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. 

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