To Have the Mind of Christ? Start by Telling Stories

There is a tale, undoubtedly tall, of Ernest Hemingway wagering with drinking buddies at the Algonquin Hotel that he could write a novel in six words. On a cocktail napkin he penned the following and passed it around their boozy circle:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

He won the bet. Whether or not this example of “flash fiction” is apocryphal does not matter here. It is a superb example of the power of a story told in lines shorter than a haiku. Here is another story, in ten words, written by seventeenth-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide:

The barn burned down.
Now I can see the moon.

These flashes of story connect us to their unnamed protagonists as instantly as pushing a plug into a wall socket. We feel we know them personally, we feel their pain, we commiserate with people we cannot see, we do not know, and who are, perhaps, imaginary. As a filmmaker, there is no greater satisfaction for me than when an audience member says, “that character in your story? That is me.” It means we have contact; an electric current is complete.

A beautiful example of this from the Christian faith is the scripture that Sunday school children love to memorize: Jesus wept. The virility of two sacred words, found in St. John’s account of the gospel (11:35), tells a remarkable story of the God who suffers because his creation suffers. Jesus grieved with his friends, even though he knew that he could alleviate their pain (and did). Embedded here, in these two words, is an insight into the mystery of the mind of Christ, and they tell of a God like no other—whose love is so invested, so one-with, that our heartbreaks are his. No wonder he wishes us to share with us his reconciling narrative. He means for us to commit as wholly as he has: love, we are told, in the commandments that are empowered by the resurrection, with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind.

Think of story as a conduit for love, as wiring is to electricity. If every human being is made in the image of God, then stories can connect us in a place more elemental than culture, gender, ethnicity, religious conviction, or age. They open a channel for love to flow to the Lord your God and to your neighbor and back again to yourself, completing the connection between all three.

Going Deep So that We May Go Wide

In the pages surrounding this article, scholars whom I admire greatly have given ample insight to Fuller’s new president Mark Labberton’s urging to “have the same mind.” At a graduate institution of learning, this is a bold challenge. Nevertheless, having the same mind, as Fuller scholars unpack it, is defined by the love of Christ, which extends to believers and to those outside the faith equally.

Fuller is known as a convening place of civil dialogue—a legacy from Richard J. Mouw, who served the institution as president for twenty years. It is a happily inherited task, to moderate civility between dialoguers who bring passion and, sometimes, contention to our table. (And it’s not necessary to look outside our walls to find such dialogues either.) This convening is an intercessory act. Fuller, in the form of her many community members, stands in the gap between sides to keep the circuit of human contact from becoming disconnected. To achieve that, the current must run through the conduit of ourselves, and so, comes at a cost. You have to be grounded to do that without frying, but that’s what a graduate institution for learning is best at—going deep so that we can go wide.

How, otherwise, could Fuller sponsor conversations between Muslims and Christians, Jews and Christians, Mormons and Christians? LGBTIA Christians and Christians defending traditional marriage? Christians who are artists and Christians who consider the arts to be the devil’s playground? Catholics and Pentecostals and Presbyterians and Mennonites, Anglicans and Episcopalians, Jews—both Messianic and Orthodox—covenantals, egalitarians, inerranters, new earthers and Darwinians, African Americans, Koreans (both South and North), Hispanics, residents and citizens, green carders, Finnish speakers, a capellers and rockabilliers, hymnallers and contemporary Christian musicians. Take a deep breath: there are worlds of difference encompassed in the et ceteras implied above.

There is broad diversity in Fuller’s community. Those who study in her classrooms, who teach and preach and listen and argue, who administrate and who staff, who donate and trustee are the ones with whom, to make Paul’s joy complete, we are urged nearly 2,000 years after his pointed letter, to share the same mind, to be of one accord, and to love. For those of us at the physical campus in Pasadena, California, that “accord” is called upon very specifically every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in chapel, when we worship together in languages and musical styles both ancient and millennial. Et cetera.

The defense in this magazine for the Christlikeness of “having the same mind” is eloquent. Fuller scholars answer well, both in their knowledge and with their persons, the question of “whether.” What follows is two cents on the question of “how.”

