Thursday, February 17, 2011


This world.

Culture. Language. Stories.

We create it, and it in turn creates us.

Someone took the time to record the story of the man under the Bodhi tree.

Another man retreated to a cave near Mecca to await revelation, and the story ended up in a book.

Despite countless men dying cruelly on the Roman cross, the story of one such death is recorded in four well-distributed accounts.

And these stories have shaped cultures, changed lives, influenced decisions, created peoples.

A few weeks ago, I asked if it weren't time to start telling new stories. I believe it is, even as we continue to reckon with these old stories.

Because the stories we receive and the stories we tell shape the world around us, shape us. I grew up hearing stories of Jesus and it has shaped me, for good and ill, out of obedience and rebellion, and I do not know who I would be if I had grown up hearing stories of Muhammad or Siddhartha. The way the stories of Jesus were told to me, the language in which they were told, the context within which I heard them---all of these have unique impact on me. Hearing Lutheran Sunday school lessons in central Texas via the English language is undoubtedly different from hear the stories in Coptic, in an Egyptian desert. In either place, the community around me would have also been shaped by the stories as well, shaped by the storytelling style (colorful leaflets or oral tradtion?), language, human history.

These things are on my mind, cross my mind regularly. American Christianity lives in a tension of trying to engage the larger, commercial, capitalist culture and trying to set itself apart from it. Immersion or separation. Sometimes it's both. We immerse ourselves in the capitalist culture by setting up Christian shops and we separate ourselves from the mass media culture by setting up Christian shops. It's all a bit of a mess, and it's hard to tell where we really are in this world.

St. Paul would have us know that we are in the world but not of it. We are bound by, bound in the culture within which we find ourselves. It's as simple as trying to have a conversation with a teenager without knowing who Justin Bieber is or missing a reference because you don't recognize the name of a Super Bowl quarterback. To engage the world(s) that knows these things, we have to know something of them, too. We are in the world, a world we create with these cultural touchstones, and to engage that culture we need a passing knowledge of them.

But we need more imagination. I recently read this blog post and generally agree with what its author is saying, but I think there is one more step to it. The way the author writes about our failure of imagination is still a reaction to the culture. It's not leading the culture.

How do we lead the culture with our stories? How do we engage the world we're in without becoming of it?

I write stories and those stories are very much shaped by having grown up hearing stories about Jesus. Still, I acknowledge I'm writing in a tradition that is very much a part of the cultural tradition I've received---the literary short story. Is working within that tradition capitulating to the culture being of that world instead of merely in it? If I write a play (and that's distinct possibility), how do I exercise an imagination that it not of this world, but can still engage it?

Are these even important questions?

Stories explain the world and shape it at the same time. I think what I'm circling in on here is that I believe art-making can be a means for engaging the world, the larger culture, but if we are too quick to co-opt the world (as in, say, sales goals), will we be recognizable as being anything else but part of that culture?

I'm not sure I'm quite getting at what I'm trying to say.

So I'll close, echoing how I started.

We create culture, art, stories. The culture, art, and stories in turn create us.

Is it possible to get ahead of that cycle so that what we create creates a new creation?

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