If You Listen Carefully, at the End You’ll Be Somebody Else

My grandmother is a storyteller. She has long, curly, red hair and flowers on her jeans. She looks at you like she knows a secret, and she does. If you think you’re too old to sit down and listen to a story from a woman with curly red hair and paint on her shoes, you are taking yourself too seriously. If you believe fairytales are a silly notion that you must abandon in order to become a well-adjusted adult, you are going to make a terrible adult, stunted in imagination and courage.

This is the secret my grandmother knows: there is much more to life than fact. Fairytales can teach us how to be brave in a way that no checklist can. Fictional stories are not a distraction from reality; they are a guide for how to function in our reality. Both the fairytale and our reality are full of pain, fear, and mystery. In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the merit of the fairytale, saying, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon…it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

When was the last time you heard about anyone defeating a dragon?  They still exist as they did in your imagination when you were young, but they look different now. They look like racism, exploitation, poverty, human trafficking, mental illness, sexism. The fact that there is, for example, no guaranteed solace for individuals living with severe schizophrenia or no final solution in sight to abolish child sex slavery proves to me that this world is much more insane than anything I’ve read in a book. And if you think these aren’t the dragons you personally are faced with, you are wrong.  Fairytales teach us that dragons that plague a land are the responsibility of all who inhabit the land. These dragons are to be defeated, not ignored or tolerated. The heroes we read about in stories aren’t just fighting personal dragons; they’re fighting dragons that are terrorizing their kingdom. Our favorite heroes—Bilbo, Frodo, Harry, Hermione, The Pevensies—all come to a point where they have to decide whether to stay in their safe part of the world or to pick up a sword or a wand and respond to the evil they see. Regardless of how these heroes feel, the realization comes that their “safe part of the world” won’t remain safe much longer if they stay. The real heroes know a person can never truly ignore evil. If he or she does, it will only grow.

Fairytales don’t just teach us that we cannot ignore evil, they also show us what slaying a dragon looks like. Slaying dragons is hard. The hero must make a decision that she or he will continue to fight evil each day, even in the mundane or hopeless times. Maybe in our lifetime we will not slay the dragons of poverty or human trafficking, because slaying those dragons might take longer than a lifetime. Maybe defeating evil systems looks like the tiny task of waking up in the morning and deciding to respond to the existence of evil on this earth with something other than despair, bitterness, or complacency. We can wake up in the morning and love the world all over again by partaking in a quiet, consistent faithfulness and hope. Maybe heroism can simply be to love as best we can and hope as best we can, following the Spirit as He makes us aware of the dragons that are in our world and how to respond to them.

Once we find our dragons and begin our fight, fairytales give us a correct view of what victory is. It is difficult to imagine what the final victory for us as Christians will be like. We see small victories all the time: a sick man healed, a broken family restored, a human trafficking victim rehabiliated.  While we wait for the final victory wherein Christ restores all things, it is easy to forget the importance of the small tasks on this earth. As readers, we know Voldemort has to be defeated, and we can see which of Harry’s actions lead to the defeat of Voldemort. For us, it’s more difficult to know the impact of our actions. Living each day in faithfulness to God and with love for our neighbor might not seem like doing anything important at all, but it is this little, daily faithfulness that leads to the true death of the dragon. The historical St. George did not slay a literal dragon: he was martyred in Rome because he refused to renounce Christ. There must have been a thousand opportunities between his conversion and death to choose a different path, but in the face of adversity he continued to choose faithfulness. I wonder if he realized that he was truly slaying the dragon of evil in holding fast to truth until the very end.

This is why fairytales help us in a way that other stories cannot. It is easier to choose love and faithfulness when we see that doing so is a step in the process of defeating dragons. When we can’t see the entire picture of reconciliation and restoration that we as God’s children get to participate in, the fairytale lets us in on someone else’s completed story of reconciliation, and reminds us that our individual lives are part of the story that Christ will complete one day.

At the beginning of Mahabharata, one of the great (initially spoken) Sanskrit epics of ancient India, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” So I encourage you: if you want to be brave, listen. The stories will change you. The heroes will teach you, and you will be empowered with courage and a hope “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”


God the Storyteller: Why We Should Value Happy Stories

Have you ever read a poem or a story, eagerly awaiting that climactic, often tragic, moment, only to find it never comes? Most likely you thought How boring! and quickly moved on from the happy tale. There are not many of these happy stories in existence, mainly because it’s easier to write tragic stories. It’s harder to make a story interesting when it’s about a happy ordinary person, than when it’s about a troubled or sad ordinary person.

It’s like Leo Tolstoy’s opening line in his great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When people are happy, it’s usually for the same reasons – they have a great job, their family is still together and loving, they have great friends, everything is going well. But people who are unhappy, those who we write tragic stories or poems about, they are never unhappy for the same reason – and that’s what makes the story interesting.

When I was younger, I used to wish that something tragic would happen to me – a car accident or a kidnapping (always with happy endings, of course) – because I wanted my life to be more interesting. I wanted my life to be a story that other people would want to read. I had a pretty normal life growing up, so I thought that if something unusual happened, my life would be better. I was dissatisfied with living a happy, normal life, and I suspect I’m not the only one who has ever felt that way.

