Your Blog Steward

My photo
Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Suspension of Disbelief

One of our most dominant ideas was given wonderful voice three hundred years ago by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The phrase was published in 1817, and it points to the most important character trait a participant in the arts must possess. Here is is Coleridge talking about his Lyrical Ballads (1798)

...it was agreed that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so far as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constituted poetic faith. (Biographia Literia, chap. XIV, 1815 my emphasis)

The WILLING suspension of disbelief. And that is why teenage girls love vampires like this  and adults love movies that remind them of their childhood like this
 We willingly suspend our disbelief for art. As Eric Elnes told me, on viewing "The Desolation of Smaug," he said, "I almost felt like he was a real dragon."

You know, if dragons were real...and all that.

What Coleridge noted about his poetry, is that in order to appreciate it or understand it, you have to suspend your disbelief, the part of your mind and soul that says, "There is no such thing as vampires...or dragons." So teenage girls conveniently forget that vampires do not exist, and adults happily reminisce about their childhood and the Hobbits and dragons that made it so fun. So that's how art works, especially anything coming out of Hollywood.

Of course, artists have gone the other way trying to "get real," and to not let you suspend your disbelief. Picasso's Guerinica, for example, is trying to show the horrors of war without letting you suspend your disbelief it's just a weird picture about a cow-horse. Artists who seek to show the reality of something, work on not letting us suspend our disbelief. Usually, those artists want us to believe the horrors and happiness they show.

Now that you've got that basic idea of willingly suspending your disbelief, in other words, you're willing to say vampires exist while you're watching True Blood, even though you know they do not exist in the world your are watching it from, say, Steubenville, OH; let's take a look at this book


How does one "suspend disbelief" in a book that seems to be about belief, and even more so, how can we suspend it "willingly?" Here is part of the Bible, where Mary is talking to the angel Gabriel

The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  (Luke 1. 30-34)

Talk about needing Coleridge! Look at all the disbelief you have to spend to hear this conversation.

Disbelief # 1: Angels exist...and they talk...in Aramaic. (Granted, if you have to believe angels exist and talk, their facility in languages is not too much more of a stretch.)
Disbelief # 2: Kings are born to peasants. We all know how kings are made, and you kind of have to be born into it. Being a king is not a Horatio Alger "Hey Mom! Look! I'm a King" kind of story. Kings are princes who come from queens...Mary is not a queen.
Disbelief # 3: Virgins can have children. (Note, even Mary has this disbelief. After all, she is the one who tells us she is a virgin, and what Gabriel just said has a "little problem.")

There are three pretty big things to disbelieve, and here is were the most important part of Coleridge's observation comes into play: are you WILLING to suspend disbelief? That is, do you want to believe the story as its told, or do you want to disbelieve it? Your choice. But it's not the story's fault if you choose to believe or not. This is what Coleridge pointed out. The story is the story, and you can suspend your disbelief or not, but it's you as the interpreter or reader that is making the choice about the believability of the story, not the story itself. So whether you believe virgins can have children or angels can talk Aramaic has nothing to do with the Bible, and everything to do with you.

And here's the interesting thing about Christianity--you don't have believe the Bible's stories are true to believe Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, that story is in the Bible, but what Christianity asks you to believe is that Jesus IS the Son of God, not the story about Jesus as the Son of God.

So whether you believe that story between Gabriel and Mary or not does not matter to your relationship with God. What God asks you to believe is that the child Mary has in that story IS the Son of God; and, if angels and virgin births help you believe that, fine. If not, so be it. What evidence do you use that Jesus is the Son of God? Some people don't use stories at all to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. (Also, if you choose to disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God, that is always your prerogative, but again that is your will, not the Bible's. The Bible is just trying to help out those who want to believe.)

Want to know what's funniest about all of this? Some Christians, including this guy, don't believe that you can will yourself to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Listen to what Luther says 

I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. (Small Catechism, The Creed, Third Article.)

For Luther, you cannot will yourself to believe Jesus is the Son of God. Presumably, then, you cannot will yourself to disbelieve it, although it is certainly possible that you might be able to disbelieve something you cannot will yourself to believe in...I mean, that just makes sense right? Since I cannot will myself to believe Jesus is the Son of God it is easy to disbelieve he is the Son of God.

What Luther noted is that it is the "willing", not the "disbelieving" that makes all the difference for Christians. Christians and atheists can pretty much believe and disbelieve the same things about the Bible, the stories of Jesus, and even Christian history. Where they disagree is on the "willing."

For Christians like Luther (and he is in the minority of Christians on this to be sure), the issue is always about the will, not belief. And what's funny is where Luther learned that lesson...he read a story about a woman, a virgin nonetheless, who was willing to let God, not her belief, conceive her a son...and what Luther got from that story is not to disbelieve in God, but rather to disbelieve in his disbelief.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.




No comments: