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The Dashing Life and Exuberant Times of Brian Harrison....And Other Rare Anecdotes

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Fish Story

Lately, parables have become the fashion, at least, in my circles. It must have been centuries since they passed out of fashion. There is something of a greater truth exhibited or perhaps a greater impression with the truth exhibited in them. No clear-cut information, no formula, no how-to book, only a simple story and something of a zing, or a breaking up of an idea to catch some glimpse of something beyond an idea. Christ used them, just as all rabbis used them. But the art goes wholly neglected in our day and age. Stories are merely kept around for their entertainment value. If anyone wants an instruction on how to live then we have merely step by step procedures and practical how-to volumes that line the book shelves, some of them bestsellers. Yet there is something altogether more challenging in a parable. For it is not so much nearly knowing and understanding, as it is discovering and transforming. We, today may match ancient humanity in our creativity with our diversions, we probably surpass them. But it seems that ancient humanity was far more creative in their inner values. With our inner values we are the most unimaginative people ever. We know so much, but we discover so little. The below is a parable I wrote for a meeting at a pub in downtown Birmingham. An author and theologian, Peter Rollins was present, who is all into these parables. Just talking to him you get about 3 good ones per conversation. To the point, however when one is talking about God, it is impossible to merely state the facts. Stories must be used. So with no further ado…


Captain Ahab and Jonah and a bunch of fishermen sat in a fishermen’s pub swapping “fish stories”. Captain Ahab was sure that he had the biggest fish story. So he proceeded with exciting expressions and flaying arm spans to talk proudly about what he called “the world’s greatest fish”. He told incredible stories, told how he had lost one of his legs, the very foundation of himself, to this great big white whale.
“But do ye think that slowed me down one bit?” he’d say, “No, I got a sturdy, wooden pegleg and now I stand firmer than ever, and chased that great beast around the world!” He then talked on and on about the many times he stabbed the gargantuan creature with his harpoon. And how with every stab, it made him more and more crazed with this one alone obsession of stabbing this behemoth of the deeps and he cared for little else but that one great final stab and then latching the whale to his boat. His voice grew louder and louder as he talked about his obsession. Until, by the end of his tirade he was balancing on top a chair with a pool stick in his hand thrusting it in the air, fomenting, “From the heart of hell I stab at thee!!” But everyone in the pub was quite used to it by now. This was usual; Captain Ahab and his theatrics.

But still it was quite a good story and there was considerably commotion around the pub about this great fish. No one could top it. But the spectacle was short-lived when someone uttered, “Jonah, didn’t you have a fish story? Didn’t this huge fish swallow you whole?”
At this the whole assembly of salty seamen gasped and looked in astonishment at the reserved Jonah. Captain Ahab, a bit perturbed after seeing that the shock effect he had over the crowd had so quickly waned and was replaced by another man’s fish story gruffed out, “Swallowed by a fish?! Why, this fish couldn’t possibly be bigger than my fish! Anyhow, I’ll wager on it. That my fish is bigger than your fish. For I alone know the dimensions, the measurements, and proportions of my fish. Folks, he’s a straight up terror to know and to look in the face as I have done. So tell me, Jonah, just how big was your fish?”
Jonah paused and the began searching for words that were not really surfacing, “ I really can’t say. It must’ve been big to some degree…I mean big enough, at least, to swallow me. But I really can’t say just how big. How scary it was. It was so dark. –So empty. Just this great void of darkness. I lay there without sight, without the ability to hardly move for several days. At times, my mind would wander and I would even begin to question if I was really in the belly of a whale. Maybe I was in some sort of coma-like dream, or maybe I was even lying blinded in my bed. But it was cold and it was wet. And on occasion, I could feel everything move all of a sudden, and this would awaken me, and I would think that maybe, just maybe the whole thing was real, that I was in the belly of a giant fish. But sorry, I really can’t tell you how big it was, if it really was a fish at that.”

With his calm, cool voice completing the story, everyone stared. Captain Ahab smiled a big smile knowing that he had the more provable and bigger fish story. But on the contrary, though they didn’t say anything, all the other fishermen in the pub knew down in their silent hearts that Jonah had the more convincing fish story. “His was probably a far bigger fish too” they all thought to themselves, as a profound silence fell about the pub.

