A good story is one in which a sympathetic and three-dimensional protagonist has interesting and unusual adventures aganist a varied and interesting background. A great story is one a cultivated reader can read with pleasure and later reread with increased pleasure. â€” Gene Wolfe, “Sun of Heliotrope,” Castle of Days 224.
That’s not a bad definition, though I suppose the word “adventure” may not be the first thing that comes to mind in considering what happens in many stories (e.g., the short stories of Bernard Malamud). Is it necessary, too, that what happens be unusual? I don’t know about that either; it seems to me that it would be possible to tell a good and interesting story about someone who does something quite ordinary.
But I do appreciate the latter half of Wolfe’s definition: a good story may be reread with pleasure, but a great story is one which repays repeated readings. And I’ll add that some readers never appreciate the greatness of a story because they zip through it once and never return to it again.
So how would you define a good story and a great story?
HEALING WITH AUTHORITY
(November 7, 2004 Sermon Notes)
When Jesus came to Capernaum, he taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath. His teaching amazed the people, as did his cleansing of a man with an unclean spirit. But Jesus didn’t stick around. He goes from the synagogue to a home and there he continues to display his authority and the power of God?s kingdom.
AT MIDDAY, HEALING IN SIMON’S HOUSE (1:29-31)
Jesus leaves the synagogue and goes straight (“immediately”) to Simon’s house, where they tell him “immediately” that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. This is the Sabbath, but there is no Sabbath rest for Simon’s household until Jesus acts.
Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and raises her up. That’s resurrection language (Mark 6:14; 14:28; 16:6) and it’s Mark’s usual way of talking about healing (2:9, 11; 3:3; 5:41; 10:49). Mark wants us to see all of these healings as resurrections. They foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection and they are foretastes of what he accomplished by his resurrection. In Christ, God raises us up. He doesn?t always heal us, but one day he will. Even now, he has raised us up from the dead to live for him.
Simon’s mother-in-law responds by serving them (1:31), which probably means that she gave them food. She does what the angels did for Jesus in 1:13. Service is what Jesus himself came to do (10:45) and what his followers do (10:42-44). Jesus restores us to service.
AFTER SUNDOWN, SERVING AT SIMON?S DOOR (1:32-34)
As soon as the Sabbath was over, the people of Capernaum streamed to Simon?s door with all their sick and demonized friends and relatives.
Jesus helped them freely. No disease could withstand his authority. He heals all their diseases (Ps. 103). Jesus was cast out into the wilderness and triumphed over Satan (1:12-13) and now he casts out Satan’s hosts. He also silenced them: Jesus doesn’t want testimony from his enemies; he wants his people to think through the riddle of what he’s doing and acknowledge him.
BEFORE DAWN, WITHDRAWING FROM SIMON’S CITY (1:35-39)
Because that’s his goal, Jesus doesn’t stick around. In the morning, before daybreak, Jesus leaves Capernaum for the wilderness to pray.
Jesus’ followers hunt him down (a negative word in the Old Testament!). The people are seeking him. But Jesus resists the temptation to become Capernaum’s popular healer. He didn’t come to heal or exorcise, but to proclaim God’s kingdom. His message matters most; the healings and exorcisms make sense only in that context.
Jesus withdraws from Capernaum and goes throughout Galilee to call more people to repentance and faith. His disciples leave home to follow.
Recently, I’ve been reading and enjoying Gene Wolfe‘s Castle of Days. The first section of the book is a collection of short stories, each one tied to a special day on the calendar. The second section is a collection of essays related to Wolfe’s wonderful The Book of the New Sun, currently published in two volumes as Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel. The third section is a collection of essays relating (mainly) to writing.
