Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Deal with Stories

So I was eating at Taco Bell the other day with a member of the AFB (Avid Fan Base).  All right, all right, you got me.  There is no AFB outside of the stories I tell about the AFB.  Well, this is one of those stories about the AFB.  Anyway, while I'm starting to munch on my delicious gordita that came with my $2 Meal Deal, the AFB asks me a question.  And, for simplicity's sake, I'm just going to refer to this one particular member of the imaginary AFB as a personification of the entire AFB.  Wait, how is that simple?'re interrupting the story.

"What's your deal with Morrison?" he asks me.

I don't quite get what he means and reply as such.  So he clarifies that he means Grant Morrison.  This really doesn't clarify anything, since I assumed that was the Morrison he was talking about.  There are other Morrisons out there.  I know this.  I know some.  But it would be rather weird if the AFB started randomly asking about them.  At least it would seem random to me.

"You write about Grant Morrison a lot.  And quote him.  But what does he have to do with theology?"

Oh.  Well that I can try to answer.  See, I know Morrison, or the God of All Comics, as some people call him (seriously), can be a very polarizing figure in comics.  Lots of people absolutely love his work.  Lots of people absolutely hate his work.  I admit that I was not too keen on my first exposures to Morrison's writing.  But it grew on me and I began to learn how to read his work better.  And then there's that whole deal about his notoriety for practicing magic ("real" magic, not just waving a bit of wood around and yelling out fake Latin phrases you memorized from Harry Potter.  Don't deny it.  I know you do it as often as I pretend my TV remote is a lightsaber as I make "vvvsshhh...vvvmmm...vvvvmmm...vshk! vvvvmmmm" noises.  Which is a lot.) and his experimentation with drugs and incorporating those experiences into his comics.

But the thing is, what I really see in his work and in his quotes from various interviews is that the dude just flat out loves stories.  He loves hearing them, telling them, and just tapping into that world which we creatively make up.  And I especially love when that crops up in his meta fiction work, such as Animal Man and, presumably, The Invisibles (I haven't gotten to that yet).  So, to answer your question, faithful AFB, my deal with Morrison is that he loves stories.  And I love stories, too.

The AFB looks up from putting hot sauce on his 99 cent chicken flatbread sandwich and asks, "Okay, but what do stories have to do with theology?"

Again, I don't get the question.  This actually happens often in my life.  Sometimes people will say the clearest, most obvious things to me and I just don't understand.  It's like my mind can't register their words and I find myself incapable of grasping the concept they are trying to relate to me.  Usually I just politely nod in agreement.  That rarely works.

But for the cherished AFB, I try to understand.  So I ask him to repeat his inquiry.

"What do stories have to do with theology?"

I ponder this for a minute and make a connection.  I tell him that's like asking what language has to do with theology.

"Okay," he persists, "what does language have to do with theology?"

And here I chuckle.  I point out that language has the same thing to do with theology that stories do.

"What is that?"


My deal, as it were, with Morrison is the same deal I have with The Unwritten.  They both tackle stories, the nature of stories, and the power of stories in new, interesting, and evocative ways.  Morrison plays with the ideas of his stories becoming real and reflecting his life experiences.  Mike Carey and Peter Gross address how stories have already shaped our world, how our world shapes our stories, and how the definition of "real" doesn't always stay on one side or the other.

I think this exploration of stories is pertinent to theology because so much of our theology comes from stories.

Yes, in the New Testament we get much theology from the Epistles, but the Gospels set up the basic framework of our theology about Jesus.  And even though there are many sermons recounted in the Gospels, they are set within a narrative.  Plus, not only does what we mostly know about Jesus come from the Gospel stories, but Jesus relied heavily on stories when he taught.  Today, some of the easiest lessons for us to recall from Jesus are his parables.  The Good Samaritan.  The Prodigal Son.  They teach us how to live and, more importantly, how to love.

Stories are wonderful tools for teaching theological issues.  Really, they're good for teaching any issues.  Why is this?  I think largely because stories are easy to remember.  Especially a good one.  There is something about us that is inherently attracted to and affected by narratives.  In his book Reading is Believing, David S. Cunningham says that a story requires the reader to engage in the story and assume the role of a character.  “They therefore encourage us to acknowledge the full humanity of others: their joys and sorrows, their hopes and aspirations,” he says.  In this way, the story doesn't just happen to the characters within it, but to us as well.  The story becomes our story.

I was going to use this as a daily Wednesday Theology quote, but I'll use it here.  Issue #8 of The Unwritten states: "When a book is read, an irrevocable thing happens--a murder, followed by an imposture. The story in the mind murders the story on the page, and takes its place."  I like that.  A lot.  I'll still probably use it as a daily quote.  Maybe multiple times.

In some cases this is obvious and even used intentionally.  One of the original reasons for the creation of Robin, Batman's young sidekick, was to give young readers a character their age to identify with.  It wasn't just Batman and Robin fighting crime.  It was Batman and the reader fighting crime.  It was through Robin that a boy could envision himself as the Caped Crusader's partner in crime fighting.  Or, in Unwritten terms, the boy murders Robin and takes his place.

Reading a story and assuming the role of a character in that story can affect us deeply and emotionally.  That sensation helps us retain the story and the lessons learned from that story.  A story is far easier to remember than a lecture.  Jesus apparently knew this when it came to his parables.  The Gospel writers apparently knew this when it came to chronicling and spreading the message of Jesus.  They did not write down long treatises examining the meaning of Jesus' teachings.  They wrote down the story of Jesus.  The story is the good news.  The good news is the story.

And look how infectious a story can become.  I've said this before and I'll probably say it many times in the future.  Look around at how much that story has influenced and shaped our culture, society, and history of the past 2000 years.  You know how to change the world?  It's not by electing a certain official, or passing a law, or starting a war.  The single most important thing someone can do to change the world is to tell a good story.

Our theology about Jesus relies heavily on the stories we have about Jesus.  So, yes, I find that someone who talks about stories and the nature of stories can be very relevant to theology.

"Wow," says the AFB.  "You just went from talking about Jesus to discussing Batman and Robin to back to Jesus without missing a beat."

He acts as though this would be unusual for someone to do.  I don't understand.

"Okay, I guess I can see how stories could relate to theology.  But you said language also has everything to do with theology."

We try to nail down complex theological issues by using precise language.  But language is always in flux and changing and ultimately imprecise.  So our theological language is always changing as well, looking for better ways to discuss these complex issues.  And, well, graphic literature offers a unique way to look at language and graphically represent text in ways that, thus far, theological discourse has rarely tried to utilize.  Look, it basically makes up Chapter Two of my thesis, so if I get started on language we're going to be here all day.

Now shut up and eat your taco.

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