by Ken Sehested
"If you want to change people's obedience then you must change their imagination."
—philosopher Paul Ricoeur
By the time I finished my cum laude undergraduate work and with distinction seminary degree, my analytical powers were sharply honed. I was capable of researching, selecting, and presenting large troves of factual material; which I immediately put to work as an advocate for justice, peace, and human rights shaped by a passionate theological ethos.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover that people can be convinced (about what should happen) without being convicted (to make something happen). Insight does not come with its own legs.
Knowing does not of its own momentum lead to vigorous doing.
Clarence Jordan, one of the great modern storytellers of the Christian community, said that there’s a difference between admiring Jesus and following Jesus, and that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount was not so much to provoke inspiration as perspiration.
Insightful data does not necessarily lead to the incitement of transformed behavior. The lament over this maddening state of human affairs is at least as old as the Apostle Paul, who famously complained, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Thus began the second, informal stage of my education (which continues even now), trying to grasp what it is that moves people from being convinced to being convicted. For the over-schooled, there is such a thing as the paralysis of analysis.
When one thinks, separately from engagement with actual history, that the facts will of themselves generate not just light but also heat, the end result is almost always a smoldering wick. In truth, what we need cannot be had apart from a community of conviction, where insight is communally brought to bear on actual circumstances. And nothing holds communities of conviction together more than their shared stories.
In Jewish scripture, the worst sin is amnesia—forgetfulness, of who we are, by whom we are called, and for what purpose. The heart of Torah consciousness, the so-called Ten Commandments featured most prominently in Exodus 20, begins with this preface: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .”
Instruction is tied to drama, performed—and memorialized—on a flesh and blood stage. The sole purpose of religious ritual is to refresh our memories in imaginative ways that lead to new acts of faith. Each new season, each new generation, add additional layers to the stories illustrating how faith overcomes fear, how enemies might be loved, how strangers might become friends, how the least, the lost, and the last might be restored to creation’s table of bounty.
Such practices are not detailed in a grand architectural diagram, to be precisely fabricated. Rather, they are embedded in a beatific vision—strong enough to withstand history’s brutal storms—of a coming age when mercy will trump vengeance, when tears will be dried, when death will be no more.
Incarnational faith is a storied faith. Which stories are told—and the purposes and people they serve—determine whose voices are remembered; and whose, forgotten.
“I will tell you something about stories
they aren’t just entertainment
they are all we have to fight off illness and death
we don’t have anything if we don’t have the stories
their evil is mighty, but it can’t stand up to our stories
so they try to make us confused or forget them
they would like that
because then we would become defenseless.”
—Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko
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