But what does this feeling say about our view of God?

We don’t like stories that don’t have some tragic element in them, yet God is the ultimate storyteller, and He is writing each of our lives’ stories. Each life is unique, but there are those that aren’t tragic – the ones that we think are boring. But God is deeply interested in even those boring stories. He wrote them, so how can He think they are boring? How can any of our lives be boring or dull or normal with God as the author?

Have you ever thought that you could write your life story better than God can? This is just because you do not know what coming. Think back on the past ten years of your life. Did you ever see yourself where you are today? Chances are, you didn’t, and maybe you see that as a good thing but maybe you see that as a bad thing. Either way, you could never have orchestrated your life to land you where you are today. And you can’t work out all the details and direct your life to where it will be in another ten years. You don’t see how your life relates to other people’s live or how their lives relate to yours – you don’t see the big picture. You can’t know the best way your life can play out. Only God does. And you can’t judge His writing because you don’t know the ending yet. Your favorite part in the story could still be yet to come.

So how can we trust God to write our stories in the most interesting way possible? I thank God that I haven’t experienced any major tragedies in my life, but sometimes I still feel like my life, if written down, would make a boring story. Trust is hard, especially when you feel disappointed with life. But perhaps it would be easier if we realized that all of those happy families that Tolstoy mentions are not all alike. They may be similar, but God has made each one unique in some way – and He is interested in each one. If we were more interested in the stories and poems that describe happy, normal people – if we tried to figure out what made them unique in their happiness – maybe then we would also be interested in our seemingly mundane lives. God wants us to be happy; it’s not a bad thing, yet we treat happy people as if they weren’t interesting people. God doesn’t create boring stories, and He has authored each of our lives. We should live life trusting God with that job, and we should treat other people’s lives as a manifestation of His great creativity.

The Importance of Listening: A Lesson from Derek Minor

“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation.

Or at least that is what I argued in a recent post, where I attempted to work through what it means to listen well in an age where all we really care about is listening. Some take listening to be necessarily affirmative, but that’s a narrow view of what it means to hold an honest conversation. There are times when we should be listening to those we disagree with, as an act of love. There is something personal about listening to someone tell their story: we feel affirmed in our humanity, regardless of the person’s conclusion about the merit of our lifestyles.

While I spent most of my time reminding readers that there’s a difference between listening and affirming everything you hear, we often need to be reminded that listening is itself an act of love. The Church ought to be listening to those around us, in the context of meals, friendship, or travel. There are some individual churches that are attempting to do this well, and of course some people are better at this than others, but it is rare that we spend time going above and beyond the call to listen: giving voice to those who need it most.

If there is any genre of music focused on story-telling quite like hip-hop, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps country, or certain brands of folk music, but you’d be hard pressed to find a rapper who hadn’t shared his life story on at least one song, usually early on in their career (and, at least in a few instances, multiple times throughout, as their stories shift).

One artist in particular took it upon himself to tell the stories of those he’d spoken to throughout his career. In the song Dear Mr. Christian, Derek Minor, with assistance from Dee-1 and Lecrae, writes from the perspective of his audience, targeted at himself. For those of you who aren’t usually interested in hip-hop, the video for this song actually includes the lyrics. Hopefully that will help.

The chorus expresses a sort of exasperation with attempting to tell stories to Christians:

Dear Mr. Christian, I know you’re on a mission

I know you say the answer to my problem is religion

I know I’m supposed to change the way I live and stop sinning

But I’d appreciate it if you take some time to listen

There’s a lot packed into those four lines, and the critique of Christian action is scathing. The speaker of the chorus has already heard the answers: this isn’t a problem with evangelism, in that sense. This isn’t an individual who has never heard the gospel. They understand that the gospel offers change, and even that Christianity calls us to stop sinning. But their frustration is, unfortunately, rather justified: many Christians don’t know how to listen without qualification.

We’ve bought into the cultural stance that listening is the same as affirming everything we hear. Rather than attempting to nuance what we believe to include the ability to listen without absolute affirmation, we often decide to just run away from listening.

Of course, there are two sides to the issue. Some Christians run the other way, opting instead to listen and affirm everything they hear. Stories become intrinsically helpful and holy, regardless of their content. We’re really interested in ‘messy’ stories, these days. Gone are the days of clear good and evil in films, and the music industry is starting to follow suit. We’ve seen Christians advocate for “real” stories above all else in the last few years.

In spite of some hesitations that I think are well grounded (the strongest concern is the unintentional glorification of sin), we would be do well to encourage this sort of interaction. Listening to non-Christians is important, if only because the current cultural norm is to focus on the importance of voices. But more-so: our communities are able to be even more picky than before, thanks to social media. If you aren’t even willing to listen to a story, that person will go elsewhere, and you’ll never have a chance to share the gospel.

So listen to your neighbors. Hear their struggles, have meals with them, spend time understanding who they are and what makes them tick. Maybe they’ll listen to you, as well. But the best way to make disciples in today’s day and age is to start by listening.