It is those on the inside that are the most clueless as to what is going on, while those on the outside are the experts. Many times, it is those in the darkness of doubt that are more embraced by God, than those surveying Him from afar. God from the surface is always explainable; God from the deeps is entirely unexplainable. Sometimes He’s so close, He seems absent. Mother Teresa’s doubt comes to mind here. This is the paragon and paradox of faith.
Captain Ahab is a representation of a very modernistic view of God. He’s obsession his stabbing the whale, that is staking Him down. He rides upon the surface with his pegleg which points to his insistence on foundation, on being able to stand on something. While Jonah lays hardly able to move in the belly of the fish. Captain Ahab is also much about theatrics, which may point to the emotional manipulation that is found in many churches of today. Jonah on the other hand seems uninterested in the competition. His speech shows uncertainty and humility. There are probably some other things that can be seen in a simple story, but the beauty of a parable is its multi-layeredness. You could discover something that the author was completely oblivious of.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Wrestling with God; Down on the Mat but Still Laughing

A friend of mine sent me a letter awhile ago about his wrestling with doubt. I waited an enormously long time and then began to write him back. But after writing it, I realized how what I'd written sort of crystalized my current thoughts on faith. So I decided to share them with you all here.

Sorry, I haven’t written you back sooner. I kept telling myself that to be able to even address anything you put in that letter many months ago, I had to be on a certain level of spirituality and understanding which I naturally lack. And which, I’ll probably never arrive at in this lifetime. But I see this as a main problem of our current idea of what it means to be a Christian. –That is our form of Protestantism’s obsession with certainty and perfectionism. No wonder that guilt so plagues us.

I think that you are doing a good thing. Searching that is. I noticed you categorizing yourself as “fallen” seekers. I believe that there is no such thing as "fallen" seekers. But that yet we are all “fallen” seekers. If you think that’s contradictory…well, that’s exactly what I want you to start opening yourself towards. You are wrestling right now with God which is my belief of where He’d want you rather than sitting smugly having everything figured out.

I disagree with you though in your assertion that you must go through doubt to get over it or embrace it. I don’t think that there is any getting over doubt. It will always exist alongside faith. If you abandon your faith in God, and if you are still honest with yourself and still a seeker then you will in turn Doubt that (non)god you have chosen. And likewise, if you mean to embrace your faith in God with full certainty you will always catch shadows of disappointment and doubt. For that is one thing God is not…certain to hold to prescribed conceptions of Him. When we do this it is idolatry.
Faith and Doubt coexist with each more than is comfortable with most people. It is when we try to erase one for the other that problem arises. Merely because faith cannot be faith without doubt. And we certainly cannot doubt without faith in something. There is a great untruth in our modern world that gives birth to both the atheist and the Christian fundamentalist. That is you can reduce things all to a rational order. In truth, both are closer to the same way of apprehending and organizing the universe than either one would like to admit. They both are terrified of Mystery. They both need bedrock foundation and absolute certainty to construct their universes. One uses strict empiricism the other uses rationalism in the Bible in a strictly literal, narrow sense. Point out that there are paradoxes in either system and the whole foundation falls. Be open to paradox, for in that you are coming to God, who is beyond any limitation. Though don’t ever expect to grasp God, He grasps you.

This deals with your desire if you pull through to help “people who are not satisfied with shallow answers”.
The shallow answers are shallow merely because they exist to gap up wide, deep gulfs that are not meant to be gapped up. These wide gulfs point to God’s transcendence. One by one the shallow answers fall as though into a bottomless bucket of absent space. We neither hear if they shatter or thud. They are flimsy man-made constructions into the darkness of mystery. –Little calculators and abacuses thrown into the ocean. But what you must be satisfied with is that perhaps the answers will never be known. God never answers Job’s questions with answers; he only answer’s him with more questions. And this goes for either side of the fence of a/theism. Many Christians struggle to reconcile the concept of suffering with the existence of a Good God, but as for me it is much more difficult to reconcile the existence of joy and love with the belief in nothing. If you choose either belief you must wrestle with the question and mystery that each postulates.

Here’s the statement of the hour. I believe in the existence of God because He cannot be proven. If He was a thing to be proved then He would cease to be God. A god that is measurable and able to be understood would be under us. The mere understanding of Him not being understood gives me faith in God. Comprehension is always a downward reach. What is above us will always be slipping out of our grasp. There may be a hint or a nudge that something is there, but full apprehension and full staking down always eludes us. The mere absence of God through our senses may mean that he is hyperpresent or much more present and real then everything else. That is a Being who is so near, and/or so great that our faulty senses and modes of perception fall short when grasping for Him.

We can only measure and quantify the elements and the species that we hold dominance over. We can prove that salamanders exist and that pomegranates exist and even that certain stars exist. But even in these proofs, science is constantly shifting in what it labels and how it understands what it labels. “Pluto is a planet, no, it’s a moon, no it’s a just floating rock out in space.” And so on. There is much speculation on even solid objects. Maybe Freud would say it is a mere speck on our telescope lens and we attribute it as a planet because of some unfulfilled wish during childhood, or maybe Darwin would suggest it as merely the shadow of what our earth used to be before it progressed to where we are now. And according to Nietzche, its his overman who has willed his way to soar though space. For Marx, the planet was tired of being the runt peasant of the solar system and decided to break away from the chains and play its own game. And you can’t forget Pat Robertson who would probably be suspect to say that it’s a huge, massive hornet’s nest sent from the angry hands of God to smack into the earth because of all its sodomy and debauchery. And either one of these things could be a far-off possibility. Probably not, but who really knows. And that’s just a rock out in space. A thing of actual matter and measurable dimensions. How much more unfathomable is the Unfathomable?

