As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.
An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.
In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.
One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”
Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”
After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”
And the demon has no retort.
Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.
This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.
Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.
Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?
I have struggled a lot with my reformed Christian identity, a transition from certainty to an openness to doubt and questions. One of the hardest parts of this transition has been engaging with the biblical text. After two decades of being taught that the Bible is an infallible textbook, a major faith crisis blew all those assumptions out the window. After that, it was hard for me to pick up the Bible I had lovingly and consistently read for guidance. It didn’t have anything “real” anymore, so how could any of it be “true” to me?
So, instead of pursuing the Bible, I’ve been engrossed in books, movies, and TV shows. I know that these stories I love aren’t always based on real events. I also know that I can learn as much, if not more, from a work of fiction as I can from a textbook. Because I don’t worry about whether or not these stories really happened, I focus on their messages.
I witnessed an alien’s adventures through time and space, the love he felt for his companions, and his heartbreak over their later losses. I read the stories of a man traveling cross-country with gods and of a child meeting the cosmic beings who lived in the farm down the lane. I saw a family travel across a war-torn galaxy to be reunited.
In these stories, I listened to these fictitious characters explain real-world experiences: life involves love and loss, pain and joy; we are capable of tearing each other apart and bringing each other together; people will go to great lengths for their loved ones to know love and safety.
I didn’t know if I’d ever find stories like this in the Bible. After viewing the Bible as a textbook for so long, I didn’t believe I was allowed to see it any other way.
And then, unexpectedly at worship one Sunday, I finally heard such a story.
It was a story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The priests walked before them with the ark of the covenant, and in a parallel to Moses crossing the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan parted so that everyone walked across dry land. Then, 12 men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, took a stone from the dried up river bed. When they reached the other side, they formed the stones into a makeshift monument. This would remind them of how they came to the Promised Land, given to them by God. It would be a story passed down to their children, and their children’s children, as a testament to the God of Israel’s provision for the people. It would be a story to give them hope in their most difficult times.
Normally, I struggle with miraculous stories like this. I’ve seen them used and abused by proclaimers of the Prosperity Gospel, and their use in this way has caused me and others to stumble. Because of this abuse, I find them hard to believe, and as a result, I tend to immediately discredit them. But this one Sunday, I wasn’t concerned with the seemingly impossible physics behind parting an entire river. This Sunday, I heard and listened to the story differently, because I didn’t worry about whether or not this story actually happened, whether or not it was “real.” Instead, I thought about how true this story was to the people of Israel.
All I could think about was what the stones in this story meant to the Israelites, who would endure falls from grace, exile, and persecution throughout their history. I thought about the truth this story told these people, and what it would continue to tell them time and time again.
They were not alone. They were chosen and beloved by the Creator of the Universe. They would always be known. The Name would always have a plan for them, so that maybe the world would remember their Creator.
And I think I was able to accept this idea of a story being true, but not real, because of all of the “non-biblical” stories I’ve been absorbing. I think because of the Doctor, Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time, my comic book heroes and anti-heroes, and so many more, I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be an accurate account to carry a true message.
Could these stories have truly happened? Could it be that the power of God physically parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River? Yes. What keeps me going, though, isn’t the certainty that this literally happened.
What keeps me going are the stones by the river, that remind me and all God’s people of the Lord’s provision. What keeps me going is the meaning of the name Emmanuel, God with us, which reminds me to be God’s presence in a broken world. The truth of God’s love, mercy, and guidance that I find in these stories and many others are what keep me going when nothing else seems certain. These truths, not their “realness,” are what matter the most to me.
We don’t need more certainty. We need more faith that the stories are true.
I give more time to my Netflix queue than to Bible study. My comic book collection has exceeded my devotional one. I still tear through Harry Potter books with an appetite that I’ve never had for the Bible.
Even though I attend a local congregation and am in seminary to become a pastor, I still struggle to practice spiritual disciplines and read my Bible regularly. When I open my Bible, I still think of the past Bible studies I attended in which everyone arrived at the same neat, non-debatable answers. When I sit down to meditate, my brain races with thoughts I think I “should” be thinking and ones I actually am thinking.
But I don’t feel this conflict when reading my books and comics or watching my favorite TV shows. Instead, I feel free to imagine, interpret, and enjoy the story in front of me, free from the boundaries of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy. These stories don’t demand that I come to a certain conclusion; instead, they invite me along with the characters to see something new.
I don’t feel the same way about the Bible, or at least how I’ve been taught how to read it. For so long, Bible study has contained a number of unspoken rules: Don’t stray from orthodoxy or the theology of our group. Any new insight must conform to what we already believe. Use your imagination, but don’t be too imaginative. This is what the text definitely means, and this is what it will never mean.
This type of reading drives me nuts. I love a good story. A good story allows for plenty of different interpretations. A good story doesn’t settle for a comfortable ending, but challenges the reader to look at the world in a completely different way than they did before. I want to find something in the story I didn’t notice before, like seeing a part in a movie I’ve seen several times but didn’t notice until this particular viewing. If I can read the Bible like that, it will seem bigger and less safe, but it will keep me coming back to it instead of repelling me.
This is why, while I love tradition, I find it problematic when we use this same gift t0 ignore storytelling. And I get very worried about the future of the Church every time I hear someone say or imply, “We’ve always done/thought of things this way, and therefore it is always right.”
The stories I’ve loved, from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, from Ms. Marvel to Sandman, have taken me to a world I never knew existed. They taught me about the pain and beauty of this world in a way more honest than I’d ever heard it described in the Church. When the Church insisted on teaching me about a dreamworld of black-and-white perfection, these stories put me face-to-face with complicated, colorful reality. When the Church only seemed to offer hope in a “world to come,” these stories gave me hope that was tangible and present in the world today. These stories both took me away from my world and kept my feet grounded in reality.
I love The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman. I love mythological tales of beings with a lot of power who sometimes look out for humanity yet also make some less than right choices. But more importantly, these comics showed me how to have hope in life when all hope seems lost. When I couldn’t see that hope in the biblical story, Neil Gaiman showed it to me in a whole new context that resonated powerfully with me.
I love Fahrenheit 451, not only because I love dystopian novels that end with revolution, but because I love hearing about truth that will not be kept in the dark. The prophets proclaimed a word that was fire in their bones and couldn’t be kept shut up. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that couldn’t be killed. Guy Montag risked his life to read more books instead of burn them. This is the Gospel to me.
I love Harry Potter, because I would love it if I lived in a world where Hogwarts was I real school, but only if I wasn’t a Muggle. More importantly even than that, though, I love the story of a child who is both a very human friend and the savior of his people. It is a tale of sacrifice, love, community, and resurrection.
I love my favorite books, movies, and shows, not in spite of my love of the Bible, but because of it. The messages from the stories of the Bible are alive and present to me in the stories I love today.
The Church needs to remember that this collection of stories which we call the Bible is extremely powerful and more full of color and paradox than we will ever realize. The Bible cannot be completely bound by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s theology; it is both too big and too small for that. It is the Word of God but not God. It is inspired yet very, very human. It offers guidance, but the Spirit makes this Word alive.
And for that, I am thankful, because its origins remind me of my own humanity. The Bible, and the stories it has inspired, remind me of the truth that, as a human, I am both very significant and very small. Everything in God’s Creation can testify to that truth, so why should we stand in its way? Why should we say that it is only present in one medium, and how can we say that the truth we find in the Bible can’t be found in other tales?
Someday soon, I hope I find that life, not just in the Bible, and not just outside of the Bible, but in the eyes of the God who looks at me and reminds me, through these and other stories, that I am both so significant and so small.