Storytelling: Monday Monologues, September 23, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Storytelling.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Storytelling: Monday Monologues, September 23, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Run_2019

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1] 2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Fundamental to the problem of the postmodern church is grasping for how much society has changed. In Christendom, a sense of right and wrong permeated the entire culture—even those that never entered a church shared Christian morality even if reluctantly. An important problem in postmodern culture is its fragmentation—kids frequently introduce themselves by who they listen to and prefer communication with friends, not in person, but by texting. One gets the impression that for a boomer a FB friend is an acquaintance, but for a millennial a FB friend is a intimate—in part because of differences in the personal details shared online.

Introduction

 In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (hereafter H&W) described the church already in 1989 as:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief…Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”(49)

My wife and I had our first child in 1989 right after I received my first job in finance and could afford for the first time the house that we lived in and we attended a church plant in our community that now is a well-established church. We were among the fortunate few because anyone without a post graduate degree still earns probably little more than they did back then.

Church in the Lurch

Churches not serving the fortunate few were already struggling back in the 1980s and have lost members, especially young people, ever since. H&W observe:

“An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics.(54)

The old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, yet most churches never learned to play offense because in Christendom evangelism consisted primarily in keeping those that showed up on Sunday morning. If no one shows up, they are lost as to what to do.

The Importance of Story

The church played defense pretty much throughout the modern era. In attempting to respond to the unscientific nature of faith, churches used abstract concepts, like “God is love”, to communicate the Gospel, but for the most part such abstractions merely served to vaccinate people against real Christianity. Conceptual—ersatz or cultural— Christianity is sterile and cannot reproduce itself.

H&W write:

“How does God deal with human fear, confusion, and paralysis? God tells a story: I am none other than the God who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ (Deut 5:6)”(54)

 At its heart, the Gospel is the story of Jesus, not the concept of Jesus! We cannot understand and appreciate the Gospel unless we follow Jesus and participate in his story. (55) For postmoderns, it’s all about narrative and the Good News is that the church has the best story around—if it is willing and able to tell it.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.

Footnotes

[1]https://divinity.duke.edu/faculty/directory. @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

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How We Learn

simplefaith_web_01172017

We most frequently follow one of three approaches to learning: the behavioral approach, the rational approach, and the authoritative approach. In the behavior approach, we follow the path of least resistance—we do more of things that have positive reinforcement and less of things with negative reinforcement. In the rational approach, we explore the alternatives presented and chose the best alternative based on our exploration. In the authoritative approach, we may start with either the behavioral or the rational approach but we limit our exploration to options suggested by a mentor or leader.

An example of the authoritative approach is found in Luke 8 following the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus gives his disciples a lesson:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15 ESV)

In this context, how do we know what we know? In the passage, Jesus gives us an interpretive key: “The seed is the word of God.” We understand and accept the lesson in this passage for two reasons. First, the key comes from a reliable source: Jesus. As Christians, we trust the Bible to tell us about Jesus who is known to use parables in his teaching. Second, the key itself, like the Copernican mathematics of planetary motion, makes intrinsic sense—the parable which was posed as a riddle, suddenly becomes meaningful like a lock opened with a key.

While not all problems that we are confronted with take the form of a riddle unlocked with a key, the parsimony displayed in Jesus’ parable demonstrates the value of the authoritative approach in learning. Most learning both inside and outside the church follows the authoritative approach, in part, because it accelerates our learning. Unbridled skepticism is a rookie mistake or a cynical attempt to undermine faith.

Our discomfort in the present age arises because we have many more choices than tools for selecting among them and we have been convinced that we should prefer the rational approach, even though even the best scientists rely on the informed opinion of others. Just like good seminary students apprentices themselves to the best pastors and theologians, the best scientists compete to be students in the best universities and with the best professors. It seems to be no accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, was the son of Germany’s finest psychologists of that day.[1] The question as to whether the authoritative approach is a valid approach to learning is moot, because everyone uses it.

If we try to avoid the authoritative approach, we actually put ourselves at risk. If we adopt the behavioral approach to every problem, for example, the positive reinforcement of addictive substances and addictive circumstances will lead us to self-destruction. Alternatively, if we adopt a rational approach to every problem, analysis paralysis will lead us into burnout and untimely decisions will cause us to miss opportunities. In this context, trusting a divine mentor can lead us to limit our choices to better choices.

The Parable of the Sower offers at least one other insight into our learning process. Jesus tells his disciples a story in the form of a parable. Story telling accomplishes at least three things relevant to the learning process. Stories are:

  1.  Easily understood and remembered.
  2.  Suggest insights into how the world works indirectly which does an end-run around our natural, human resistance to taking advice.
  3. Provide context for the words used in the story, defeating the criticism that the meaning of words depends solely on the social context of the reader.

