2 – A Story about the Story
“So he told them this parable.”
Before we explore the story that Luke tells, let me tell you another story. It is a story about that story. It is the story of Fydor Dostoyevsky, as retold by F. W. Boreham.[i] Dostoyevsky stands as the greatest of all Russian storytellers. His books include Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. When he died in 1881, forty thousand people attended his funeral. The common people heard this story-teller gladly.
His life is a story of its own. As a young child he had read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. They had stirred his soul, and as a result he embarked on his own calling to become a teller of tales that transform life. But some of his stories were not welcomed by the Czar, and at 28 years of age he was arrested. Thirty-three men along with him were tried on charges of sedition. The trial was a mockery. The sentence was rendered calling for their immediate execution.
On that bitter cold morning they were led to the execution wall. Each man was stripped naked and a burial shroud was placed over each one. While they stood there awaiting execution, the burial service of the Russian Orthodox Church was slowly read to them. Facing them were a row of soldiers with their guns raised. A pile of hastily made wooden coffins was stacked off to one side, ready to receive the bodies.
But in that grim atmosphere someone started giggling, then there was the sound of chuckling, and finally the entire company of soldiers broke out in laughter. The execution was called off. It had all been a terrible joke. Several of the condemned lost their sanity in those moments. The sentence was changed to 10 years of exile in Siberia. Dostoyevsky survived that terrible trial, but was forever affected by that grim experience.
On Christmas Eve, 1849 he began that fearful journey from which few ever returned. But as he disembarked from the train at that lonely destination, two women approached him. They slipped something into his hand, whispered for him to search it carefully, then hurried on by. When the guard’s back was turned he looked at it, and found it to be a copy of the New Testament. He opened it to find a twenty-five-ruble note enclosed. The money was a wonderful gift, but it was that slim volume that would keep him alive.
For the next ten years he pondered every word, memorized much of it, poured over it and filled every crevice of his mind with it. Dostoyevsky never surrendered that testament. Until the end of his life it was his constant companion. After his release he returned to his vocation as a story teller, and became the greatest of all Russian writers. And the pages of his novels shine with the truths from that Testament that saved his sanity and gave his life purpose.
But there was one story in that New Testament that moved him as no other did. He wandered among his fellow prisoners telling the stories found in the New Testament, but ever and again he returned to that one story that never lost its grip on him. It was a story that had brought him to God. It was the story that had offered him a future. It was the lens through which he would see life for the rest of his life.
What was the story that moved him so profoundly? Listen to the events of the last day of his life. It is February 12, 1881. He is dying. His daughter writes the story of that day. He asked his two young daughters to let him hold their hands. Then he asked his wife to read to him the parable of the Lost Son. He listened with his eyes closed, absorbed once more in that story. “My children” he said, “My children, never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon…. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit some dreadful crime, never despair of God…. Implore his pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance as the father rejoiced over that of the Prodigal Son.” A few moments later he was gone to meet the waiting Father.
If we had asked his opinion, he would have told us that the story of The Prodigal is the best short story that had ever been told.
That was the opinion of Charles Dickens, the great British novelist, who named this story the finest piece in all literature. The artists of the world along with the poets and songwriters have chosen this story to give expression to some of their finest work.
Some of the church’s best theologians have chosen this story as the very heart of the Old and New Testament narrative. This account, they say, is the clearest rendition of redemption that the Bible holds. It is the gospel in capsule form. It is the whole of scripture brought to a bright focus through a magnifying glass. It has been called the distillation of the Gospel of Luke in one brief story. It is a story well worth our exploration.
And so throughout the following pages we shall rotate the kaleidoscope over and over again, and view the many facets of this diamond-like story from various perspectives. As we do I believe that God can nourish faith and joy in our lives through it.
Many have made note of the preponderance of story telling in the Scriptures. Those that count words, say that 40% of the Old Testament is narrative in form. Even the Book of the Law, the Pentateuch, contains few laws and instead is dominated by story telling. Over half of the New Testament is story telling in its form. But if the whole truth were told, even the parts of both testaments that are not narrative in form, can only be well understood if we know the surrounding story behind every prophesy or epistle or the apocalypse. The Scripture is one great story told, in two halves, using varied styles.
It looks like story telling is one of God’s favorite ways of telling us the truth. It is also one of humanity’s favorite pastimes, from humanity’s earliest days around the camp-fires, where stories were swapped, where the memories of ancestors were kept alive, where stories of courage and wisdom served as models for the young, all the way to our multi-channel Satellite TV’s that ensure a plethora of stories will always be accessible, 24/7. A story well told fascinates us all. And God has chosen to speak through the telling of His story where it blends with ours.
So why would the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments be so dominated by story. Perhaps for the same reason that much of the Old Testament is also dominated by poetry. The word-counters remind us that from one third to one half of the Old Testament is written in poetic verse. The songwriters, the teachers of wisdom, and the prophets of Israel spoke and wrote in poetic forms to communicate to their varied audiences.
Why this deployment of story & song to reveal the mind and heart of God? Many reasons are suggested, all containing an element of truth, but one reason is predominant.
Marshall McLuhan is right, “the medium is the message.” Israel’s teachers understood that form and content, truth and beauty must accompany and affect each other, for we worship God, not primarily from our minds, or from our emotions, or from our wills. We worship God from the imagination, which is the imaging part of our nature. Story and poetry are aimed not only for the rational, the emotional, or the volitional. These are actually secondary ways of knowing. Story aims first for the imagination, the seat of all devotion, affection and motivation. It aims its message at the place where faith and hope and love are kindled first
So where is the debate? In the clashes between Modernism, with its long fascination with reason, and Post-modernism with its current fascination with story, I think the Scriptures would tilt us towards post-modern ways of story-listening and story-telling as the church’s best approach to conversations with the culture in which we find ourselves. Stories may disarm us, since they are not arguments aimed at logical consistency. They slip quickly by the defenses as truths in disguise.[ii]
[i] F. W. Boreham, The Prodigal, (London: Epworth Press, 1941), pp. 85-95.
[ii] For further explorations into story-listening & story-telling, the writings of some recent Narrative Theologians may prove useful. Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978 & 1987) and Stanley Hauerwas, “The Testament of Friends”, Christian Century, 107/7 (February 28, 1990).