December 2015 Field Notes
Tell Me A Story
In addition to teaching classes on food and ecology, I also teach a class called “Modern Spiritual Writing: A Language to Make Us Whole.” The class is part Lit course, part writer’s workshop. Students read exemplary examples of the genre—James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No.2, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk—and they also submit essays of their own to be “workshopped.”
What, you might ask, does storytelling have to do with “Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership”? Everything. Stories help us make sense of our world. “All our experiences and memories, in order to become intelligible and useful to us, must be shaped in some way,” wrote fiction writer Tobias Wolff. “We impose a form on experience; there’s no other way to live.” Barry Lopez, another writer I admire, put it succinctly: “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
We need stories to live. Religious leaders need to not only be practitioners; they need to be storytellers. For Christians, the stories we tell are central to our identity. It’s no accident that the gospels—the primary vehicle for conveying who God is in the person of Jesus—should come to us not as a list of rules or doctrines or arguments, but as stories. This happened and then this, and here’s what that might mean. To follow Jesus is to follow a certain story about the world that you happen to think is true.
Back when I was getting a theological education, the idea was to get really good at learning the Jesus story—through biblical studies, church history, pastoral care, etc—and then the part where you figure out what to do with that story was called “field education” or “summer internship.” Thankfully, that dualistic approach is changing. What we’re trying to do with this Initiative is to ask a question that more churches need to be asking: What does the Jesus story have to say in this time of food deserts, climate change, and ecological degradation? That question is both implicit and explicit in our work, and it’s a question some of my students have, through their essays, been trying to answer. This month I share with you two published essays from two of my students from the Modern Spiritual Writing class whose work deals with Creation-related themes:
In “The Silent Land,” a short essay recently published in The Plough, Daniel Francis uses the ancient metaphor of the desert as a lens through which to view urban deserts:
Like the deserts of the contemplative tradition, urban deserts are filled with their own kinds of paradoxes. They are the “wounded” places we talk about with a social righteousness that cannot mask our fear of violent crime and desperate poverty. But above all they are “thin places,” places where God dwells more tangibly than in the grandest cathedrals and most lavish banquet halls.
It’s a striking thought: that God is most visible in places of poverty, crime, and wounds. That’s especially challenging in this time of Advent, as we await the coming of the Christ child, a figure we’re always trying to make nice and cuddly, but who ends up becoming a very un-cuddly kind of messiah.
“Mysterious forces urge our universe forward, and we reach the limits of our understanding again and again.” That’s from “Collapsing Stars,” a new essay by Corinne Causby published in Eco-Theo. Corinne writes about grief and wonder from the vision of a six-year old child:
I sit beneath the dome of the sky, wrapped in blankets and gape at the showers of meteors, or watch as the moon looms large in the horizon as it rises, and I am filled with mystery and awe. I ache with unknowing and the question of the psalmist from so long ago haunts me: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8)
That child-like wonder and hunger for awe and mystery also seems fitting in Advent. It’s difficult to discipline ourselves to slow down and contemplate the wonders of Creation when all around us the world is speeding up. Global leaders are meeting this week in Paris to make landmark decisions about curtailing carbon emissions. Each morning I compulsively check the New York Times for news on the climate talks. It is news to which my own fate, or at least the fate of my children, feels uncomfortably yet inescapably bound.
And yet there is another Story, an ancient story about a God who is born among us, and who despite the evidence promises to make all things new. That’s especially good news just now, when so much hope hangs on world leaders who so often fail to live up to our hopes.
Where is God being born among us today amidst food insecurity and climate change? The answer to that is going to a story, and it’s a spiritual discipline of the highest order to try and tell it. There is no other way to live.
Director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative and
Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ecological Well-Being