Today’s sermon was something of a hit. Ykno, it really does boggle my mind, what people like and what they don’t. Still.
The text I preached off of was the prologue of John, which is John 1:1-18.
“Dragons, Dracula, and Darth Vader”
Storytelling is an artform. – that’s what I’ve heard. I believe it. I think the ability to craft a story – to decide at a moment’s notice, or on a fifth draft, where to begin in the tale, what pieces of information to include, or omit, or over-exaggerate, or change entirely, all to make the point clear, all to tell the story that needs to be told… and to do it well (though that is always a matter of opinion) is an art.
Artform or no, stories are all around us. If we turn on the TV, whether the channel is set to HBO, the Cartoon Network, or the Home and Garden Network, stories are being told. On HBO we see the story of an ex-cop risking everything to avenge his family. On the Cartoon Network we see a story of seven year old superheroes saving the world. On the Home and Garden Network we see the story of a lackluster yard being turned into curb-appeal central. And movies? Telling a story. Books? Stories. The news? Whether we’re getting our news on TV, radio, paper, Internet or podcast, it’s all… stories.
But professional storytellers don’t have our complete and undivided attention even in this age, because there are other stories that need to be told, other stories that we hear. There’s the stories that our friends and coworkers tell us about that thing that happened last weekend. There are the stories our parents, our sisters and brothers, and our children tell that so adequately, or humorously, or extravagantly tell about Uncle Louis falling in the lake, or the time the dog ate the entire roast chicken dinner, or how Mom and Dad first met, and these are the stories that tell of our love for one another. They bind us to one another through not just the living out of the story – because some of us were actually there and we know it happened just like that, or we know it happened actually quite differently – but in the retelling of the story. In the telling of the story, over and over and over again, even those of us who weren’t there, or hadn’t been born yet can take part in the story, draw closer to those who tell it, and even call the story our own.
And there are other stories we live out, and sometimes they don’t get told. They are the stories of our pain, our grief, our suffering. There are the stories of our miracles, too, our encounters with God that we might be so sure about, or so tentative about. And sometimes we don’t tell those stories, and we don’t tell them for lots of different reasons, I think. Sometimes, the people we would tell can’t hear, wouldn’t understand, would get offended, would make fun of us, not take us seriously, or so we honestly believe, and so those stories remain silent, sometimes for years.
Storytelling. It’s all around us, because stories are all around us. And frequently the question is, is it true, is it real, did it happen, can we believe this? Even when we know a story is technically fiction, and has in fact never occurred, one of the main difference between, say, an A movie and a B movie is its believability. Did the director tell the story right? Did the actors seem like they really were their characters, or were they just reciting lines? All the visual elements – did they make the story that much more believable, or could you tell the set was Styrofoam and bluescreen?
This holds for stories that are both non-fiction as well as fiction. Heck, this holds for stories that are, when you stop to think about it, utterly outlandish. This desire for believability holds true even when we’re talking about recreating our histories to include dragons, or telling about supernatural but reasonably contemporary horrors like Dracula, or literally out-landish stories about bad guys who get better, like Darth Vader.
We want even our fantasy stories, even our horror stories, even our science-fiction stories to be believable, to be in a sense truthful, if we know they’re not real. This begs the question, why, and that question has many answers, I’m sure. But I think that one of them is because when stories are believable, they speak to a truth in our lives.
Just like Uncle Louis falling in the lake is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) reminder that even the most perfected among us are human, a story where the hero literally vanquishes a dragon reminds us that we can overcome even a thing we fear the most. Even if we ourselves don’t walk down Delaware on any given day thinking, “Wow, I really fear dragons,” if the story is told well, it is clear to us that the people in the story fear dragons, and so if they manage to vanquish one, it’s a really big deal.
But have you ever noticed how few blockbusters end in tragedy? Some may incorporate tragedy, real or imagined, but the dragon gets it in the end, so say all the stories. Dracula does not take over the world, or even just London. And in a crazy twist of events, by the end of the story Darth Vader saves the Universe he tried to control, and is redeemed.
It’s kind of an interesting thing. Our stories tell something about us. We don’t like it when the dragon wins any more than we like it when someone seems inhumanly perfect. It feels wrong, somehow, and yet sometimes the dragon does win in our own stories, the ones we live out as a person, or a family, or a city. Or the stories we live out as a nation. Sometimes, even, we are the dragon.
So there is a sort of truth in even the most fantastic stories, if they are well told stories, and that holds, whether it is your father telling the story, or Steven Speilberg, or George Lucas, or J.R.R. Tolkien. Or, if the story is coming down through the ages, from a mostly anonymous community that followed a guy named John who had a philosophical bent and really loved God. Because sacred stories fall into this, too. In fact, maybe they’re among the most important, because such strife and such divisions have occurred when we believe or don’t believe that a certain story has merit, is true. Or maybe they’re among they rank among the most important kind of stories for an altogether different reason: Perhaps they’re important, really, because they’re talking about God. And not just talking about God, but because they are stories of people just like us living their lives rather like we are, struggling to understand God, and to live out their lives in ways they think God desires. And there are thousands of stories just in the Bible, of people trying and failing, and trying and succeeding, and trying to do just that. And did they happen, are they historical? Maybe. Some of them probably are. A bunch of them contradict each other on points of historical fact. But they all have something in common: all of the people in the stories are trying to understand God in their own time, in their own way, and sometimes that makes sense to us, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there’s great wisdom there; telling a story to make God more understandable. Telling a story to try to figure out how it is God loves you, and me so much. Telling a story to try to understand why some things are good to do, and some things are hurtful to do. Even telling a story that tries to describe how wonderful God is.
“In the beginning was the Word…” That’s how the Gospel of John starts. He’s talking about Jesus, of course, in a really obscure way, but it’s funny how language works, it’s funny the way any given storyteller chooses to tell their stories. Word – a spoken word? Because that’s how Genesis begins, the story of Genesis tells us that the world began when God spoke it into being. Or perhaps we could substitute Word for Story. In the beginning was the Story, and the Story was with God…
Jesus as the Word of God doesn’t perhaps convey as much meaning as it once did. What about Jesus as the Story of God? If God had wanted to tell a story about himself – herself – maybe that story looked like Jesus. I think that might be true. But in the same way, I don’t think that the story of God is over. I think we’re in the story of God. And all the stories are actually connected, from Uncle Louis to Darth Vader, to Jesus, to… me, to you. And if the story of God isn’t over, and we’re in it…
Oh, the possibilities.