Stories Create Readiness

Of late, storytelling as solution is on everyone’s lips, from fundraisers to politicians, from TEDtalks to pulpits. Watch an episode (or ten) of a show on fashion or food, and before long you will see a designer or a chef, hovering over a table of fabrics or of locally grown herbs, trying to ascertain “the story.” Why is story important? Why does the ability to think at a macro level about micro greens make one chef an artist instead of just a good cook? Should Christians give consideration to what appears to be the latest fad?

The prologue by editor Ernest Bates in his The Bible: Designed to Be Read as Living Literature (1936) eloquently points out that art (or for this purpose, story) is the raw material from which archeologists and historians reconstruct the past. Whether it’s pictographs on a cave wall, papyrus texts hidden in earthenware pots, or stories that survive for centuries by word of mouth, story through art is even the physical evidence of humanity that outlasts all others. Customs and mores, families and dynasties, laws and political movements emerge and disappear. Contadoras, Indian dancers, Wayang shadow puppets, scapegoats, African tribal elders dressed as evil spirits, music videos—every culture tells its stories, enacts its plays, sings its songs, cultivates its legends, poems, and metaphors. Story endures.

The Barn Burned Down, illustration by D. KlitsieMasahide’s ten-word poem tells the story of illumination through tragedy.

Max De Pree, in Leadership Is an Art (2004), was ahead of the curve on story as it shapes and defines culture:

Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers. The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values. . . . without the continuity brought by custom, any group of people will begin to forget who they are. (p. 82)

De Pree brilliantly describes why it’s important for story to flourish even in the least likely of atmospheres—the contemporary business institution. He suggests that storytelling is the means by which institutions can be renewed, by which they may avoid the terminal end of dehumanization and flourish in revitalization:

Institutions foster bureaucracy, the most superficial and fatuous of all relationships. Bureaucracy can level our gifts and our competence. Tribal storytellers, the tribes’ elders, must insistently work at the process of corporate renewal. They must preserve and revitalize the values of the tribe. They nourish a scrutiny of corporate values that eradicates bureaucracy and sustains the individual. Constant renewal also readies us for the inevitable crises of corporate life.

. . . Renewal is the concern of everyone, but it is the special province of the tribal storyteller. (pp. 91–92)

Giving prominence to story at Fuller is the direct result of influences in our history that run deep: De Pree’s 40 years of leadership on the Board of Trustees, of William and Dee Brehm’s visionary leadership in starting the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, and, in our deepest DNA, all the way back to Charles E. Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour. We are storytellers from our beginnings. No wonder story is the spark that illuminates our way forward.

Jesus defined storytelling as crucial to the educational mandate that Fuller bears because it prepares the ground for discipleship:

The disciples came up to Jesus and asked, “Why do you tell stories?” Jesus replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears.

“That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. . . . But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.”

— Matthew 13:10–21, The Message

Stories allow you to say what cannot otherwise be said and, conversely, allow similar things to be heard. God himself chose poets, philosophers, dramatists, musicians, and prophets to tell the Holy Scriptures—storytellers who articulated divine mysteries beyond the scope of reason. Maybe it’s possible to know God without story; nevertheless, story is the form God chose. Story is a way to pull life from the void, it is a word that creates.

The Distance Between Two Opposing Points

Recently, Fuller provost and Senior Vice President Doug McConnell recounted a nonfiction story (because all the best stories are true, whether they happened or not) about one of Fuller’s current students. Born in Burma years ago, she remembers the night that government authorities burst into her home and arrested her father for the illegal activity of being a Christian pastor. For two years after that her family searched for him until, having located him in a concentration camp, she finally laid eyes on him again. All she wanted was to reach her little-girl hand through the two sets of chain-link that separated them and touch his finger. But they could not reach. Then, people on both sides gathered and leaned in on the fences. A simple act. Together, they bent the distance between the girl and her father enough to allow them to touch.

This is what story does, too—shortens the distance between those on opposite sides of two fences—in spite of a well-guarded perimeter between, patrolled by arrogance and injustice and hatred, rage and intolerance, and greed and evil. Story makes it so that the two sides can make contact, and the spark of love can jump.

I am in my fifth decade as an artist, and my own fiercely held opinions about the artist’s life have cycled round and back again more than once. In this, Fuller could sponsor a dialogue between me and me. I once held a staunch view that the true artist considers nothing but the story’s verisimilitude (I used words like “true artist” and “verisimilitude” back then). Let the audience squirm if it did not understand or approve! I cycled over to a more utilitarian view when I was trying to make a living as a filmmaker, and thought my previous view naïve, knowing that all savvy filmmakers are able to answer the question, “who is your audience?” I’ve swung back and forth and beyond those and other views many times in the last decades. Now I am looking down the tunnel of my last decades of storytelling, should God extend life, and I no longer think either of those things.

