The Idiot: How to be a Man

I always enjoy telling people that my favorite book is entitled The Idiot. It’s a fun title, one that reminds me of middle school insults. But the story is seriously incredible.

The book has a simple mission. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a letter, explains that his purpose in writing the story is “…to depict a thoroughly good man. In my opinion, there can be nothing more difficult than this, above all in our time.” Dostoyevsky wants to tell a story conveying what it would be like if a perfect man walked the Earth in 19th century Russia. His conclusion is stunning. The perfect man is the idiot.

Russland, Moskau, Basiliuskathedrale

Red Square, Russia

The book centers around Prince Myshkin, who travels to St. Petersburg to receive a sizable inheritance. He falls in love with a woman, Aglaya, while simultaneously experiencing deep feelings for another woman, Nastasya, whom he deeply desires to save from a guilt-sodden and revenge-driven life. The story revolves around these people and their surrounding circles of friends.

I first read this book about two years ago, during a season of life in which I spent a lot of time thinking about biblical masculinity. I focused on deciding what kind of man I wanted to become as I grew older. I remember The Idiot being a definitive player in this season of life, if not the definitive player. This was for one reason: Prince Myshkin, (the “Idiot”) was a complete reversal of what I thought it meant to be a man of God. Before reading the book, I hadn’t realized how much I had bought into the American perspective of masculinity‒the perspective telling me that I needed to be someone who was strong and in control, cool and collected.

dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky

But the Prince, this “thoroughly good man,” was none of these. He was socially awkward, manipulated, trodden over. He bore his emotions on his face, blushing frequently, unable to hide what he was feeling. He was, to put it in a single word, weak. And I’m convinced that he is a closer model of Christ than whatever image of perfection we have constructed in America.

Jesus Christ was the utter reversal of the Messiah that the Jews were expecting. The Jewish people expected a Messiah who would come and overthrow the Romans. But Jesus did not do this. Instead, he died on a cross. And in that crucifixion, where Christ is weak and vulnerable, we are reminded that our definition of strength is different than God’s. The pinnacle of godly strength is not running a business, providing for a family, or even fighting in the army (though these are all good things). The pinnacle of godly strength is the ability to live a life that is defined by sacrificial love for others, the ability to suffer for the glory of God and the betterment of man.

When the world sees this type of love, they call it weak. But Christ is risen, proving that it is Jesus who defines what it means to be strong, not the world. We thank Jesus that he has gone before us and set the example of how to love, worship, and be strong.

I am rereading the book now. I am challenged again to see where I have tricked myself into thinking that biblical masculinity looks more like a conquering general than a crucified savior. Perhaps biblical masculinity, and just as much biblical womanhood, is weaker, more vulnerable, and less like America’s superheroes than I might be comfortable with.

What Stories Say about Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Harvey struck Houston about a week ago. As I write, Hurricane Irma is slashing the Caribbean and moving steadily towards Florida. Perhaps it can seem insensitive to suggest that the inanimate pages of a book might have anything to do with the immense suffering that so many people are dealing with.

However, I will argue here that the opposite is true. In times of deep tragedy, stories are shown to be indispensable, because stories offer a secure and hopeful way for suffering people to feel, understand, and redeem their pain.

Stories Affirm Pain

Stories are not meant to be an escape from the world. Even when reading a good fantasy novel, one feels more engaged with life, not less. Stories offer a way for readers to dialogue with the tragic mysteries of life in full safety. We live through characters, exploring what it feels like to lose a loved one or be devastated by war, without actually having to live through the event. We live vicariously in the characters we follow.

To read a story is much like submerging into the ocean in a scuba suit, which is far different than being forced underwater without one. A good story, confined to the theater stage or the pages of the book, plunges us into an ocean of suffering to explore in safety. We can examine sickness and pain, death and depression, without having to pay the cost of truly living through such an event. We can look at life as a spectator, from the outside looking in.

