The Truths We Carry

The table was covered in books and scraps of scratch paper. Lines of varying design crisscrossed among squares and circles winding this way and that. The room was quiet, except for the occasional page flip.

Names and dates were scribbled amid the gnarled knot of shapes and lines. Birthdays. Days of death. The occasional occupation. At the base was a familiar name. The name of my classmates. Or me. It didn’t seem to matter – the trees looked the same, interwoven and tangled as can be.

At one point, a classmate of mine raised her hand.

“I’ve realized that in my family, there’s a bunch of stories that each generation chooses not to pass on about either themselves or others. They do it for some reason, I guess. Sometimes we just forget. Other times, we don’t. Some stories we don’t tell because we want those to just die, I guess.

“But the downside to that is that,” she paused, “Eventually, all we have are fragments of our loved ones – a lifetime of a human lost to time. What do we do then when we want to remember?”

I shrugged, unsure of an answer at the moment. Glancing down at my own paper, my eyes focused on my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side.

A few nights ago, my parents and I were tracing our own family story when we came across this man.

Not missing a beat, I interjected, “He was a general in the Japanese military. That’s why he was in Korea. I remember when Nana told me.”

There was silence on the other line.

“No,” my mother said. “He was a tailor.”

I paused.

“What?”

The room was oddly silent. It was the moment after something big, potentially earth-shattering, had dropped in the middle of the class. My professor closed his mouth and looked around the room, trying to gauge how well my classmates and I were taking the news. The emperor, it seems, actually had no clothes.

Glancing around myself, I noticed a few of my peers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A few others held concerned or shocked looks.

“The evidence,” he repeated softly, as if he was afraid to shatter something nearby, “just isn’t there to support a historical conquest of Canaan as the book of Joshua describes it.”

One of my peers raised his hand “But doesn’t that mean…”

He trailed off, still processing what he was about to ask.

My professor waited for a moment before suggesting, “…that very little of this is historical?”

The student nodded.

“Does it matter?”

One of the strongest memories I have of high school is of my English class. It was raining softly outside, the kind of which would otherwise be perfect for staying indoors to wrap oneself up in a blanket along with a mug of hot chocolate or tea.

Inside the classroom had been slightly chilly. The radiator responsible for the chilliness was a cantankerous bloke which could never make up its mind whether to do its job at the given moment. One could tell it was going to work only when a mess of rattles and clinks tumbled out of the ventilation shafts and onto the floor, interrupting anyone who wanted to speak. Yet, one could never be too sure when such an act would occur.

My teacher, Billy, seemed unfazed. He had taught at the school in that same room for long enough to become a bit of a legend among students. He was unique. Cool, even, in those days. Billy would lean against his desk as he taught us uninterrupted by the radiator. We would lean in close to hear what he had to say during those times.

More often than not, he positioned himself so that the sunlight from the window on the far corner of the room reflected off of the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses concealing his eyes. We could never be too sure where he was looking. Not that we had to worry about it today of all days. We were engrossed in the book which we had been reading for the past week. Most everyone had something to share about it.

One student, sitting across from me, spoke up. “I honestly can’t believe that O’Brien made this stuff up. I don’t think I can trust anything he writes anymore.”

She held up her book, pointing out a little noticed detail until then. On the back cover, in small print, were the words “Historical Fiction.”

We were speaking, of course, of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work focused on O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. And until that day, all of us students had believed this work was entirely factual. Of course, that belief could have been remedied by looking on the back cover of our editions, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book that many of us had the rug pulled out from under us as O’Brien explained the difference between happening truth and story truth.

Billy nodded and unfolded his arms, gesturing to my classmate.

“So what?” he inquired, “Does it matter whether it’s factual or not?”

There is a fine distinction that O’Brien makes regarding the relationship between truth and correlation to reality. “Happening Truth” describes what actually happened at a certain point in time. Truth and actuality overlap, and the narrative is historically verifiable. “Story Truth” describes the emotional truth of the moment. Here, truth and potentiality overlap. The narrative, in terms of matching up with a physical reality– that is, how things really played out, may be sacrificed for conveying a deeper meaning to the audience.

The problem with retelling a story word-for-word is that the subjective experience of the speaker is lost somewhat as the emotions, the surrounding context, everything is compressed into the boundaries of brittle symbols on a page, and what isn’t defined by the syntax or meaning of the words themselves are cut out, leaving behind an unfinished narrative.

Sometimes, it might be necessary to construct a skewed sense of reality to better convey the significance of an experience holistically or to fit one’s own context in a new or relevant manner.