There was never an edict more perfect for—or countercultural to—today’s artist than Paul’s command to the Philippians (my paraphrase): Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard the audience as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of your viewers (2:3).

Love, compassion, sympathy, joy, encouragement, humility: these are not words that describe the tortured artist I once identified with. Yet Paul is urging, in tones reminiscent of his first epistle to the Corinthians, that love is not rude, or proud, or impatient or unkind or easily angered. That love remembers gently that not everyone has been given the gift of insight into God’s kingdom, and that story is the way we might create readiness, that the blind might be given sight and the deaf might hear. Making films in this way is more akin to working at Union Rescue Mission than at Disney Animation Studios.

A few years ago when a feature documentary of mine was screening at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, I was on a panel with about eight other documentary filmmakers in front of a packed audience. We answered a lot of questions, the last of which was to provide the one word or phrase that was at the heart of each filmmaker’s work. That answer for me is “God,” but I didn’t want to appear to be mocking people who may no longer have a reference for that word. So, I prayed. The Scripture “God is love” came to me, and it struck me more as a name than a characteristic. So that’s the name I used. “You must have Love,” I answered, to see the story, to sustain you through making the film. Then you put Love into the film and you send it across the divide between you and the audience. If it works, the audience sees Love coming, and is stirred, receives Love from you, a stranger. We wave and smile. We ignore the film—which is just a vehicle anyway—and seize the moment together until it fades.

Unknown to me, in the audience at that panel was the festival’s lifetime achievement award winner and a father of documentary film, Albert Maysles. That night when he was giving an acceptance speech, Maysles threw away his notes and said the core of his 60 years of work had been articulated at a panel earlier that day. He said the heart of it all is love.

Things Hidden Since the First Day

Paul also tells us in Labberton’s chosen text that Jesus, though he was fully God, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” This bold reminder not to forget the mystery is the strongest argument in favor of storytelling yet. Not to forget that God is above us, his thoughts and his ways beyond our understanding—in that reality is the abundant life into which we have been invited. Later in Matthew’s passage where Jesus explains why he tells stories, the chapter ends with this report:

All Jesus did that day was tell stories—a long storytelling afternoon. His storytelling fulfilled the prophecy: I will open my mouth and tell stories; I will bring out into the open things hidden since the world’s first day.

— Matthew 13:34–35, The Message

The mystery, the mystery, the mystery! Film director Jane Campion said in a recent interview that she thinks inspiration is waiting for us to sit down at the keyboard long enough to receive the mystery that the Spirit is waiting to drop on us. Even more intriguing, in his book The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson says that what God did in Genesis, he did not finish in Genesis, but he is still doing now. That God still hovers over the face of our waters, still creating the garden. Paraphrasing Isaiah, he says, “Did you think creation was over and done with when the mountains were carved, the rivers set flowing, and the Lebanon cedars planted? Did you think that salvation is only a date in the history books and some stories you heard from your grandparents? The Creator is still creating, here in Babylon! The savior is still saving!” (p. 165) That means a river of new stories, never ending.

Telling stories, to recap, is about corporate refreshment, about new creation, about mysteries old as the world’s first day. In addition to transitioning to a new presidential season, Fuller is imagining a new era in seminary education. We are surrounded by change; the continents are shifting. Things will be said that have not been revealed yet. The things that we thought were beyond us, the things we could not conceive of, the things steeped in mystery are the things that can only be revealed in those new places.

To borrow Rainer Maria Rilke’s imagery, now is the time to go to the depths of God where theologians, “like a thousand divers,” plunge until they are forced to return to the surface, only to dive again. What if gatherings of the community—whether dialogues, or inaugurations, or chapels, or study groups, or lunchtimes, or Fuller classes—were viewed not as a set of tedious hoops to clear or hours to kill, but occasions to dive into the mystery of God? To surface and dive and surface and dive and surface, sputtering and coughing to catch our breath—so that we might dive again? Countless stories would be pulled from the deep and brought to the surface to be shared, more stories than there are people to share them, every theme confessing, again as Paul urged, “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”