on a high mountain 
does his face shine like sun
are his clothes white as light
does the cloud envelope them
does the voice speak

God the Father might just answer us:

"If I could've said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."