For some in the room, it must have felt as though a sick and twisted version of the empty tomb played out before their eyes.

What if Christ was missing? What if all we had were the rags?

“One of the things we have to realize,” our professor started to say as he turned toward the student, “is that the expectations of the literature to be historical in our understanding of it didn’t become a thing until the twentieth century at least.

“But in case that’s not a satisfying answer for you,” he continued, moving his arms out, “here’s another thing: the power, truth, and reliability of Joshua is not dependent on its historicity. It was thought to be mostly written when the Israelites themselves were in exile and they wanted revenge on their oppressors.

“They wrote this text from the fragments they had alongside the situation they were in. This was as a means of forming in their people a sense of hope and identity even as they were out of the land that they were promised.”

Then, anticipating the mental thread some students were following, he added, “Plus, the Old Testament treats Joshua completely differently than how the New Testament treats the life and work of Jesus. We should be aware of what kind of animal we’re dealing with here.”

My parents and I began discussing what we knew about my great-grandfather from the stories my mother had from childhood.

It turns out all there was were fragments. Quick snippets from life. Of my grandmother growing up on an orchard in Korea. Of my great-grandfather sending my grandfather a tailored suit from overseas that fit to him perfectly. Of my grandmother fleeing Korea with her family as the communists invaded.

Fragments.

I hung up the phone, sitting in the silence of my room. The sun had begun to set a while ago, the sliver remaining casting long shadows in the room. What were we to do with the rest? Moreover, what did that mean for our family? For me?

After a moment, I stood, grabbing a dry-erase marker from a nearby shelf. Scratching out the fragments out on the board, I studied the facts.

When it comes to the truth of the memories of this man I never knew, of the life he lived, did it matter if I didn’t have all of the exact details of his life? What I had instead was the community of people still around profoundly impacted by him. Perhaps I could write something that could explain a bit about the influence he had.

Slowly, at first, but then picking up speed as I continued, I began to write.

These Word Games We Play With The Wildness of God

“Be still and know that I am God.”[1]

 

Contrary to popular belief given my penchant to utilize excessively polysyllabic and absurdly convoluted expressions within my dialoguing among my peers, I suck at playing Scrabble. I’m simply terrible at it. When it came to game night in my family’s household, I was never one to mince words. Instead of strategizing with how to budget my tiles, I would try and create the longest word possible each and every time. Eventually, I would be left with a bunch of consonants spelling out nothing but gibberish.

What a concept.

If I can be honest, there are nights when I wonder whether the Bible we read is nothing more than gibberish on a Scrabble board when considering the universe.

I have been having trouble reading Scripture lately. When much of one’s day is spent talking about God, thinking about God, studying God’s Word and the many peculiarities within it, it is hard to simply sit and open Scripture as something which is a living text that wants to speak to me. Most days, when I do crack open my Bible to read it devotionally, the words glare back unblinkingly, its eyes glossy to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I am just an infant trying to play Scrabble with God. Across the table, he would sit, with all his letters and words ready to play, while I remain in my high chair, a Q-tile stuck in my mouth without a thought in my mind even close to comprehending the notion of “Q-ness,” let alone the rules of the game. And no matter hard I tried, I could not find it in me to perceive the eternal truths which God had spelled out for me – as well as the fact that he just got a triple word score.

On some nights, I doubt whether Scripture’s claim on accurately describing some element of any objective truth is feasible at all.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty once stated that “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations…”[2] When we do not have the words to describe something, it cannot be judged as true or false. Part of the purpose of the sciences is to observe and hypothesize systems which can assimilate new phenomena which we lacked words to describe prior to that point. When we have no words for something, we are blind to it. “The world is out there,” Rorty concluded, “But descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.”[3]

Now, while I am prone to disagree with Rorty on some of his later arguments in his book, I have to agree with his notion here. There is no view from nowhere.[4] Every time we speak, we draw upon our own prior experiences and use language to express what we mean. The universe in and of itself is not true or false—as if something can be falsely existing on its own—but our attempts at interpreting the universe around us can be. Language, as I stated before, is a self-referential system of a word game that we play with ourselves and with one another for the sake of understanding the “out there” to which Rorty refers. The frustrating thing is that even our understanding or comprehension of what is may actually hold no bearing on what actually is. Even if every person came to understand the same perspective, we still cannot escape the lens of humanity.  Who’s to say what we collectively experience has any bearing on what is?

Even if we believe in God’s existence (which, in the same spirit of G.K. Chesterton, I will state is an underlying assumption within this piece and will not dedicate space to that topic here) – how can we begin to think that anything we say or write or think would properly illuminate who he/she/it/etc. is? And by extension, how could Scripture be considered “god-breathed” when it, too, was written by human hands?

