I was recently with one of my brothers and a few of our friends on a camping trip on which we encountered two women from the Bay Area who were as free-spirited as just about anyone I have ever met. You could even say they were hippies but I hesitate to just because I’m not sure if that word carries negative connotations these days. I don’t mean it that way if it does. I love hippies. At any rate, when they arrived at their campsite which was next to ours they got out of their van and began waving a smoking stick over each other. They noticed that we were observing curiously and so they struck up a conversation. We invited them over to our campfire and they offered to share some sage with us, explaining the purpose of the ritual as they waved the smoking herb around our bodies. They explained that burning sage was done in order to cleanse themselves of any negative energy they may have acquired throughout the day. As our friend was explaining the ritual to us she paused and stated something as if it could have almost gone without saying:
“You realize this is all made up though, right?”
I laughed nervously to indicate my agreement while internally recognizing the absurdity of admitting that one’s own faith practices and the stories surrounding them are “made up.”
The freedom with which she admitted this truth was made clear by the fact that she continued on with her explanation of sage and its uses as if there was nothing absurd about her previous statement.
She recognized that this story surrounding the burning of sage, that it cleanses one from negative energy, was made up and yet she continued to do it.
The more I reflect back on that experience, the more I realize that our camping friend’s observation is not absurd. It’s actually incredibly insightful.
In fact, all stories are made up. Even the ones that historians and scientists tell.
The stories that we tell about God are made up too. And yes, that includes the ones in the Bible.
The four canonical gospels, for example, are stories that people began to tell in response to the Christ-event.
Do they tell us exactly how it happened, down to every last historical detail?
Of course they don’t. That’s why there’s four of them and they all highlight different things about the Christ event. No story can fully capture the way an event actually transpired. Stories are our attempt to leap up and grasp hold of what was originally experienced, the event that we are testifying to…but we never can quite get a hold of it. The event evades our attempt at nailing it down with the words of our stories.
Because, you see, stories are comprised of words which are merely signposts pointing beyond themselves to real life ideas or feelings or objects. Often times, words fail to capture the depth of that which they are attempting to describe.
The word “joy” means something to us, it describes a feeling or a state of being. But encountering someone who is joyful often transcends the words we have to describe the experience.
The word, more often than not, falls short. This is especially true when we encounter the sacred or the divine.
All we can do in these instances is tell a story made up of words that will never fully describe the real thing, what it was actually like in that moment. Often these stories that attempt to testify to the divine are full of poems and symbols because poetic and symbolic language speaks to the heart and soul of humanity in a way that rational discourse simply cannot.
That’s what the gospels are. Just stories, made up stories full of poems and symbols, written by communities who are attempting to find the right words to make sense of what they experienced in the Christ event.
This isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, it can’t be avoided. All of language functions this way.
May we learn to embrace it.