Here’s a snippet of one essay. Wolfe has been asked how he was able to write such a long and great book as The Book of the New Sun. He responds:
I have a job. In one of his books, Jack Woodford notes that what most people who say they want to write really want is to quit work. I don’t think that situation has changed at all since Woodford wrote, and I have more than a little sympathy for the people who feel that way â€” an appalling number of jobs absolutely stink; I am extremely fortunate in that I have fallen into one of the few good ones.Â
Nevertheless, a tolerable job can be an immense advantage for the writer who hopes to produce something better than ordinary commercial yardgoods. Our society often â€” though not always â€” pays for quality; but it does so only after the work is done, and generally long after. In the meantime, the writer must have some support for himself and his family (assuming he has one). I didn’t marry money, and I wanted my wife at home to take care of my children. My parents could not and would not have supported me and my family if I had asked them, for which I do not blame them in the least. There are no grants or other philanthropic props for my kind of writer.
My experience at conventions has shown me that fans are somewhat contemptuous, for the most part, of writers who do not support themselves exclusively by writing. Fans can afford that luxury, but I’m not sure writers can. If it means that quality can be measured in dollars, writers ought to reject it out of hand; they must if they hope to remain writers, because it will soon lead them away from writing altogether.
If it means that a writer should produce as much work as he can, and that a writer who does nothing but write should produce more than one who also hoes beans or hawks vacuum cleaners, then I sympathize with it; but it is still fundamentally mistaken. I would be willing to bet that Anthony Trollope, who was an official of the British Post Office, produced more work than any other 19th Century writer of his stature. Many full-time writers have told me that I produce as much or more copy than they do, although I normally write for only an hour or two a day.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a writer who does nothing but write. (Proust, an invalid who could do little else, came close â€” but only after decades during which he had neither worked nor written.) Dickens lectured; so did Mark Twain. Poe was a working journalist whenever he could get a job. Fitzgerald was an army officer when he wrote his first novel (on Saturday afternoons in the officers’ club) and afterwards made a career of heavy drinking. Hemingway (who also drank heavily) wrote only two pages a day during his most productive periods and took long vacations for travel, hunting, and fishing. Nabokov was primarily a teacher (at one time a boxing teacher!) until Lolita made enough money for him to retire (pp. 219-220).
Wolfe goes on to note that having a job will get the writer out of the house, make the writer’s writing time precious to him so that he doesn’t procrastinate, and support him so that he can take all the time he needs to finish large projects: “By a paradox G. K. Chesterton (another journalist) would have savored, the job confers freedom. I used the freedom mine gave me to write The Book of the New Sun (pp. 221-222).
TEACHING WITH AUTHORITY
(October 31, 2004 Sermon Notes)
Here in our text, Jesus, the new Joshua and David, makes his first raid into the Land. He isn’t fighting Canaanites or Romans; he’s fighting Satan and his hosts â€” not with a sword but with his authoritative teaching.
SURPASSING THE SCRIBES (1:21-22)
After calling the four fishermen (1:16-20), Jesus doesn’t do anything until the Sabbath. Then he goes to the synagogue to teach. His teaching gives the Sabbath rest Joshua couldn’t give (Ps. 95; Heb. 2-3). And that rest is for all Israel: that’s why Jesus goes to the synagogue.
Jesus’ message is that the time the prophets foretold has come, that God’s kingdom is near, and that Israel, including the people in this synagogue, must repent and believe his message (1:14-15).
That message leaves the synagogue astounded (1:22). Jesus doesn’t speak the way the scribes do. He isn’t simply explaining Scripture or citing other scribes; he’s saying something new.
And that’s disturbing. “Astonished” (1:22) implies fear and anxiety (see 16:8). If Jesus does have the authority to make this new announcement, they’re in great danger. They have to repent or they’ll be left out of the kingdom. But if Jesus doesn’t have that authority, he’s a false prophet and believing him will endanger them further.
Jesus’ teaching with authority forces the people of Capernaum to make a choice: Submit to him or reject him. And that’s true of every sermon today: Every sermon confronts you with Jesus and demands that you submit to him. Good sermons aren’t always calming; sometime they’re upsetting.
