Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Toe-Rag Parables, Rob Bell, & Foolish Risks of God

I've long been a fan of Rob Bell. Now even more so, having seen Bell's Tumblr series, especially What is the Bible?  Part 15: Everybody Loves Stuart and Luscious and the preceding post, What is the Bible? Part 14: What are you going to do with Stuart? I think these posts present a very creative way of reading, then thinking about and discussing the Bible through parable.

In Part 14 of Bell's Tumblr series, and without giving many clues about what he had in mind, Bell threw a modern-day parable at his Tumblr readers. It was a story about a nephew, "Stuart," entrusted to care for your house while you're away, but who massively screws up and throws a nightmare party. Upon returning and seeing the chaos, your opening gambit is to comment to Stuart on an unwatered plant.

Another of my Faith Heroes, (retired) Bishop Michael Ball (who lives in my tiny village) wrote a Lenten study, Foolish Risks of God, which is devoted to the parables and has a similar view to to the thinking I surmise lies behind Bell's approach in these posts, namely that parables are a compelling, shape-shifting way of teaching. Compelling because in trying to understand and apply the parable, you become much more deeply hooked into the text. Shape-shifting because the stories / analogies have a flexibility that makes them readily adaptable to every age and life.

Father Michael spoke about parables at a home group I went to a few years ago. He gave me a copy of his introductory comments. This will give you a flavor of his humble brilliance:
These stories [Jesus' parables] are like a jigsaw whose pieces can constantly be rearranged to portray all things necessary for the needs of each age, for every condition of humankind. What we must never do (again it seems to me) is glue the pieces of the puzzle onto the table and surround it with a reinforced edge, so they can't be moved around. Parables are flexible pictures of God's wonderful nature, his forgiveness, his acceptance, his love, his treasures, and best of all, his saving grace...
Even the verbal structure of them has a timeless ingenuity ... Situations of his age yet transferable to every era. The cunning of the telling and the choice of words are constructed so that they are repeatable with different emphases for different occasions. The colours of the painting are so exquisitely, incomparably brushed on the canvas that the different lights of different centuries reveal new unrealised glories...
Rob Bell is seizing exactly this power of the parable to engage his readers/followers in the Tumblr posts. In Bell's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, he says we can read the Bible as a trajectory, a demonstration of the direction God has been leading humankind over the eons -- the way forward. The parable exercise on Tumblr may extend the trajectory by a few microns. Bell's looking at where and how God is moving in his relationship with people, and inviting readers to participate... help sniff out which direction God is leading. At least "have a go" as the Brits say. It's pure genius that Bell's using the ultimate "trajectory" verbal medium -- the time-travelling, shape-shifting parable. (Can you tell I tuned in to the Dr. Who special?)

In Bell's Tumblr post, Part 15, he shares readers' responses (Including mine!) He also discloses the message he intended with the Stuart parable:
... This will take a while...
[upon returning home to find the chaos] your priority probably won’t be finding out who Luscious is and where the AK-47 came from and why the dog smells like beer and is cross-eyed pacing in circles ... However important those are, you may not get to them for a while. Stuart may not be ready…
  • Is this why slavery isn’t condemned in the Bible?
  • Is this why polygamy isn’t forbidden in the Bible? 
  • Is this why certain barbaric and primitive actions and practices aren’t prohibited?
You can’t deal with the entire mess all at once..... First you’d get the kids off the roof because that’s a matter of life and death. Then maybe you’d ask Is the kid in the refrigerator OK? . .. However you went about it, there would be something happening underneath everything else, something that is more important to you than all the rest of it: You and Stuart making things right together. 
Wow. Talking about God working with his creations to restore creation by telling a contemporary story about setting things right which works with readers via parable interpretation. The echoes are deafening!

Here was my interpretation (responses were limited to 400 characters):
Stu’s Everyman, beloved child of God & he’s screwed up, like we all do. Pointing out the minor fault, not yelling & threatening to throttle the little toe rag, gives Stu something he can apologize for & fix. He starts with that & goes on to get the drunk friends off the roof. The friends pitch in to help. Pretty soon the whole world’s restored. I’ve been there. Cheerios & ping pong balls everywhere! Son did apologize and make some efforts. Friends picked up some trash. Mom cleaned up the rest. 
Lke most parable interpretations, this comes from personal experience. Yes, we have come home to find caretaker-son having screwed up in throwing a party. One time there was a hole in a wall and Cheerios everywhere. Another time, a bizarre selection of things disappeared (bamboo toaster tongs, stacking container for coasters); the good crystal wine glasses got used; there was goo inside the layers of glass in the oven door window; and there were ping pong balls everywhere. Beer pong. Who knew? 

But we love Sam. I wasn't thrilled to wash the floors, dig goo out of the oven window and go through the rubbish (Sam's friends had helped him clean up, but put the numerous bottles and cans in the trash rather than recycling). I am hopeful that the next time Sam has a party, he'll  be better at social engineering. More shalom, less mess.

And,  in case he's reading, and because he asked, this is just for Rob Bell (a fellow Michigander, but one who has not been living in the UK soaking up these coloUrful expressions): About "toe rag," From the Urban Dictionary:
The definition derives from old England where convicts used to tie bits of shirt around their toes and feet as a makeshift sock, hence "toe rag" means scoundrel, criminal, thief, indecent/unlawful person etc. ..."Come back with my wallet, you little toe rag."
I can't resist including Definition 2, pretty much the same, but offering a slightly different background:
2. toerag--A derogatory British insult made antique by more popular words ... Used to describe one who is seen as worthless in society. The word 'toerag' is believed to come from a rag used to wash the feet... making it very lowly... "They were just a bunch of toerags anyway."
I think the connection to foot-washing makes"toe rag"  a perfect word to describe parable-wise, all of us humans, us party-throwers, polluters, climate-changers, war-wagers, gamblers, haters, thoughtless stewards... Jesus washed our feet, asked us to do that for one another. Nothin' but toe-rags, all of us.

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