Far from being unsophisticated, Jesus’ use of parables suggests a level of sophistication seldom equaled in the modern and post-modern eras, even in mass media.

Reference

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] “In 1912, Dietrich’s father [Karl] accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany, position he retained until his death in 1948.” (Metaxas 2010, 13)

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 2

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you believe that modern media is irrelevant to your religious life, then ask yourself a couple of questions.  For example, why are most sermons about 20 minutes? and where do you go when you get upset? Twenty minute is about the amount of time remaining in a 30 minutes television show after the time devoted to advertising is subtracted out. If you go shopping when you are upset, then consider what your grandmother might have done—50 years ago it was common to go to a chapel and pray on stressful occasions.[2]  Today, if someone wanted to pray in a chapel, the door would likely be locked.

These changes did not happen overnight and they were not accidental.

In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks talks about the contribution of dark art of marketing to cultural changes that we have seen. Borrowing from the work of Joseph Campbell, Sacks describes the purpose of myth is to help us grow up because we yearn for maturation (85). But mature adults (self-responsible, free agents) threaten marketers who typically prefer us to remain adolescents where we suspended in an immature state dwelling on emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity. In this immature state, we are meant to feel inadequate and incomplete where consumption of product X, Y, Z can presumably make us complete again (86).

Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark.

Sacks writes:

“all story-based marketing campaigns contain an underlying moral of the story and supply a ritual that is suggested to react to that moral.” (89)

Inadequacy marketing accordingly has two basic steps. In step 1, the moral always begins with “You are not…and plays off of at least one negative emotion: greed…fear…lust.” (89) The purpose in step 1 is to create anxiety (93). In step 2, the ritual proposed is implicitly or explicitly to shop and buy a particular product—pictured as a magical experience.

One of the classic success stories of inadequacy marketing is the Listerine (an early mouth wash) ad campaign. In 1922, Listerine was sold as a “good surgical antiseptic” (91). Sales were pretty minimal. This ad campaign introduced a young woman, “Sad Edna”, who lacked attention, sex appeal, and was basically inadequate for reasons that no one would tell her—she had halitosis (bad breath) which was ruining her social life (the moral of the story; 142). That is, until she discovered Listerine (the magical solution). In this case, the Sad Edna campaign both raised the fear of inadequacy and successfully introduced Listerine as the hero of the story.

Sacks sees inadequacy marketing as pervasive and destructive because drives us to pursue culturally and environmentally destructive consumption. In place of inadequacy marketing, Sacks offers “empowerment advertising” which follows John Powers’ three basic principles (1875):  (1) Be interesting, (2) Tell the truth, and (3) Live the truth (or change so you can; 103-107). An example of an ad by John Powers for neckties read: “not as good as they look, but they’re good enough—25 cents.” The campaign was an instant success, in part, because people found an honest ad refreshing and the ties available sold promptly (105).

Sacks devotes the remainder of his book to outlying how to use empowerment advertising.

Two basic ingredients of empowerment advertising are Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. Before I close, let me define what he means.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” starts with the proposition that people desire to obtain self-actualization as a life goal, this goal may not be obtained until more basic needs are met. Thus, he posits a pyramid of needs with the most basic needs at the bottom (physiological needs) and self-actualization at the top. Sacks pictures the five categories: physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization (ordered from bottom to top; 130).  While inadequacy marketing focuses on the bottom of the pyramid, empowerment marketing focuses on the top.

Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” outlines the basic plot of many successful stories and films in a repeating circle: 1. The ordinary world, 2. A call to adventure, 3. Refusing the call, 4. Meeting a mentor, 5. Crossing the threshold, 6. Tests, allies, and Enemies, 7. Approaching the dragon’s den, 8. The ordeal, 9. Seizing the treasure, 10. The journey home, 11. Resurrection, 12. Return with the Treasure (148). While the hero’s journey may seem long and drawn out, numerous famous films follows this formula. For example, films that follow the hero’s journey include: Star Wars (1977), The Patriot (2000), and World War Z (2013).  So does the biblical story of Moses.

The hero’s journey is interesting in empowerment marketing because in order to succeed the hero has to grow at least enough to complete the journey—a type of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Sacks, the hero in question is a “brand hero” who exemplifies your firm’s ideal customer and who is not, as in inadequacy marketing, a product. This brand hero is not a helpless consumer, but a mature and contributing citizen (149-150). The brand hero in the case of Apple, for example, is a creative employee who breaks out of the usual mold and may buy a Mac, but the Mac is not portrayed as a “magical solution”.

 Jonah Sacks’ book, Winning the Story Wars, is a great read and a helpful guide to understanding our recent culture wars as played out in film, online, and in our political campaigns. I read this book to improve my writing skills, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what “all the shouting is about” in our society today.

Reference

Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] http://WinningTheStoryWars.com. @JonahSachs. http://DrewBeam.com. @DrewBeam. @HarvardBiz.

[2] In Hispanic films, people still consult a priest and/or visit a chapel to pray, but not in English language films. The last example of a chapel visit in film that I remember was in the film Home Alone (1990) starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern.

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the online world that surrounds us, we are bombarded with messages from morning to night: email, spam, pop-ups, video, print media, text-ads, robo-calls, and even old-fashioned, telephone solicitors. Because messages bombard us from morning to night, only the most sophisticated ads get and hold our attention. At the heart of these winning ads is usually a mythical story.

Introduction

Against this backdrop, in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks writes:

“We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths, and we are now trying to find new ones—we’re people and that’s what people without myths do.

These myths will shape our future, how we live, what we do, and what we buy. They will touch all of us. But not all of us get to write them. Those that do have tremendous power.” (6)

Among those competing to gain this power through telling such stories are authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Because it is not clear whose stories will dominate our attention (17), the recent election is a reminder that a lot is at stake.

In this environment of competing myth-making, oral tradition has become increasingly important because social media facilitates immediate feedback between story tellers and their audience, reminiscent of a time when story tellers gathered with their audiences primarily around a campfire. Because “all wars are story wars” (29), Sacks sees story telling as critical, not only to marketers who can either lift us up or tear us down, but also to citizens who may find themselves manipulated into fighting real wars.

Jonah Sacks

So who is Jonah Sacks? Sack describes himself as a: “story expert, filmmaker and entrepreneur”. His back cover and website includes this description:

“As the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of major brands and causes break through the media din with unforgettable [ad] campaigns. His work on legendary viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff series have brought key social issues to the attention of more than 65 million people online. A constant innovator, his studio’s websites and stories have taken top honors three times at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”

Organization

Sacks divides his book into two parts and eight chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue:

Part One: The Broken World of Storytelling

  1. The Story Wars are All Around Us
  2. The Five Deadly Sins
  3. The Myth Gap
  4. Marketing’s Dark Art

Part Two: Shaping the Future

  1. Tell the Truth, Part I: The Art of Empowerment Marketing
  2. Tell the Truth, Part II: The Hero’s Journey
  3. Be Interesting: Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars
  4. Live the Truth. (vii)

The Five Deadly Sins

Once you buy into the idea that stories matter and matter a lot, Sacks starts by instructing us on what not to do—the five deadly sins—which are vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry (35). Vanity arises as an early problem because “when you love what you’re selling” … “you assume everyone else will too” (36).  Sacks uses an unforgettable example when he compares the acceptance speeches of John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004—Kerry talks mostly about John Kerry, while Bush talks about what “we” can do (37-38). The contrast could not be greater. The other four sins are equally hard to avoid and quick to kill the credibility of a story.

Understanding Myth

Sacks repeatedly returns to myth as an important component in story telling. He describes myth as neither true not false, but existing in a separate reality (59). He attributes three ingredients in myth: symbolic thinking, having three elements tied together—story, explanation, and meaning, and ritual (59-61). For example, in Genesis Sacks sees creation as a myth with these three elements:

“STORY:               God created the world in seven days and gave man dominion over it.

EXPLANATION: This is how everything we see around us came into existence.

MEANING:          So God deserves our gratitude and obedience.” (60)

An important observation drives much of Sacks’ own storyline:

“a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” (61)

Effect of Rationalism

In our “rationalist modern society” (62) where people refuse to think symbolically, the myth gap zaps meaning and leaves people in an intractable state of hopelessness. “Forward-thinking religious leaders, scientists, and entertainers” who attempt to “reunify story, explanation, and meaning in their work” are quickly pushed out of the mainstream (63). Thus, the myth gap remains and people suffer.

Jonah Sacks’ book “Winning the Story Wars” is a non-fiction, page turner. The hugely fascinating illustrations are by Drew Beam. [2] In part 2 of this review, I will examine in more depth Sacks’ exploration of modern advertising and why we care.

Footnotes

[1] http://WinningTheStoryWars.com. @JonahSachs.

[2] http://DrewBeam.com. @DrewBeam.

Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

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The Art of Reading

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
(Luke 2:46-47)

The Art of Reading

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During summer vacations in grade school, my dad sponsored reading contests. My sister, Diane, and I kept records of all the things that we read during the summer and at the end of the summer we earned some sort of prize for having read the most. I have long forgotten the prizes that we earned, but I loved reading the Hardy Boy and the Lone Ranger series and frequent trips to the library and local used book stores where such books could often be purchased for something like a quarter. Long after our summer reading contests were forgotten, I found it natural to explore new reading topics during the long summer school breaks.

In the fall of 1971 at Parkdale Senior High School, I was invited to take an honors history course with Mrs. C. Signing up for this class was a big deal because we earned college credit and attended seminars at the University of Maryland. Actually, I only remember a single seminar on a Saturday at the university and a huge reading list for the class. I struggled to complete the reading and to write the paper that we were assigned. Friends of mine skipped the readings and made up fanciful book titles to justify imaginative conclusions to their papers. It was an open joke throughout the class, but Mrs. C. never called them on it. The whole affair offended my sensitivities and I was proud to have completed the readings, but when Mrs. C. gave me a B for the class, I complained exposing the cheaters for making light of the class. She never said anything, but changed my grade to an A.

My experience with history did not sour me on reading.

I did not always understand what I was reading, but I found reading useful on two levels, as I learned in my college experience with economic history. On the surface level, was reading for content picking out the facts and the dates, as in reading history only as a narrative or chronology. On a deeper level, however, was to read paying attention to how the author argued his case. The case could be argued in terms of historical observations with hypotheses proven, presumably, by the number of observations explained by the hypothesis.

I learned to solve the problem of not understanding a particular author by reading more than one author in a field. A particular field, like history or psychology, started to make sense after reading a half-dozen books in the field; reading a dozen books generally made one a regular expert, even in tougher fields like learning a new computer language—as I learned later in my career. Writing book reviews throughout my career has sped up the process by forcing one to study the author’s method of argumentation, even when it might not be obvious on the first pass. Of course, authors having little or no obvious structure to their thought—chapters thrown together in kind of like a verbal collage—were also exposed at this point.

None of this was obvious in grade school when I started writing. I read because I loved reading and learning new things. Things that helped make my world more interesting; things that gave me something to talk about; things that replaced maybe the emptiness of life in the slow lane. When I read and wrote myself out, life simply made more sense. And I like it that way.

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Franklin: Writes Structured True Stories

Franklin_review_08212015Jon Franklin. 1994. Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.  New York: Penguin Books (Plume Book).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up reading Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine, I love a good, real-life story. But as I remember it, even fiction once focused on ordinary life lived extra-ordinarily. The newer idea that fiction would be structured in the manner of an Indiana Jones movie—jumping from one action scene to another—still bothers my sensitivities. Perhaps, this new fictional form reflects a new reality—a life lived with less time, more routine, and impatience throughout.

In his book, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin likewise reminisces about the move away from short story publication with a slightly different focus. Traditionally, these short stories offered aspiring fiction writers an entry point for learning their craft. Back then, young writers could easily write and sell short stories. Today, the non-fiction narrative (NFN) provides a new entry point. Consequently, Franklin views NFN as “a profoundly important event in the history of modern literature.” (27)

According to Franklin, the NFN “combines the appeal, the excitement, and reading ease of fiction with the specific information content of nonfiction.” (26) The NFN likewise adopts the structure of a short story with a complication, development, and a resolution and marked throughout by twists and complications (21-22).

Jon Franklin is a professional writer and has taught both writing and journalism.  He has written a number of books. He received two Pulitzer prizes for his non-fiction writing while working as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun[1]. In Writing for Story, Franklin writes in 10 chapters:

  1. The New School for Writers.
  2. Kelly’s Monster.
  3. The Ballad of Old Man Peters.
  4. Stalking the True Short Story.
  5. Structure.
  6. The Outline.
  7. Structuring the Rough.
  8. Contemplating the Structure.
  9. Polishing.
  10. The Nature of Art and Artists (xiii).

 Acknowledgments and a preface precede these chapters.

Appendices at the end of the book outline NFN stories featured in Chapters 2 and 3. The two short stories—Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Ballad of Old Man Peters

illustrate Franklin’s writing points in the chapters that follow.  Mrs. Kelly’s Monster earned Franklin his first Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1979.

Franklin defines a story with these words:

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (71)

The need for a “sympathetic character” explains why, for example, one sees very few economists starring in television dramas—almost no one considers a brainiac researcher a sympathetic character[2]. Franklin observes that:

“Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death, and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.” (75).