COMMANDING THE UNCLEAN SPIRITS (1:23-28)
One man in the synagogue responds by attacking Jesus. The man, we are told, has an “unclean spirit.” He was like Saul who had an evil spirit and who attacked David (1 Sam. 16:14-23; 18:10-11). Later, we learn that there were such men in the synagogues throughout Galilee (Mark 1:39). The synagogue is becoming another Saul, attacking the anointed king.
The phrase “unclean spirit” is found in the Old Testament only in Zech. 13:2. Jesus is doing the work of Zech. 13: cutting off the names of idols. But the roots of that term “unclean” go back to Leviticus: If you touched something unclean, you became unclean. The whole synagogue is unclean because of this man’s presence. Israel needs to be cleansed.
The man treats Jesus of Nazareth as an intruder in Capernaum and a threat to the whole synagogue (“us” in v. 24 likely refers to the people there). He sees Jesus’ holiness as a threat to the unclean people of Israel.
But Jesus isn’t here to destroy. He cleanses the man, shutting the unclean spirit up and casting him out by his word. The people are amazed at this powerful teaching and the word spreads. But the word demands a decision: Submit to Jesus and be cleansed or reject him and be destroyed.
January is the month of lists, isn’t it? Usually at the end of December and the beginning of January, you are bombarded with lists of the best whatnot of 2005.
So far I’ve given you a reprieve: It’s already the middle of the month and there have been no lists to date. But at last here is a list (alphabetical) of the books I enjoyed the most this past year:
* Elisa Bartone, Peppe the Lamplighter. Perhaps it’s a surprise to see this on my list. It’s a children’s book, after all. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. I am a father, after all, and I’m looking forward to reading to my children. It was C. S. Lewis who said the mark of a good children’s book is that adults can enjoy it, too. This particular book is very brief but it’s gorgeously illustrated and well written: a gem.
* John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps. One of my favourites. I’ve read this one several times and I still enjoy it, as much for the quality of Buchan’s writing as for the narrow escapes and rapid adventures.
* William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. Quite possibly the book I enjoyed most this past year. A fascinating study of what happened in Chile and how the church learned to respond. Cavanaugh provides a very helpful analysis of torture as an attempt to break down all allegiances and turn people into isolated individuals in order to get them to play a role in the torturer’s script.
The Chilean churches, influenced by Jacques Maritain, believed that the church should deal with “religion” and “the soul” and ended up leaving “politics” and the body in the control of the state and its “experts.” Gradually, however, the church began to develop solidarity, centred on the Eucharist, which binds all of us together as one body. The church, united by the Lord’s Supper, is able to stand against torture and the machinations of a hostile state. Moreover, the church in Chile had to learn, as the church throughout the world has to learn, to ignore the Enlightenment separation of “church” and “politics” and to police its own borders by disciplining and excommunicating those whose policies are not in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A challenging read. I didn’t agree with everything Cavanaugh said, but this book made me think more (and, I hope, more fruitfully) than any other book I read this year. Highly recommended.
* Avram Davidson, The Avram Davidson Treasury. A great collection of short stories by one of the undeservedly lesser known writers of the past century. Davidson wrote science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, as well as some stories that aren’t so easily classified. He had a unique style and he’s well worth reading.
* Austin Farrer, A Study in St Mark. A fascinating study of Mark’s Gospel. Farrer pays close attention to the symbolism and the literary structure of the Gospel long before such things were popular among 20th century biblical scholars. I don’t buy all of his conclusions but I do find his observations extremely stimulating.
* Seamus Heaney. Poems 1965-1975. Heaney is one of my favourite poets. These are his first volumes of poetry, but even there Heaney already demonstrates his mastery.
* Peter Leithart, From Silence to Song. Did you know that during David’s reign, there were two tabernacles and that, while the offerings continued to be presented to God in silence at the Mosaic tabernacle, the Davidic tabernacle, where the ark was, was full of music? I didn’t until I heard Leithart lecture on the tabernacle of David a few years back. In this book, Leithart provides some very helpful exegesis, but he does more than that: he also shows the relevance of David’s tabernacle for the church’s worship today.
* Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander. Wonderful. If you’ve only seen the movie (which is loosely based on this and several other O’Brian novels), you really ought to read the books. I love O’Brien’s writing.
* Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins. I’ve read this one a couple times before, but I got far more out of it this time. Great stuff!
* N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. Superb. I said that Cavanaugh was the book I appreciated most, but this one is a very close second. I can’t imagine preaching the Gospels without reading Wright. He makes me want to preach and his insights have fueled several of my sermons on Mark.
And here are some runners-up:
* Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease. This was Achebe’s second novel and the second one of his I’ve read. (Yes, I’m working my way through in chronological order; it’s a habit I have.) Achebe does a masterful job of showing us Nigerian culture after the coming of the Europeans. This novel, in particular, focuses on the clash between traditional marriage rules and the more “liberated” thinking of the main character.
* Borges, Jorge Luis. The Aleph and Other Stories. This was the first time I’d read Borges and I’m looking forward to reading more. Borges often has a different style, but he’s almost always intriguing. While I was reading this volume, and for days afterwards, I found myself thinking of Borgesian sorts of stories.
* Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. A moving collection of short stories, some better than others.
* Colin Dexter, Death Is Now My Neighbour. Dexter’s mysteries, starring Inspector Morse, are among my favourites. This one was particularly good.
* David James Duncan, The Brothers K. I’d heard this one recommended before and so, when I found in cheap, I picked up a copy. At first, it was just okay, but toward the end I began to enjoy it more and more.
* Karon, Jan. A Common Life. Are the Mitford novels “women’s books”? I received that comment the last time I mentioned one on this blog, but I still don’t agree. (And, after all, I read them first on George Grant‘s recommendation!). I’ve enjoyed all of Karon’s novels, even though they are sometimes overly sentimental. This one, in which Father Tim finally gets married, I read shortly before my own wedding.
* C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love. I suppose the number of times I’ve quoted this book on my blog already indicates how much I enjoyed it. But perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that Lewis made me want to plunge back into reading medieval literature.
* Robert Morgan, Gap Creek. Told from the perspective of a tough and determined backwoods woman in nineteenth century America, this novel is the story of the first year of a marriage. Our first year (so far) has turned out to be easier than theirs was.
* Chaim Potok, The Book of Lights. I’ve enjoyed every Potok novel I’ve read and this one was no exception.
* Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides. A lot of fun. And pirates, too!
* Ruth Rendell, Make Death Love Me. Gripping as Rendell’s books often are.
* J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Hard to put down. Who cares what the anti-Potter crowd says? This book was a lot of fun.
* Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology. A valuable discussion of liturgics, especially helpful for his analysis of “mysteriological piety,” which characterized the mystery religions and infected the church (and which I see exemplified in many things in Reformed circles, such as the concern that weekly communion would mean that communion wouldn’t be “special”).
* John Updike, Verse: The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures & Telephone Poles and Other Poems. Many of these poems were light, most of them are fun, and some of them are deep and beautiful.
* Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion. I know, I know: I still owe you a blog entry on this one and on the role of animals in general. I’m planning to write that … someday. All I’ll say right now is: Why did God create animals? He didn’t have to, but He did. Why? Obviously, some of them are yummy, but not all of them were created for food. Nor are all of them good companions. So what are they for? What were they intended to teach us? That isn’t what Williams’ novel is about, but it is something Williams makes you (or me, at least) wonder about.
* Douglas Wilson, My Life for Yours. A lot of good stuff about self-sacrifice and life together in the home.
* L. Woiwode, What I’m Going to Do, I Think. I’ve read this novel before and I still like it. Some of the passages in this novel are magnificent.
* Gene Wolfe, Castleview. King Arthur mixed with modern-day Illinois. Confusing? Yes, at times. Too much going on? Yeah. Fun? You bet. I didn’t understand it all, but I liked it!
* Gnee Wolfe, Storeys from the Old Hotel. A lot of really great stuff (especially “Westwind”).
* N. T. Wright, For All the Saints?. Very good and very well written book. Wright maintains (against Rome and some versions of AngloCatholicism) that all God’s people are saints and that all of them enjoy God’s presence after death, apart from any “purgatory.”
