This summer I’m starting a practice of quoting or reviewing most of the books I read. I want to keep more of the materials with me, remember words, and appreciate what I’m learning, so I’m putting in a bit of effort to capture things in a few hundred words.
I just finished John Shea’s Stories of God. I was introduced to John Shea (in thought and writing, not in person) by my first clinical supervisor, Sister Barbara Sheehan at Urban CPE. She told us that according to John Shea, “Our feelings are the word of God to us.” I heard that and immediately liked John Shea.
This is the first of his books I’ve read. It develops the idea that when Christian people get together, we tell stories and that our stories are our ways of making sense of the world that God has created. Stories are “inevitable companions of people bounded by birth and death.” They are not incidental to life, but essential. Stories are the inescapable ways we talk about the Mystery that is itself inescapable.
Shea says that we relate to five relational environments as human beings, the first and most baffling of which is ourselves. The second environment is family and friends, those who are continually near us and with whom we have sustained interaction. The third and fourth are institutions in society and the nonhuman universe. The last environment is the relation with God or the Transcendent (or commonly Mystery in this book), which is known by diverse “acknowledgements of its presence.”
We are made for these environments, made by them. When it comes to Mystery Shea says that there is an immediate, intense desire for communion in us. “We perceive the dimension of Mystery” through feeling, and we perceive feeling through dialogue and communion. He says on p. 25,
The human person comes to be through dialogue with others. Out of this ongoing dialogue, people develop a sense of who they are and where they are going. People speak to each other words of acceptance and love, but they also speak painful words that call for conversion and new lifestyles.
Communion means love and acceptance; it implies freedom. But human communion goes beyond humanity. It facilitates our awareness of Mystery. In other words, being in relationships of love and acceptance open us to the One who accepts and loves us into freedom. At times this is not a delightful path but a dark one, filled with disenchantment.
But “Disenchantment is an experience of Mystery reasserting itself.” In darkness God comes. In pain we are freed from an idol’s hold upon us and we reach into Mystery. Shea does a lot to describe relationships with Mystery, gives it qualities that anyone “walking with God” can meaningfully relate to.
He writes the second part of the book into three types of stories: 1) Story of Hope and Justice; 2) Story of Trust and Freedom; and 3) Story of Invitation and Decision. When he speaks of stories and, I’d suggest, language broadly, he says:
Although the only way to the unknown is through the familiar, there is a danger. Titles and stories are not the reality. They only serve the reality. They are the way into the Mystery revealed in Jesus Christ, but they are not the Mystery.
For the first story, he discusses two ways of reading the stories of Mystery regarding justice and hope: an interventionist interpretation and an intentional interpretation. The first views historical activity as chaotic and separate from the mythical activity of God. An interventionist view sees all of life from the future, the eschaton, the moment when all things will be redeemed. Justice or hope look ahead to a future which frames life now. “It is this future, always-impending moment which shapes consciousness and directs activity.” Though it leads to a privatized eschatology and, perhaps, a privatized ethic, everything hinges on an invading God who comes after we’ve waited.
Waiting happens in lament, through provocation of the reluctant God to act, and by engaging in “presumptuous activity” that looking upon our works, “Christ will recognize as his own when at last he comes.” This interpretative view of God’s story is characterized by increasing anticipation, purposive waiting, patience, and practice that’s framed by a future vision. I see a lot of this view in practice in the church of my upbringing and the church I currently serve by the way.
The second way of seeing the story of Mystery is an intentional interpretation. This approach is about God’s reasons for interacting rather than God’s ways of interacting with the world. God’s values are present and experienced.
Rather than coming from “a future act of God,” this approach is from “God’s present nature.” God moves toward justice out of a heart of love and compassion for creation. Justice is “an act of respect” and, while its demands are absolute, its forms vary.
In the chapter “The Story of Trust and Freedom,” Shea works with the “combination of stories which attempts to uncover the meaning of Mystery which was revealed in Jesus,” particularly “Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Spirit, and Church.” He discusses common renderings of those moments and then offers a compelling alternative of relating the symbolic elements of the events in terms of an “inner theological logic.”
He talks about dignity, friendship, and the common aims of Christian events which intend to underline the presence and indwelling of God in the world. He does considerable biblical and theological work in the chapter, touching upon the strong above-mentioned events, quoting folks like Walter Brueggamann, Leonard Bernstein, and biblical authors. Here’s a quote that may capture a chunk of the chapter’s themes, and I love that I hear echoes of James Cone:
The cross is the grounding of the Christian community, its symbol of realism, and its ongoing principle of critique. It is often noted that ecclesiology has its roots in Christology, but it is often overlooked that Christology brings us back to theology. The foundation of the Church is the experience of God symbolized in the crucified Christ. The cross reveals God’s self-giving love which frees us from our self-serving apathy. Out of God’s total acceptance comes the freedom and power to form community, to belong to each other in a life-giving way.
God has taken into divine reality all that is worst about us and turned it toward good. The law of the cross is not that evil has been eliminated but that it has been transformed into possibility…
The last chapter is about a story of Invitation and Decision. In this chapter Shea focuses his vision on the parables of Jesus.
Underlining what it means to proclaim and live the kingdom of God, the parables (and the scriptures as Shea writes) keep God as the plot of the stories. They press forward “invitations into the life of God” and don’t stop at allegorical interpretation where we have examples or particular paths to live. ” A vision of God active in human life is the home of the parables” (pg. 142).
Shea goes through interpretative methods relative to these central teachings of Jesus and leaves us hungry for participation in life with God. We are met with an invitation from and by Mystery to make decisions to neglect or jump into life with God.
He says that the parables focus on immediacy of action, rather than contemplation or morality. Response is critical. Decision is integral. A final quote to capture the sustained thought of this chapter will close my review well (pgs. 152-153):
Put in another way, every person has a faith, a set of presuppositions which are tested out in everyday life. If this foundational structure is too conscripted or self-centered, a crippling lifestyle develops. Attitudes and behaviors become destructive of both self and community. The depth of sin, therefore, is not in the destructive activity itself but in the consciousness which encourages and validates that activity…Parables take aim at these presuppositions and dominant directions. Their goal is subversion. They are meant to penetrate to the core of what we unquestionably hold and question it. In the realm of parable, nothing is safe.