Here is a second reason why economists do not normally appear in television dramas:  the complications they face and solve are typically abstract and not basic, not matters of life or death. When the government shuts down, economists are not typically among the essential personnel required to work the night shift.  By contrast, medical personnel, police, fire fighters, and military personnel are considered essential and often appear in television dramas.

Franklin’s final point is about the resolution of the story:

“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication…A resolution, like a complication, can be either physical or psychological, external or internal… A resolution, by definition, destroys tension.” (76-77)

Resolutions are helpful to authors because while complications can exist without a resolution, every resolution has a complication. News stories are often endings without complications and may soon be forgotten.  Resolutions with interesting complications involving sympathetic characters are priceless.  Franklin’s advice?  “Never fixate on just one part of a story.” (78-79)

Franklin offers insight into the perianal question:  does a story have to have a happy ending?  He opines: “successful stories generally have happy endings…[because] the reader’s world has a surplus of sad endings…What the reader really wants is to be show some insightful choices that have positive results.” In a practical sense, sad endings are harder to write successfully so young writers should be wary of them (80-82).

It is hard to capture all the good advice that Franklin offers in a short review. A key takeaway is this—outline the structure of the story and pay attention to transitions that are labored. The problem may be in the underlying structure, not the polish of the writing. Another is to start with the climax, not the opening. Foreshadowing leads to the climax so starting the climax helps clarify what to foreshadow.  A further point is to show emotion, don’t just talk about it.

Jon Franklin‘s Writing for Story is a helpful book for authors which bears reading and re-reading. Even though I write primarily non-fiction, I still write a lot of stories and tell a lot of stories when I preach. Knowing the rules for story writing makes me a better writer. It may help you too.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Franklin. http://JonFranklin.com.

[2] In fact, The Brainiac is the name of a cartoon villain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainiac_(comics)).

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Lowry Preaches Plot; Reveals Gospel

Plot_12122013Eugene L. Lowry. 2001. The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Orig pub 1980). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In Greek, John’s Gospel begins: Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1 BNT). The English translation reads: in the beginning was the word. By contrast, Spanish follows the Vulgate and translates λόγος, not as a noun, but as a verb: in the beginning was the verb. This translation is generally interesting because Hebrew is a verb-based language which makes it easier to tell a story.  It is specifically interesting because Jerome observes John’s choice of Εν ἀρχῇ mirrors Genesis 1:1 reminding his reader of the creation account.  Creative work requires creative words–action verbs, not passive nouns.

In The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry likewise sees a sermon as a narrative event rather than as a content transmittal (12, 90-91). The narrative event discovers content and meaning rather than merely reporting it. Lowry explains: the sermon is a bridging event in time, moving from itch to scratch, from issue to answer, from conflict to resolution, from ambiguity to closure born of the gospel (118).  Motion, not information, drives the sermon.

For Lowry, the sermon does not so much tell a story as adopt a narrative structure. He outlines this structure in five moves: (1) upsetting the equilibrium, (2) analyzing the discrepancy, (3) disclosing the clue to resolution, (4) experiencing the gospel, and (5) anticipating the consequences (26). Lowry’s craft is displayed in how well he unpacks these five moves.

In the first move of the sermon, for example, the preacher upsets the equilibrium by introducing dramatic tension, conflict, or ambiguity. Lowry’s illustrates this move with the dilemma presented in the film High Noon (1952). In the film, tension arises as the marshal has promised his pacifist fiancée to retire only to discover that a band of desperados just released from prison have vowed to take revenge on his town.  Here is the dilemma:  if the marshal retires with his fiancée, he is a coward; if he stays, he breaks his promise (57).  The backstory on the film is that only a decade earlier a pacifist America had sat on the sidelines in the early stages of World War II.  Just like the film helped Americans relive their dilemma, Lowry’s sermon strives to help the congregation feel the tension.

Eugene Lowry is the William K. McEvaney Emeritus Professor of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology of Kansas City. This printing commemorates the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Homiletical Plot. The forward is written by Fred Craddock, another well-known homiletics professor and author. The book itself divides into three sections—the sermon as narrative, the stages of the homiletical plot, and other considerations. These sections are preceded by an introduction and followed by an afterword which reflects on how things might have changed over preceding 20 years.

Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot is a short book and a good read. Why is an average Christian interested in reading a preaching (homiletics) text?  Because the Word of God is meant to be read out loud, the gospel itself lies within the ambiguity and tension of the narrative event.  That makes homiletics a key to biblical interpretation. Consequently, Lowry’s book is more than just another preaching text and is worthy of careful reading.

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A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story

A Few Good Stories

 

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