* N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer. Very helpful. I’ve used this one often in writing sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.
I also read through and enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman graphic novels. Definitely not for everyone, but worthwhile for mature readers. I often found these books deeply moving. I hadn’t read any graphic novels before I picked these ones up and I was struck by their ability to do things that no other medium can.
One of the great pleasures (for me, at least) of Colin Dexter’s novels is that Inspector Morse is a stickler (albeit inconsistent) for good grammar, spelling, and so forth. And here’s something I learned from the final Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, pp. 10-11:
“Not disturbing you?”Â
Morse made no direct reply, but his resigned look would have been sufficiently eloquent for most people.
He opened the door widely â€” perforce needed so to do â€” in order to accommodate his unexpected visitor within the comparatively narrow entrance.
“I am disturbing you.”
“No, no! It’s just that …”
“Look, matey!” (Chief Superintendant Strange cocked an ear towards the lounge.) “I don’t give a dam if I’m disturbing you; pity about disturbing old Schubert, though.”
For the dozenth time in their acquaintance, Morse found himself quietly re-appraising the man who first beached and then readjusted his vast bulk in an armchair, with a series of expository grunts.
Morse had long known better than to ask Strange whetehr he wanted a drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic. If Strange wanted a drink, of either variety, he would ask for it, immediately and unambiguously. But Morse did allow himself one question:
“You know you just said you didn’t give a dam. Do you know how you spell ‘dam’?”
“You spell it ‘d – a – m.'” Tiny Indian coin â€” that’s what a dam is. Surely you knew that?”
For the thirteenth time in their acquaintance …
Did you know that? I didn’t. But I do now.
THE KEEPER OF ISRAEL
(January 2, 2005 Sermon Notes)
New Year’s is a time for looking back and for looking ahead. As the church, we place our memories and our hopes in the framework of faith. Psalm 121 helps us do that. It’s a song Israel sang en route to Jerusalem for the feasts, but it’s also an everyday song. And it’s a song for us.
ISRAEL’S POWERFUL KEEPER (vv. 1-2)
Israel looked forward to arriving in Jerusalem because it was the place where they could draw near to God to feast in his presence. On Mount Eden and Mount Sinai and now on Mount Zion and Mount Moriah, God met with his people on mountains. As Israel approached Jerusalem, she looked up at the mountains and confessed that her help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.
Our help doesn’t come from the sea, which symbolized the Gentiles, or from the land, which symbolized Israel, but from the mountains, which pointed to heaven, the throneroom of God. That was Israel’s confession and it is ours, too â€” and we ought to be saying it out loud together!
Our God is the maker of heaven and earth. He created everything and in Christ we get to draw near to him on his holy mountain, Mount Zion, and in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22). That’s what happens in our covenant renewal service: as Christ’s church we ascend to heaven to draw near to God and to find our help in him, the maker of heaven and earth.
ISRAEL’S VIGILANT KEEPER (vv. 3-4)
Yahweh watches over his people so that their feet don’t slip (v. 3). No matter what happens, he is making sure that you reach your destination. We sleep and slumber, but he doesn’t. He won’t take his eyes off you for a second because you belong to him. He isn’t the keeper of the world; he’s the keeper of Israel. And that means that he’s your keeper.
Yahweh isn’t simply able to protect you. He’s also willing to!
ISRAEL’S CONSTANT KEEPER (vv. 5-8)
Yahweh’s protection lasts our whole lives long. The promise in this psalm doesn’t mean that we will never suffer. The psalms surrounding this one (120, 123, 124) talk about God’s people suffering. But Psalm 121 does promise that in all our suffering, Yahweh will preserve our lives with him.
That protection lasts all day long. He shades us from the sun and moon (vv. 5-6) and also from the rulers that they represent (Gen. 1:17-18). That protection follows you out the door and back home again (v. 8 ). It lasts from now on (v. 8 ) and even death doesn’t stop it.
