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, whose name escapes me at the moment, 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.

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A Reading Life (pt. 3): Peretti on a Ferry


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.

What ever happened to Christian fiction author Frank Peretti?  Perhaps he is still writing books; but, since I haven’t looked at a Christian fiction section at the bookstore in a while, I wouldn’t know the difference. What I do know is that, during the 1990s, when I caught snippets of God’s call on my life, Frank Peretti was a big deal.  It was hard to be an evangelical without running into his books along the way.

Frank Peretti was most famous for his “Present Darkness” series, including This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Both are takes on small-town America in the throes of larger-than-life spiritual warfare.  Peretti painted a world in which demons and angels are at war.  Humans are mere pawns.  We can only catch glimpses of this spiritual warfare around us, and it is only by prayer and God’s Word that we ward off evil spirits.

Peretti’s books influenced many people in the church.  They framed our life as a battle that we waged on our knees rather than with weapons.  They gave us a spiritual edge that provided a deeper meaning to seemingly random events that unfolded around us.  They added a spice to a stale Christian life that was quickly dwindling well into a booming Clinton economy.

At the time I read Peretti’s books, I was very impressionable.  I was a teenager, and I stood at the cross-roads of life.  During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I ventured to Manhattan on a month-long pre-college art class at Parson’s School of Art and Design.

I had my eyes set on art for a long time, but that summer I wasn’t so sure.  I was fulfilling a dream–to make art in the Big Apple, but things did not feel right.  I was torn between my dream of art and a rising call in my life to go into full-time ministry.  My trip to Parsons was, for me, a time of discernment.  Would I go to art school or a private Christian college to get a religion degree?

Since I stayed with my grandmother that summer, I had to commute from Staten Island to Manhattan five days a week. It was a 2 hour round trip.  It required two trains and a ferry. I had a lot of time to read.  I was reading Peretti that summer; it was Peretti on a ferry, for all practical purposes.

Peretti’s writing engaged my imagination as it did other Christian readers; and, with the art culture of New York, my imagination turned towards the spiritual environment in which I lived and moved and had my being. Peretti got me excited about ministry, and I thought that I had unmasked the spiritual darkness that a life of art certainly entailed. When I came home to Florida at the end of summer, my mind had been made up: I was going to apply to a Christian college, meet a nice Christian girl, and go into ministry.

I remember trying to explain this to my Italian teacher the following term.  She tried to talk me out of going to a private school.  I think she was concerned that I would not have the opportunities for a lucrative job; so, in trying to open her eyes to all things Peretti, I invited her to church.  I think she obliged to assuage my fears.  Looking back, I think she took pity on me.  She was a good teacher.

It’s been a long time since the summer of 1996.  I did end up getting a religion degree, a nice Christian girl, and a full-time job in ministry.  But I have matured as a Christian and I have moved past Peretti’s theology.   I do not read him the same as I did, but I do not regret leaving the arts behind though I miss it now and then.

I believe that God provides exactly what we need when we need it.  If I were to read a Peretti book today, I would probably toss it.  Back then, however, it clarified a call, which gave me some of the greatest blessings anyone can ever ask for, including the girl and two children!

A Reading Life (pt. 2): Choose your own Adventure

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By Joe LaGuardia

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

I rarely enjoy predictable endings. One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you can’t conclude a sermon without mentioning Jesus and redemption. Congregations do not like ambiguous endings; they are not accustomed to solving puzzles. If you don’t end a sermon with Jesus, then what is the point of going to church?

I once preached a sermon on Job that did not end with Jesus. Sure, God restored Job’s fortunes, but that did little to erase Job’s trauma after losing his children, their families, and most of his crops. Job said that life is not fair, and sometimes life is not fair. The sermon mentioned that we are not guaranteed easy answers, cliché religious sayings, or clean conclusions in life. After, a retired Lutheran pastor came up to me and said, “Joe, I did not like that sermon. Jesus was not mentioned.”

When I was young, I had similar feelings about television and books. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Scooby Doo hoping that the bad guys would win. The show ended the same every time: “I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” Just once I would like to see Scooby and the Get-Along-Gang get their just desserts for putting their noses where they didn’t belong!

Books were similar. My favorite books consisted of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These were the best because each book had multiple endings. It depended on your choices, and if you didn’t choose the right storyline, your hero or heroine could meet certain doom. That was exciting!

One of my Choose Your Own Adventure books was based on Indian Jones. I remember skipping to the back of the book and finding the ending in which Indie would be trapped or squashed under a big, rolling bolder. Once I spotted it, I went back to the beginning of the book and spent days trying to weave my way to that ending! I was a dark child.

What I did not know at the time was that my preference for ambiguity came from a deep intuition that life was more complex than my little, adolescent brain was able to understand. I had an easy life– both parents in the household with Dad’s steady job, clean clothes, good food, loving family, and supportive older sisters– but I somehow knew that life was not that simple. How could every day end like an episode of Scooby Doo where everyone lives happily ever after?

I always felt that this gave me an edge as a pastor. I never told people who faced trauma that “Everything will be ok.” I don’t make excuses for God when people are angry with God. I don’t feel the need to give cheap answers to complex questions. I am not afraid to tell my church, “I don’t know.” Sometimes not knowing is healthy–it acknowledges that life is mysterious, and we cannot domesticate God. God alludes us when we try to box him in.

My earliest books were most fascinating when they were complex and suspenseful. Predictable storylines bored me, and I loved to read things that kept me on the edge of my seat. But life is like that and, come what may, I am just glad that Jesus will “neither leave” me nor forsake me no matter what adventure life might bring. I can’t always choose my own fate, but I can choose to love God each and every day. So, I guess, it is hard to end without Jesus after all.