A Reading Life (prt 13): Being a Steward of Stories


By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

You may recall the post in which I said I read voraciously in high school, primarily those books in the school library that intrigued me the most.  Because I read so much of what I wanted, I failed to read books assigned to me by teachers. I went for years without touching those classics that most students read: Hawthorne, Lee, Hemingway, or Twain; but it was not a total loss.

My favorite teachers were eleventh- and twelfth-grade English teachers.

My eleventh grade teacher, Mr. Mitchell, taught American literature. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth and drew out all of his lessons on that premise. We watched movies from Star Wars Episode 5 (the best of all Star Wars movies) to The Crucible and The Witness. We read Native American literature and the poems of Dickinson. He introduced us to the plays of Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman was memorable.

My British lit teacher, Ms. Brunnel, introduced us to Beowulf and Shakespeare in a way I’ve never read them before. We also read The Canterbury Tales, which played into my religious imagination and expanded my idea of the church as a pilgrim community made up of storytellers and stewards of stories.  She also snuck in Greek mythology, which fascinated me to no end–especially her feminist take on Medea.

What these teachers did differently than the rest was assume that we weren’t going to read outside of class. They made time in class so that we can read the books together. This was brilliant because (1) they assumed correctly–I never read assigned texts at home; and (2) reading together taught me the power of being part of a reading and interpreting community.

Little did I know how this practice of corporate reading would shape my understanding of the Bible and of church.  Church is, after all, a reading and interpreting community, and many books in scripture are meant to be acted out, if not in the reading of it, then in the living of it.  We need to remember that ancient Greek practices of playwright and of rhetoric shaped and informed the writing of the New Testament, which is written in Greek.

Reading literature also payed the bills.  When I graduated seminary, I landed a high-school history teaching position at a local Christian academy. I taught history, so it was an easy fit.  By the third year, however, the school needed a literature teacher and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and put Joseph Campbell, community interpretation, and storytelling to work once again. It was a fun and joyful year; and teaching grammar made me a better, more precise writer.

It was the year I caught up on my reading. I picked up books such as The Old Man and the Sea; The Great Gatsby, and Night. I studied the technical and aesthetic aspects of poetry.  I fell in love all over again with the concise art of short stories.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which inspired courage in ministry as it related to race reconciliation; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the amazingly moving Maya Angelou.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt expressed an immigrant’s point of view of poverty, not to mention McCourt’s unique run-on sentence writing style.

I realize now that both my teachers and my teaching of literature ignited a fondness for reading the Bible and of reading in general.  I believe that people who thrive are those who have mentors who shape their worldview and then, in turn, mentor others.

This is what it means to steward stories– to be a caretaker of those narratives that frame and shape our lives, and to encourage others to articulate the deepest notions of what it means to be human, individually and together.

A reading life is a life in community. It is one in which we learn how to read and interpret the words that build worlds. It is a life that leans upon and into others who have taken great pains to be stewards of stories themselves, for in this, the words we have are those in earthen treasures ready to be explored anew.

Pentecost affirms that God’s glory is revealed in diversity

Although it’s been two weeks since churches around the globe celebrated Pentecost, we are still in need of a fresh Pentecost spirit to enliven and embolden a richly diverse and creative body of Christ in our own nation today.

Pentecost was the time when the Holy Spirit filled, authenticated, and birthed the church.  Acts 2 portrays this as a truly miraculous event: The Spirit rushed upon the disciples like a “violent wind,” tongues of “flames” rested upon them, and they started proclaiming the gospel in different languages.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem, who were present for the Feast of Weeks, heard those “Galileans” speak in their own distinct languages, and they accused the disciples of being drunk.

It is curious that many Bible commentators argue that Pentecost reversed the event at Babel (Genesis 11).  In Babel, Noah’s descendants spoke the same language.  Their was very little disagreement, and the community seemed to favor conformity.  This ethic allowed them to invent the brick; their next big idea was to build a tower as high as the heavens.

God did not favor this community of conformity, however, and It seems that speaking the same language might have hampered creative diversity.  Consequently, God “confused” their language, and different ethnicities were thus born.

Was Pentecost a true reversal of this event?  If it was, then all those pilgrims to Jerusalem would have simply understood the Aramaic language typical of the disciples’ speech.  The disciples would not have spoken different languages at all.

But the disciples did not proclaim a uniform, harmonious message.  Their speech was not organized.  There was no choir director to lead them in unison.  Instead, the Pentecost event was a chaotic, muddy, and disorganized cacophony of diverse speech.  No wonder the disciples sounded drunk.