Listening as Cultural Currency: The Politics of Stories

“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation, it seems. We’ve come to the point where the thing we cry out for most is simply an audience. We don’t want to be silenced, and we don’t want to be ignored. If you listen to us, we are validated. We often express our frustration in similar terms: to be silenced is to be oppressed.

So my generation listens. This isn’t a negative, at all: it’s important that we listen, especially to those we either disagree with or don’t understand. If we don’t hear what others believe, after all, how could we speak to them well? We’ve seen this listening take place in a number of cultural institutions lately.

First, the Church is Listening to Young Atheists about why they left. The intention here was two-fold, it appears: listen to young atheists in order to understand them for themselves, to take them as they are; and to work towards shifting various facets of the Church itself to reach out to those who might otherwise leave. One of the key conclusions from the questions asked of these young atheists is relatively simple:

If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them.

We must listen to people in order to understand them. That seems straight-forward, but a lot of people simply don’t want to listen to anyone they disagree with, regardless of the topic or the context in which the discussion takes place.

This desire to be heard is often the front-and-foremost request within LGBTQ activist groups, at least in how they relate to the Church. (I understand that, politically, the call is usually more akin to a representation and the right to marry members of the same gender; I’m specifically speaking to groups addressing the Church). Often, the LGBTQ cause is framed in terms of silence and voices: for an organization to be fair, it has to give voice to the cause; if any group does not allow those members to speak publicly as members of that group, then they are oppressing those members.

And I think there’s a lot to this. Having someone listen to you can change everything. How often do we get frustrated when people stare at their phones, rather than engage us directly? That’s not listening. Likewise, even God takes time to listen–just look at Job. The poor guy goes through what can best be described as hell on earth, and then God actually listens to him. He lets him speak. There is a time when God’s authority and sovereignty take the front seat, but God definitely listens.

So too, does Jesus listen. We see Jesus spend time with the marginalized, and He does so in contexts where it is clear that He listened (meals together, for instance). But even as Jesus listens, he also tells people to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus could listen to someone, hear their story, feel their hardship, and at the end of genuinely listening to them was still able to say “Go and sin no more.” There’s no mistaking this: for Jesus, listening is not the same as affirming.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped believing that people–like Jesus–could listen to us and still disagree with us. The validation we feel when we are heard suddenly feels less real if people still disagree with us after hearing us out. I find that a little odd: I’m actually quite okay with someone who disagrees with me, provided they’ve given my thought a chance to be spoken. Someone who shuts you down before hearing you is far different from the person who respectfully disagrees after listening to your life story.

Mackenzie thought that the issue was really a misunderstanding of love and tolerance:

Tolerance is apathetic and passive, willing to leave things be, while love is urgent and active, seeking always the good of the beloved. Tolerance is merely the world’s straight-to-VHS rip-off of love: the picture on the cover might be similar, but the content couldn’t be more different–or more disappointing.

He’s onto something, I’ll give him that. But when it comes to listening, I think we need to draw another distinction: there’s a big difference between hearing a side and agreeing with it. It’s definitely possible to hear someone out genuinely, to actively weigh what they say, to hear their passionate beliefs and thoughts, and to still come away with a different view on some given subject, whether that’s homosexuality, abortion, atheism, or your favorite sports team.

But if listening is an act of love, then Mackenzie’s right when he says that we can love without accepting, that we can listen without affirming. For a political perspective, it’s worth checking out what my friend Matthew Lee Anderson wrote over at Mere Orthodoxy:

Like all virtues, intellectual empathy needs some sharp edges to be of much use.  For just as ‘compassion’ can become a sort of loose affection disconnected from a normative order of goods, so too the intellectual good of empathizing and understanding can be disconnected from pursuit of both people’s good of discovering and affirming what is true.

It’s easy to connect the ‘intellectual empathy’ Anderson describes with the listening that I’ve been working through here: in fact, to listen well is to seek to understand your conversation partner. One way to do that–perhaps the best way–is to temporarily suspend your own assumptions to see how coherent someone else’s noetic framework actually is. This is the reason that listening is so closely connected with validation: for a brief moment, a good listener actually tries to think like you.

If we stop at listening, we’ve failed to work toward someone’s best good. There’s a time and a place to hear stories–we as the Church probably ought to be doing more of it–but if we stop there, we’ve forgotten the rest of Jesus’ words. Jesus listened to people, he met them where they were at, and he sought to love them, but that isn’t the whole story. Jesus also instructs people against their particular sins, he asks the Father to forgive us even when do not know what we are doing, and he tells us all to go and sin no more. Even as Jesus listens, he turns around and instructs.

That’s the hardest part for millennials like myself. We’re eager to be heard, and we’re eager to listen to people tell their own stories, but we’re also quick to ignore those who speak against any of our actions. We’re big on love and grace, but small on authority and correction. We seek to step into relationships where we can demonstrate love (or at least we talk about this), but we avoid confrontation, even when that conflict might lead to a removal of sin.

As believers, we ought to listen. We ought to eat with non-believers, spend time with LGBTQ individuals, live and love all people. That love should push us further than just listening. We should love people, love discovery, and love truth.