The biblical writers provide a story of theirs regarding this topic in the opening few chapters of the book of Exodus. After spending a good portion of his life living an average existence, Moses encounters God in a burning bush and is commissioned by him to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Turning to leave, Moses pauses for a moment and asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”[5]

God replies, and replies by giving Moses his name. Within the Ancient Near East, there was a common belief that in order to control or manipulate a god into providing favorable circumstances, a priest would have to invoke the respective deity’s name. In a similar manner, Frederick Buechner points out:

When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. [When] God tells Moses his name is Yahweh, [he] hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.[6]

The difference between the gods of the ancient Near East and the God of the Hebrews was the fact that most of the gods had names which defined them, limiting them to their role or realm which they controlled. When Moses’ God responded, he gave Moses a name that is commonly rendered: I AM WHO I AM, or better yet: I WILL BECOME WHO I WILL BECOME. The problem with the former is that it still smacks of a property of definition and limitation similar to that of the other ancient Near Eastern gods, with ties to the Septuagint’s rough Koine translation of “the Being One.”[7] Instead, the latter emphasizes the dynamism of God being unable to be bound unless He wills it. This, of course, even extends to our language. Because God cannot be adequately expressed through the words we speak, this only emphasizes that He can do or be how He will, free from any forms of human meddling.

A Franciscan theologian with an oddly similar name in relation to the postmodern philosopher previously mentioned, Richard Rohr, once describes this frustrating quality of God as his wildness:

“Now, believe it or not, we are threatened by such a free God because it takes away our ability to control or engineer the process [of transformation.] It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust, and vulnerability…. That is the so-called ‘wildness’ of God. We cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior, which tends to be our first and natural instinct…. That utter and absolute freedom of God is fortunately used totally in our favor, even though we are still afraid of it. It is called providence, forgiveness, free election, or mercy…. But to us, it feels like wildness — precisely because we cannot control it, manipulate it, direct it, earn it, or lose it. Anyone into controlling God by his or her actions will feel very useless, impotent, and ineffective.”[8]

If we think we can get a grasp of the divine on our own initiative, we deceive ourselves. God would not be God if his fullness can be grasped by a human – the notion, if possible, would suggest human invention if comprehension were possible. Instead, he can only be known, but only in part.

That being said, how would this lead us to then accept Scripture as authoritative even while accepting that the word games that we play cannot grasp God in his wildness, that a divine reality exists when Scripture too is also an obvious human invention? What might bridge the gap between God and humanity?

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrestled with this subject within his magnum opus. Within the opening pages, relatively speaking, of his Church Dogmatics, he remarks: “The fact that God’s own address becomes an event in the human word of the Bible is, however, God’s affair and not ours… The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his word, to the extent that he speaks through it.”[9] Given that all language is contingent, shaped and informed by our own personal experiences, we would have no ability in and of ourselves to reach the divine. Or, if in the case we could, that we could determine from our own limited perspective that the thing we claimed as an eternal truth was in fact an eternal truth. Instead, the divine, knowing that we had no capacity to save ourselves from the mess we had gotten ourselves into, breaks into our limited subjective lenses through which we interpret and relate to the world and one another in such a manner that we might be able to know Him and truths about Him. And as Christians, we also hold that he specifically broke into our subjective experience first through the Law, then the Prophets, and finally, most fully, in Christ.[10]

Of course, this does not mean that every insight or proposition that a person might gain from Scripture correlates with the reality of the divine. Less than two hundred years ago, we Americans used Scripture to justify slavery. Less than one hundred years ago, we used it to justify colonialism and social Darwinism. Discernment through tradition, reason, and communal experience is necessary to keep our interpretations of special revelation in check. Rorty was right in this respect. We must understand that how we read something is how our culture or subculture has taught us to read it. Insofar that we realize our contingencies, we will become better Christians and people in general.

Doesn’t mean I won’t suck at Scrabble though.

But here’s to hoping.

 

[1] Ps. 46:10a+b, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dennis Okholm, “Gathering: You Can Only Act in the World You Can See.” (Lecture, Theology and the Christian Life, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 11, 2017).

[5] Exod. 3:13, NRSV.

[6] Frederick Buechner, “Buechner,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 13-14.

[7] William Yarchin, Ph.D. “St. Jerome and the Latin Bible.” (Lecture, The History of Biblical Interpretation, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 31, 2017).

[8] Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 2.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, §4:2, 109.

[10] Heb. 1:1-2, NRSV.