In a lot of ways, you are where you need to be. One must betray the idea of God before he can break out and interact with the full God that is. Abraham did this when he first moved out of his native land and when he went on a walk with Isaac to the altar spot. Moses did this when he listened to a burning bush. And all the first disciples had to do this to accept the Christ whom those who were caught up in their idea of God as God had called a blasphemer. This coming Thursday, I am going to this meeting at a pub where an Irish theologian is going to met with a group of us. We’ll drink beer and talk about these paradoxes and share a few of our own parables. I’ve written two. In the course of the next few weeks. I’m going to post them on facebook. I’ll be sure to tag you in them. For sometimes I think parables have a deeper way of communicating truth. If it were not so, why did Christ use them so much. Instead of babbling on about lists and doctrines and how-to-be saved formulas? But no, He chose stories.
Anyways, this theologian’s name is Peter Rollins. And much of the books he's written deal with what I’ve been talking about.

I have to tell you how blessed I've been in the past 2-3 years. For I’ve been meeting at this church where questions that you have are not immediately brushed off with pat answers. No, the whole atmosphere is conducive towards exploration. Realizing that differing degrees of truth can thrive at the same time with different people. Condemnation and judgment is reserved where it should be…in the hands of God only. I have learned not to see everything so black and white. But in full colors Which fits with my personality to begin with. This church is Emergent. Or into the whole Emergent Discussion or Movement. Maybe you could find something in your area that has the same thing. There is a fresh new but ancient wind stirring up in various places in the world. As a whole the way we define, and hopefully the rest of the world defines Christianity is changing. Ultimately the way we define or better worded "don't define" God is changing. It’s quite exciting.

Also…one last thing. Always wrestle with the idea that Christ is the ultimate paradox. God in flesh. God as sin. God bleeds. God goes through death. Nothing else is truly as mind-boggling as that. To follow Him is never a clear cut path. He’s just plain exasperating, full of riddles most of the time. It’s not a step one to step two to step three and so on. Sometimes we have to go back to go forward. And sometimes we think we are back when we are really forward and vice versa. You are not in such a bad place as you imagine. It's just the paradigm in which you find yourself of our modern world in that everything must be explained and understood. But if everything could be explained and understood then we'd be the only gods. But this is not the case. So throw out all those Lee Strobel books; embrace the Philokalia. Think. Explore. Wonder. There is a time when the most agonizing wonder turns into love. It is only then that we can penetrate into anything.

There are several books of note. Brian McLaren's "A New Kind of Christian" helped me out. As did G.K. Chesterton's own struggle with paradox in his "Orthodoxy" and you cannot forget Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man" which actually helped out an atheistic C.S. Lewis. And there's Pete Rollins books whom I mentioned earlier. "How (Not) to Speak of God.", "The Fidelity of Betrayal" and so on. Oh, and then there's "The Shack" which is okay. But I kind of doubt you'd like it.

My thoughts and prayers are with you,

Friday, February 13, 2009

Of All the Ideas for Valentine's Day; A Poem

With the first blushes of Valentine's Day,
The idea sprang to my scheming mind,
The heart's vision in fancy's realms play.
Romance and boredom how they meet and grind,
Ideas born. (and they say Cupid is blind.)
Of all the sweet things to do, act, or say,
I can see such heart-shaped lightbulbs behind.
Any object under moon's lamp or sun's ray.
That gives solidarity to this day.

I should gather the flowers of the field,
Wild and savage, ravishing and rare,
Those that a hundred colors yield,
To the vibrant-impressioned sunny glare,
Where hangs the spirit of beauty in the air.
I'd pluck these and dub each a quality,
From her multi-petalled, many-hued air,
And label a thousand flowers quantity,
For her thousand-flecked personality.

I'd stand before the glowing Court of the Moon,
And caught up in the magic of the wild night,
Entreat the nighttime orbs in solemn swoon,
To play their sweet music of silver bright,
When all is sound hushed in twinkling light.
For her, only her, this sky symphony play.
The beaming strings strummed by a tranquil wind.
Soft melodies in solemn-couched clouds stray,
To her ear. Silver songs that weave and blend,
All this beauty, with her beauty within.

I'd embark for the rich land of Sleep,
And bring back a treasure chest full of dreams,
Sublime dreams that waft and hover and keep,
The intoxication of joy that beams,
In all its happy, blissful-raptured scenes,
They'd dangle from her hands, hair, neck, and ears,
A Dream adorned by dreams in wakeful bloom.
But all these gifts, there's one question that sears,
When looking about this stark, barren room,
I'd give these all, but I'd give these to whom?