A story does not ask people to forget that the world is suffering, it doesn’t ask a reader to escape this world and live with his head in the clouds. Instead, a story, by representing the world as it truly is, reminds us that every human feels pain. Whether they are heroes or villains, courageous or terrified, people in the Caribbean are human and they feel hurt. And they need help. Don’t bury your head in a book to escape the suffering of the world. Bury your head in a book to understand the suffering.

Stories Prepare us for Pain

In the introduction to one of his Ted Talks, John Green explains the phenomenon of paper towns. One town, Agloe, NY, was placed on an old map, even though it didn’t actually exist. This was intentional, as the map company could use the fake town as proof of copyright infringement (a plagiarized map would also have the fake town on it). However, decades later, it was discovered that Agloe truly did exist. People kept driving to this spot, expecting the town on the map, and eventually, someone built it. John Green relates this to the desire of a novelist, who desires that “the stuff that [they] write down on paper can change the actual world we live in…”

This is the storyteller’s hope: That imagined stories will leap off the page and change the people reading them. That a fiction story will change the nonfiction world. As a book or movie portrays a character thrown into a tragic situation and learning to survive (even thrive) in that situation, the listener learns how to deal with their own tragedies. A story functions as a training ground, where the listener asks “what would I do in this situation?” and grows into a more developed person. It is like being a student pilot, flying in a simulator so you can learn without the danger of crashing a real plane. Every time you read a book or watch a movie, you come out as a changed person, for good or for ill.

Stories Redeem Pain

Finally, a story has the incredible job of redeeming pain, of demonstrating that immense suffering can have immense value. This is the foundation for most stories: A character is forced into a painful situation that they must overcome, coming out a changed individual, better than before (or worse, if you’re reading a tragedy).

In the epic story of our lives, we often find ourselves in the middle of the story. We are still suffering, weighed down by life’s problems. Or we are at the beginning of a long uphill climb, when a problem has just surfaced and we know that it will lead to consequences that will continue for decades. This is where we are at with Hurricane Irma, in the middle of a long story, hurting.

Drowning

Suffering is real, but it is not the end of the story

Yet, there is a hope that stories remind us of. And that hope is contained in a story’s ending. There is nothing quite like finishing a book or a movie. Nothing quite like the feeling of being able to look back on an entire story and see what it was all leading towards. Of being able to see why all the events mattered.

Finishing a book reminds us that one day the history of this world will come to its end. That there will come a time when we can look back on the history of the world, seeing every victory and tragedy as God sees it: Bringing glory to himself. Every time we finish a book, a movie, a play, it should be a miniature reminder that the end is coming. And to those in Christ, this is the greatest hope for anyone undergoing suffering. Knowing that the pain will end, and knowing that your suffering is not in vain, but is for the glory of God.

Hurricane Irma

What story teaches us about Hurricane Irma:

  • Real people are suffering in ways unimaginable and indescribable. They need help, regardless of race, social class, religion, or any other distinction. Reading/watching stories of people undergoing loss can give us a small taste of the pain that many people are swallowing whole.
  • Remember, whether you are in Florida or Canada, that stories have taught you that pain can be survived, and that you can come out of suffering as a stronger person. This is not the end.
  • As finite humans, we cannot understand why God might allow this hurricane, but we can be infinitely comforted by the recognition that this suffering is not meaningless, but is mysteriously used by God for His glory. There is nothing more unbearable than meaningless suffering, and, thankfully, this is not what is occurring. The true ending of our life story, when it is held in Christ, will be magnificent.

Hurricane Irma is horrifically tragic. Still, God is in control, and we long for the day when our broken Earth can be renewed. With these truths in mind, please pray for those affected by the hurricane.

Dunkirk: We Aren’t at Home

There is something sacred about home. In every human, there is a deep longing to be in a place where you are safe, secure, and loved. To be where you belong. This produces stories like The Wizard of Oz, like The Odyssey. These stories, and many more like them, touch on that feeling of displacement, of being strangers in a world that you don’t belong in. Of being exiled, cast from the Garden of Eden and awaiting the time when you can return.

