David Foster Wallace starts his famous speech This is Water by describing two young fish.
They’re happily swimming along and meet an older fish coming the other way, who nods in greeting and says:
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
By which Foster-Wallace wanted to simply point out that the largest, most obvious realities are the hardest to see and talk about. Culture is like this. We’re all inculcated in a way of doing and a way of thinking that it’s particularly hard to spot because we’ve never known anything else.
We’re formed by that culture—that water—in a myriad of ways. I’ve written before about the work of James K. A. Smith on cultural liturgies, that our cultures act like a liturgy in forming us, and the work of Charles Taylor on social imaginaries, that our setting influences what we can plausibly imagine to be true. I’ve spun both together to suggest that the stories we live shape the pattern of our thoughts. They shape what is and isn’t plausible.
When identifying some of the more negative aspects of our culture I’ve suggested that we need to engage in counter-formation, or engage in ‘reliturgy’ to push back on the dominant narratives in which we live and breath and have our being (Acts 17).
I know that isn’t what Acts is saying at all—but that’s sort of the point.
To reliturgise or engage in counter-formation is a task of reframing our stories. We are all made of stories. We need to tell stories and then inhabit and live stories that will earn richer fruit than what grows on the cultural coral reef. We need stories of good loam, well fertilised, carefully tilled and expertly farmed by pastor-storytellers.
The best way to do this is with the stories the Bible gives us. This works because these stories are true. If I have one, this is my theological project. Read the cultures’ stories well, retell the Bible’s better.
The Bible has a set of overarching stories—more than I’m about to list—that when lived deliberately reshape our lives. Here are some examples that you’ll notice overlap with all of my common themes.
Why do I think the answer to so many of our modern problems is to get around the table and share a meal?
In Genesis chapter two a table is laid for Adam and Eve with a Garden of choice fruits. A better table is laid for the bride in Revelation 21-22. A table is laid for us every week of Jesus’ body as we partake of the Supper.
But to look broader, the pattern of fasting and feasting that characterises the Christian life requires us to actually feast. To engage in enjoying the world. Israel feasted. The Early Church ate together. And, our God has laid a table for us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23).
From another angle there’s a sense in which the whole Bible is shaped like a table, moving from Altars of sacrifice in the Old Testament to Tables of gift in the New. From offering bread to drinking wine. This is the story of the Bible, so we should live it too.
Why do I think the answer to so many of our modern problems is a re-enchanting of the world around us?
The Bible is shaped like a tree. I’ve written on this in some detail before, but suffice to say that Creation is presented as a Temple rather than a Machine. The world is to be enjoyed, and everything we see exists for a purpose: to lift our eyes to the Creator and help us to worship him. Everything in nature speaks as an ode written by God to us about him.
Without the scriptures we can’t interpret what we see, but let’s not fall into the incredibly dull stories we’re told about the world in our current cultural moment. The world is rich with delight.
Why I do think that story is so paramount in human experience? Why is the rebirth of imagination a solution to so much of what we face?
Is it just because I love fantasy stories and think you should too? I mean, it probably is. But to take a step beyond that, the Bible is a story, and more: a fractal set of interlocking stories. God has chosen to communicate to us primarily in stories. We should take him seriously.
Why do I think that encounters with God are so paramount to what we call church and how we worship God together? Sure, in part it’s that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool charismatic.
But again, beyond that, the scriptures are shaped like a mountain—rising up to meet with God. Have you noticed that every time people meet with God they’re on a mountain? Normally next to a tree? From Adam to Noah to Moses and on until they hang the Lord on a tree on a mountain. People meet with God on mountains before they go about his work—or in the Temple, which is a figurative mountain (and on top of one, full of tree iconography).
We should live the same way, expecting to meet with God collectively on the mountains.
Dying & Rising
Why do I think that personal death to sin and the resurrection of Jesus are so paramount?
Friend, this is one of those silly rhetorical questions that I hope you’re not asking. Jesus walked out of a tomb and nothing have been the same since. The Christian life is one of repentance, over and over again.
The Bible repeats the story over and over, into a pit and out into life, into the belly of the whale—both literally in Jonah’s story and figuratively in the way Joseph Campbell meant it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces—and out into a city, into a tomb and out into life. Down and down and then up and up is the shape of the Bible’s story and of many of its stories. It’s the shape of our lives, repeated deaths and resurrections until the Lord returns to raise the faithful dead.
So friends, live the stories. Tell the stories. Make your every waking act a scripted declaration of the rightness of the Bible’s story and the wrongness of all opposing narratives. You might change the world, you will change your world.
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