As we look back at 2004, we see our Keeper’s care. And as we look ahead to 2005, we anticipate more of the same because Yahweh, the God of Israel, is our God, our almighty, watchful, constant Keeper.
THE CIRCUMCISION OF CHRIST
A Meditation for January 1, 2005.
January 1 is New Year’s Day. The old has ended; the new has begun. But on the church’s traditional calendar, January 1 is also the feast of Jesus’ circumcision and His naming.
A NEW CREATION
Luke tells us that “when eight days were completed,” Jesus was circumcised (2:21). When God established His covenant with Abram, He gave him circumcision as the sign of the covenant, not only for Abram himself but also for every male in his house. In the case of infants, that circumcision was to take place when the child was eight days old (Gen. 17:12).
But what is so significant about the eight day? To answer that question, we have to recognize first that the numbers in the Bible are symbols. We recognize that, of course, with numbers such as 7, which many commentaries acknowledge often has to do with fullness, or 12, which often points to the twelve tribes of Israel.
To understand the symbolism, however, we have to be familiar with the Scriptures. The significance of the number 7 comes from the seven days of creation in Genesis 1-2. And so does the significance of the eighth day.
The eighth day is the day after the seventh day and it symbolizes the beginning of a new creation. The world that was created in seven days was corrupted through Adam’s sin. But God established His covenant with Abram and his descendants and He wanted that covenant signified on the eighth day as a sign that He would establish a new creation.
Circumcision wasn’t required for a man to be forgiven or to have fellowship with God. All through the time of the Old Covenant, we find numerous Gentiles — uncircumcised men — who are believers. Gentiles were allowed to bring offerings and to eat and drink in God’s presence, just as much as Jews were.
But only those who were circumcised (or, in the case of women, who were in the households of the circumcised) were allowed to partake of the Passover. Circumcision formed Israel into God’s special priestly people, the people through whom God would take away the curse on man’s sin and spread blessing to the world. Through Israel, through the circumcised people, God would bring about a new creation.
Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day is thus His inclusion in God’s Old Covenant people, the people of Israel. Jesus is identified with them. More than that, He is going to be the ultimate Israel, the faithful Israel, the one who bears the curse away by bearing it Himself, the one through whom God’s blessing comes to the nations.
Paul tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross was a circumcision (Col. 2:11). It was what every circumcision pointed toward, the destruction of the old man, the putting off of the flesh, the life inherited from Adam. Man was created on the sixth day, and Jesus died as a man in man’s place on the sixth day.
But on the eighth day, the other side of circumcision was fulfilled. Jesus didn’t simply put off the old. He is the new. Jesus rose on the eighth day as the firstfruits of God’s new creation.
Paul says that those who have been “buried with Him in baptism” now have been circumcised. We now share in the “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” and we are no longer dead but alive (Col. 2:11ff.). In Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), God’s new creation.
Incidentally, that’s why baptismal fonts traditionally have eight sides. They’re designed to remind us of circumcision on the eighth day, of the resurrection on the eighth day, and what our baptism mean for us. We have been incorporated into Christ and are a new creation in Him.
A NEW NAME
Luke says that “when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).
The Law didn’t stipulate that the day of circumcision was to be the day of naming, but that was the practice in Jesus’ case. Jesus’ naming on the eighth day is a promise: the new creation will be brought about by Him because He is God’s Son to whom the Lord God would give the throne of David to reign forever (Luke 1:31-33).
At our baptism, even if it isn’t on the eighth day of our lives, we also receive a new name. Through baptism, we become members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). We share in His name and in what it signifies. We share in the privilege of reigning with Him and we share also in His calling to humble ourselves and suffer for the sake of the gospel so that others can share with us in God’s new creation.
On the eighth day — which is Sunday, the first day of the new week — we assemble to remember and become God’s new creation, to remember and grow into our new identity and our new name as the body of Christ Jesus.
That’s not a bad thing to remember on January 1, the feast of the circumcision and naming of Jesus and the beginning of another year in which Jesus rules the world on the throne of David.