Home2

Dunkirk is a story of home. The movie recounts event of a battle in World War II, where 400,000 Allied troops are trapped on Dunkirk beach in 1940, surrounded by Nazi soldiers. Strafed by German airplanes, the soldiers await the day when England will send enough ships to rescue them from the French beach.

At one point during the movie, (also shown in the trailer) one character, Commander Bolton, speaks to his captain as they look across the English Channel.

“You can practically see it from here,” Bolton says.

“What?”

“Home.”

Dunkirk

The entire film is plagued with a feeling of despairing homesickness. To be home would mean safety, family, good food. And it’s only twenty-six miles away, right across the water. But the soldiers are trapped on the beach, awaiting near-certain doom and unable to return home. It’s a reminder of what Adam and Eve may have felt as they looked at the angels guarding Eden. So close, so far.

As the movie progresses, the story takes a dramatic shift. You learn that England is sending rescue boats, and you wonder if they will arrive in time. In one of the high points of the movie, Commander Bolton speaks to the captain once more, in a reversal of the first segment of dialogue. They look across the English Channel.

“What do you see?” The captain asks.

“Home.”

The camera pans over to show the rescue boats arriving to the beach, many of them sailed by civilians, sacrificing their safety for the lives of these soldiers. England has come.

And the catharsis, that deep experience of emotion, occurs right then. When you realize that these soldiers could never have made in back to England by themselves, could never have come home, if home had not come for them first.

Church in MaltaDo you see Jesus? As beautiful as the rescue of these soldiers is, how much more stunning is Christ’s rescue of humanity. To quote an old hymn, “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul…”

Humans were exiled when they rebelled against God. The ultimate home is being in the presence of God. But this was lost when we sinned, and, for all but two humans (Adam and Eve), humans are born in exile and die in exile. For our entire lives, we live homeless.

But Dunkirk reminds us that our home has come to rescue us. We are surrounded by evil, behind, in front, inside. To put it even more provocatively, we are the Nazis, the ones least deserving of rescue. The ones who tricked themselves into thinking that Earth was their home to be conquered.

Cross in Sunset

But Christ came, home came, to pull us from our delusions. The truest place of solace, God’s presence, is where we belong. And it sits on the other side of cross, the veil torn opened by Christ.

I’m not arguing that Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk’s director) intended for us to make these parallels. I’m arguing that when he explores the feeling of despairing exile, he is tapping into a transcendent truth: That the reason we feel homesick and defeated in life, trapped on the beach, is because we aren’t home yet.

But home came to rescue us, and Christians look forward to the day when we no longer live in exile, but can enter the land that God has promised us.

When we can return home.

 

 

I’m looking for songs that explore home/exile. Comment below with your recommendations! I like Where I Belong, by Switchfoot.
Want a story to be discussed? Submit it by using the Contact page.

Justin Martyr: Truth and Diamonds

A woman with diamond earrings spent her weekends gardening. One Saturday, she cuts her workday short because of an approaching thunderstorm. As it begins to downpour outside, she notices that an earring has disappeared. So she waits.

diamond

As soon as the rain stops, she rushes outside and begins searching back and forth through her garden, the soil having turned into a pool of mud. Finally, after a half hour, she sees a twinkle in the mud and rescues the diamond.

We must do this with stories. Stories contain these beautiful, stunning, God-glorify truths that many people completely skip over. And some of these people never even realize they are missing the earring, missing the best part of the story. Because stories, as fun as they are, are for far more than our entertainment. I submit, rather strongly, that if you aren’t looking for Christ in every story you read and watch, you miss the most valuable part. Because the crown jewel of any story is that which is attached to Jesus.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr

Christians have the responsibility of claiming this crown jewel. Justin Martyr, a second century Christian philosopher, once wrote: Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. The rest of the quotation can be found here (see chapter XIII)

His thought is profound. Some people might get a portion of the truth right. Another religion might affirm that murder is wrong, as the Bible does. But that other religion is only true insofar as it agrees with the teachings of Christ. They have taken diamonds and thrown them into a puddle of mud, but we must not forget that the diamonds are still there. And the Christian can see those gems twinkle, can separate the truth from the lie.

A Buddhist can make a movie that is beneficial and draws a person closer to Christ. So can an atheist. Because if they make a movie that shares a teaching with Christ, then they have crafted a diamond. And that truth is the property of Christians. It is the believer’s responsibility to pull the jewelry from the mud and place it back where it belongs, on the ear of the Church.  It is their responsibility to lay claim to the truth that is theirs in Christ, to allow it to push forward their walk with God.

This process will look different for different people. I can only offer my approach, and pray that this blog may challenge you to look at stories in a way you haven’t before. To watch Netflix and read New York Times Bestsellers for the glory of God. And in a sense, this is what this whole blog is about. Finding those diamonds, finding Jesus, and claiming them.

Dukirk Evac

Dunkirk survivors in England. International War Museums, Saidman

This upcoming Friday, the first stories post will come out, on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and the concept of home. This will be the first example on this blog of how we rescue the diamond for Christ.

My hope is to make this blog very comment centered. So every post will end with a question or two so as to prompt conversation. Today I am wondering your answer to this: Do you agree that a story made by an atheist can draw a Christian closer to God? What should a Christian be thinking about when reading/watching a story told by a non-Christian? Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

 

If there is a topic or story you would like addressed, please use the contact page to inform storytellingchrist.com of your recommendation. 

Great Expectations: Anticipating this Blog’s Future

I want, first, to thank Charles Dickens for the wonderful novel that is Great Expectations. Partially because it has given me such a convenient name for my first post. Thanks, Charlie.

This blog will seek to find Jesus in the world’s stories.Great Expectations It will search humanity’s novels, films, plays, even the funny little anecdotes we tell over the lunch table and in our breakrooms, for the purpose of seeing Jesus in them. Because if we grant that every story has a slice of reality in it, and if we grant that Jesus (who is the Way, the Truth, and the life) is the foundation of reality, then somewhere, however faint it may be, there is a string attached to every story that guides us to Christ. Be it Dickens’ Great Expectations, Disney’s Finding Nemo, or that story you heard today about a coworker who spilled his coffee all over his suit. More on this in my next blog post, on Justin Martyr’s provocative statement that “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.”

If you enjoy stories, if you take time to delve into the mysteries of life in conversations and musings, if you care about how the time you spend on Netflix and in your rocking chair can draw you closer to God, this blog will be for you.

And so, let us search so as to find Jesus in the world’s stories. I grant that such a mission is abstract, fluid, and perhaps even a little unclear. But I wager that it’s better that way. A blog is just as much for the writer as for the reader. I write this to develop my own thoughts on stories and Christ as much as I hope it develops yours.

So let’s consider ourselves explorers. Columbuses and Magellans and Cartiers. And before you write that off as an exaggeration that I don’t actually mean, take a moment to pause. Because I’d argue that, in actuality, discovering godly truth is more adventurous than discovering a new continent. The metaphor is an understatement. God’s truth trumps the New World, hands down.

What comes next? Two posts this first week, and then one post each Friday. Every two weeks, this post will be a musing, the first of which will come this Monday: Justin Martyr: Truth and Diamonds  

Dunkirk

The Dunkirk Evacuation. Credit: International War Museums, Puttnam & Malindine

Between the musings, there will be a stories post. The first one will be coming this Friday, looking at the movie Dunkirk and its concept of home. What it means to be exiled and homeless, and what it means to be saved and brought back to the place where you belong. Especially when salvation is achieved by home taking the initiative and coming to you, and not the other way around.

I’d be honored if you’d join me in my exploration to find Jesus in the world’s stories.