The ability to speak different languages ignited the spark that launched the Great Commission “from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Pentecost did not reverse Babel, it reaffirmed the fact that God’s creative and redemptive spirit becomes fully alive in the midst of diversity rather than in dogmatic conformity.

My wife and I speak English, but there are many situations in which we seem to speak different languages.  The adage that men are from Mars and women are from Venus rings all too true.  When we disagree, my temptation is to pray, “Lord, help change my wife; make her more like me.”

When I stop and look at the spouse with whom God has blessed me, our differences no longer hamper our relationship; rather, our differences express the wonderful tapestry that makes our marriage all the more unique and complete.

There are many Christians in our day that would like for us to believe that they have a monopoly on biblical interpretation.  Their prayer is, “Lord, make everyone else look and think like us.”

Some Christians go so far as to claim that there are certain parts of the Bible no longer open for discussion.

Yet, we humans continue to hear the Bible in our own languages, as it were.  We come to the text with our own biases.

From the perspective of Pentecost, a varied–and at times chaotic–cacophony of theology is something to celebrate and cherish, not exclude or silence.  Only when we embrace our differences and turn our attention to the world beyond our Christian conflicts, will we be able to see that our Weaver-God is still spinning a luminous web* filled with the majesty of his creative diversity.

*I could not help but take this phrase, “luminous web,” from the Barbara Brown Taylor book sharing the same title.

Biblical scholarship creates conflicts where they often do not exist

A picture on my desk of St. Matthew reminds me that God's Word is inspired and God-breathed.

Writing about the Bible in his latest book After You Believe, popular scholar N. T. Wright notes, “The whole story is the whole story.”  There are plenty of people who would like to slice and dice the Bible into sections; others simply ignore what they don’t like while proof-texting to support their own values.

Many who read the Bible approach it like the media approaches newsworthy stories: They look for conflict, even when no conflict exists.

In fact, the Bible is said to have many conflicts:  Between Old and New Testament, Law and grace, God of wrath and God of love, Jesus and Paul, works and faith.

It is easy for people to believe that such conflicts exist when we don’t really have time to read the Bible in the first place.  As biblical illiteracy rises, it is becomes easy to “pull one over” on the masses.  Yet, when we do take a close look at the Bible and read, as N. T. Wright admonishes, “the whole story,” the conflicts are few and far between.

Take Old and New Testaments.  The assumption is that Jesus, who inaugurated the “New Covenant” with his death and resurrection, wiped away the moral and ethical fabric of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament, so says the argument, is irrelevant.  A close look at Jesus’ ministry, however, proves the opposite.  Jesus did not do away with the Law or the Old Testament in general; rather, Jesus called his followers back to the heart of the Law.  No wonder the New Testament authors emphasize that, in Christ, God continues to etch the Law upon our hearts.

This is ultimately related to the conflict that some see between the God of the Old Testament (wrath) and the God of Jesus Christ (love).  One of my fellow colleagues who writes for the Rockdale Citizen wrote a good article on this subject last week, so I won’t spend much time on this point.

It is important to emphasize that God does not change over time.  God’s purpose is pure and consistent throughout history.  God is one who creates humankind to be in relationship with Him, and everything God does after the Fall of Adam and Eve intends to restore this relationship.

A close reading of the Law–from Exodus to Deuteronomy–shows that God seeks to liberate humanity from their wayward habits.

This also brings us right to St. Paul, who seems to contrast the Law with God’s grace throughout his letters.  Romans, in particular, seems to pit the two against each other, allowing God’s grace to win out.

Again, a closer reading shows that Law and grace are not diametrically opposed to one another, as if God’s Law did not make room for grace.  The Law was established precisely because of God’s grace.  It’s just that humanity managed to use the Law to hinder humans from reconciling with God (that’s why the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had this view of the Law, were so opposed to Jesus’ interpretation of the Law).

A last conflict seems to exist between Jesus and Paul.  We see this within churches today.  Some say that they rely on Paul’s writings and the personal moral code that Paul seems to advocate.  Others rely on Jesus’ sermons and propose a more community-centered, social justice ethic.

Paul and Jesus both care about personal salvation and community morality.  All but three of Paul’s letters, after all, were written to churches, not to individual Christians.  And Jesus speaks to individuals throughout his ministry, such as when he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that the ruler had.

My guess is that scholars will keep arguing that conflicts exist in the Bible for as long as they continue to do what they do.  It would benefit all of us, however, if we simply read the Bible for ourselves.