Dec. 6, 2020
“‘What genre is the bible?’ she asked me, over a table full of half-empty wineglasses and scattered paperbacks.”
That’s how Julia Seymour, a Lutheran pastor in Montana, begins her lectionary reflection for the Christian Century Magazine this week.
What genre is the bible? What an interesting question. What would you say?
Seymour continues, “There was a distinct breeze as the heads of everyone else in the book group turned to look at me, pastor, resident theological answer dispenser. I sipped from my glass and said, quietly, ‘Mythology.’
Her eyes grew wide in shock, but I wouldn’t retract what I said. I piled on, ‘Myths give meaning. Calling it mythology doesn’t make it untrue. It’s just what is. It becomes something more when you accept it, trust it, shape your life around it.”
I appreciate the concern that calling scripture mythology might make it sound like simple make-believe or story-telling, but that’s really not the intent. By referring to the scriptures as mythology Seymour’s taking them from the realm of information, instruction, and history into the deeper, truer, and more profound realm of world-building and meaning-making.
A couple years back David Lose was one of the featured speakers at the Festival of Homiletics that I attended. (That means, preaching festival, by the way.) He spoke to us about the idea of the Narrative Lectionary as an alternative to the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the calendar that we use of scripture readings assigned for each Sunday that correspond to the liturgical seasons of the year.
Sounds exciting, right? – a whole lecture on the lectionary. But it kind of was. By way of introduction Lose talked about all the great shows he was watching. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember that I also was watching most of them, as were mostly everyone else at the festival. Game of Thrones was definitely one that he named. He said, think about the amazing job these shows do of drawing us into their narratives, of sucking us into the worlds they’ve created, of captivating us with their characters and plot lines. My mind went immediately to the morning I dropped the kids off at school, walking by clusters of parents gathered by the front doors, each of which was engrossed in an intense conversation of “The Red Wedding” episode that shocked us all the night before and held us in almost desperate anticipation of what might happen next in George R.R. Martin’s violent, vast, and unpredictable world.
Lose’s point was that Game of Thrones and so many other shows were doing a much better job of telling their story than the church was. And yet, the church’s story is even more dramatic and captivating than the ones imagined on TV. It involves creation, and fall, and exile, and election, and captivity, and liberation. It involves incarnation, and hope, and betrayal, and healing, and forgiveness, and death and resurrection. And, that’s just the start of it. The story is still going, and we’re all still a part of it, but the concern is that we don’t know it, or remember it, or feel its impact, or trust its truth, or apply it, because other stories are being told better, or perhaps because the particular story that we’re living costs us in a way – asks something of us – that these other stories don’t.
Seymour continues, “We are so used to the mythology of Christianity that we have become immune to both its power and promise. If we no longer hear the transforming quality of the stories, they shift from myths to fables. We look for the moral of the story and then we move on, lesson learned. The ongoing strength of myths is that they show us the world as it is and how it can be, how it has been, and how it will be. Advent is born out of the dynamic tension of Christian mythology – a celebratory waiting and a redeeming hope.”
But, given all that’s going on in the world – Covid on the rise and months of more distancing as the cold weather comes, election disputes and political anxieties, work and family and life and all its normal stressors magnified by the moment we’re living, the stories that press upon my mind (and likely yours too) are revealing a world from which most are seeking some kind of escape. What feels “real” is a recipe for the kind of coping that serves none of us well and leaves us all fragile and in need. The advent stories, especially the ones for the first three Sundays, have in a way never felt less relevant, less like sentiment than scripture to me. The apocalyptic talk of Advent 1 and then 2 weeks of John the Baptist before finally, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, hearing something from the scriptures that sounds like Christmas, just wasn’t feeling like the inspired plan for Advent that it’s been in the past.
I think that’s why Bryan Hooper’s words from last week touched me so powerfully and have been playing in my mind ever since.
“Advent,” he said, “asks us to stop thinking about ourselves for a moment and to turn our gaze to an uncertain future and to follow these old stories all the way to that manger in Bethlehem where they lead us, and to see in Jesus the center around which our hectic lives spin.”
There in those words was an invitation for us to claim anew a greater truth than the ones currently clamoring for our attentions. It was the refreshing opportunity to loosen our grip on self just a bit, which is the cost of living in God’s story, in order to really hear that apocalyptic calling to wakefulness, in order to hear John’s passion and join in the energy that compelled so many to that baptism of turning anew, in order to come to the manger and quiet our reeling minds long enough (and longer if we’re so inclined) to take in the vision of God’s ancient and swirling love embodied in a newborn, cradled infant who has already attracted the attention of hotel guests, and animals, and angels, and shepherds, and heavenly hosts, and rulers, and wise men from the east. This child has done nothing more than enter the world to be held and loved, to soften our hearts as only an infant can, and yet already the world is in motion over it.
These old stories of scripture are also ever new. This is underlined by the fact that the first word of the Greek in Mark’s gospel is “beginning.” The sixteen chapters that follow are just the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God. And that’s because this Good News continues to be enfleshed and lived out all around us. The old stories of the scriptures invite us back into the ongoing story of God’s inbreaking, outpouring love, which comes so often, when you think about it, in simplicity and surprise. Though the invitation is always there, Advent especially calls us back into this story and therefore back into the truth of our lives. We enter it in lots of ways: in worship, in prayer, in shared faiths, and in any and every act of love in which we engage. For some reason, God Almighty, God The Eternal, The Holy One, The One who exists in endless beauty beyond our fathoming, has decided to be to us as Love. We know this God through love, which is also in the end the truest way to know ourselves.
 Julia Seymour, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century, Nov. 18, 2020, page 21.