On the Stage

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We tell stories. We live by them. And we’re part of one.

Human beings are story-bound. We rely on stories to give us meaning, identity, and purpose. As our lives unfold, we see ourselves as part of a narrative and expect the plot to make sense. We often assume that we are driving the action, writing the next chapter. While we do have agency, there are moments when the story gets away from us, when suddenly we’re at a loss. We do not know where things are going next.

C. S. Lewis addressed this notion, that we are story-bound. He observed that our controlling story is that things get better, for a time. Then, things fall apart. We emphasize the part where things get better, and act as though that is all there is to the story. Lewis calls this the myth of progress. This story remains with us. And Lewis names how certain overarching stories (like progress) can keep us from tending to the story of God.

No one is looking at world history without some preconception in favor of progress could find in it a steady up gradient. There is often progress within a given field over a limited period. A school of pottery or painting, a moral effort in a particular direction, a practical art like sanitation or shipbuilding, may continuously improve over a number of years. If this process could spread to all departments of life and continue indefinitely, there would be “progress” of the sort our fathers believed in. But it never seems to do so. Either it is interrupted (by barbarian irruption or the even less resistible infiltration of modern industrialism) or else, more mysteriously, it decays. The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds, the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are “on” concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.

– C. S. Lewis, via Bible Gateway

Lewis’ observation that we are only characters, and not the playwright, producer, or audience, is indeed a powerful one. He writes, “We are on the stage.” Our challenge is to play our part now, for in our present moment, we are “on.” We may have a sense of where the story is going, but the twists and turns, highs and lows, they remain hidden from us. Yes, we have agency. We have responsibility. We even have power. But knowing what kind of agency, responsibility, and power is what enables us to play our parts well.

This past week I read “Act III, Scene ii,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, which turned my thoughts to Lewis. She writes:

Someone has altered the script.
My lines have been changed.
The other actors are shifting roles.
They don’t come on when they’re expected to,
and they don’t say the lines I’ve written
and I’m being upstaged.
I thought I was writing this play
with a rather nice role for myself,
small, but juicy
and some excellent lines.
But nobody gives my cues
and the scenery has been replaced.
I don’t recognize the new sets.
This isn’t the script I was writing.
I don’t understand this plot at all.
To grow up
is to find
the small part you are playing
in this extraordinary drama
written by somebody else.

– From The Weather of the Heart

This reflects my theological journey. Once, I believed myself to be an author. Then, I discovered I was a character. I was playing a part, and God was the playwright. My part is very small. The story however, is very large, far larger than anything I can envision or imagine. But it is a glorious honor to have been placed on the stage, to have been written into the play.

But What Does it All Mean?

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In our age of streaming services and binge watching, a couple of years ago I churned through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted in 1987, when I was eight years old. There are one hundred and seventy eight episodes. The series finale was in 1994.

I can’t tell you when I first saw TNG. But I’m certain that in my teenage years I’d watch late night reruns, so I became familiar with Jean Luc-Picard, Will Riker, Worf, Geordi, Data, Troi, and Dr. Crusher. I admired Patrick Stewart as Picard, a character who is always alert, curious, insightful, and measured. Independent. A pioneer. Analytical. Courageous. I’m a science fiction fan, and of the vast array of explorers, oddballs, and heroes in the genre, Picard is among my favorites.

The second episode of the fifth season is entitled “Darmok,” and it is there that Picard displays his most vital strengths.¹ The Enterprise comes in contact with an alien race called the Tamarians, known to The United Federation of Planets, but, as of yet, unallied. (BTW: Anytime I think of the Federation, The Refreshments’ nod in “Banditos” always comes to mind.)

Communication with the Tamarians has proven to be very difficult, as the aliens communicate using a complex array of metaphor and allegory.  Though Picard and the crew of the Enterprise seem to speak simply to the Tamarians, they remain misunderstood.² Without shared reference points, it is impossible to build a bridge.

Picard is undettered. The Tamarian captian, Dathon, and Picard are transported down to the planet’s surface. Dathon holds two daggers, and presents one to Picard, which he interprets as a challenge to a duel. But this is not what Dathon has in mind. Dathon repeats the phrases, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Temba, his arms wide” several times to Picard, who remains befuddled. But eventually, it begins to dawn on Picard that Dathon is trying to tell him a story, and to indicate that both are being pursued by an invisible predator who is seeking to kill them both. Dathon wants Picard to help him  fight the beast.

From there, things go off the rails. Just at the moment that Picard and Dathon are fighting the beast, the Enterprise overcomes a field array that was preventing them from beaming Picard back on board. As Picard is taken away, Dathon is severely wounded. Picard returns to tend Dathon’s wounds. The two continue their attempts at conversation, and Picard begins to deduce that Darmok and Jalad were two ancient warriors in Tamarian folklore who joined forces on an island called Tanagra to defeat a dangerous beast. In the process, Darmok and Jalad became friends. Picard makes a connection to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text from ancient Mesopotamia. Dathon is gladdened by Picard’s insight, and seems to affirm the connection. Shortly thereafter, Dathon dies.

When Picard returns to the Enterprise, his crew and those aboard the Tamarian vessel are locked in battle. Having brought back the daggers from the planet, Picard offers one to the acting captain of the alien vessel, and references the story. It becomes clear to the Tamarians that a breakthrough has occurred, that Picard is offering them friendship, and that an effort has been made to establish diplomatic relations. Both ships stand down. The Tamarians record a new story, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”³

Is this a weird story? Sure! Is it metaphorical and allegorical? Absolutely! Does it capture something that resonates with human experience? Undoubtedly. Is it true? Undeniably.

As a Christian person, I have a narrative. So do my neighbors. At times, the Christian story and those of my neighbors overlap. In those instances, connections can be made. But work always has to be done. Both parties have to participate. At times, sacrifices are willfully made in order to bring two divided groups to a place of mutual understanding.

Metaphors bridge the gap, often through stories that reach the grand scale of myth. When we are seeking answers to questions about what it means to be human together, propositions can carry us a good distance, if we have enough common reference points. But stories offer us another way of seeing. They open portals to common understanding. They create worlds with enough room for both parties to stake out ground, and to establish what is held in common.

Picard, in many ways, displays the best characteristics of an effective missionary. He is inquisitive, curious, and determined. He listens. He is persistent. He is willing to enter into frustration and confusion. Lastly, he is driven by hope–a hope that where there was once two people, it is possible that they can be made one.

There’s something biblical about that notion.


  1. Here’s a nice write up of the episode by Ian Bogost of The Atlantic.
  2. This YouTube video will give you a taste of how difficult it would be to connect with the Tamarians.
  3. The full episode is available to those who have CBS All Access (membership required) or Amazon Prime.

An Ethos of Commitment

I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.

A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.

However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher  commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.

To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.

There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?

Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.

A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the  commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.

Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.

And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.

I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.

A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.

Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?

How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?

Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.