Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Art of Storytelling: Cultural Myths and the Book of Ruth

Some Reflections on the Opening Verses of the Book of Ruth and Its Cultural Challengers

Good storytellers know that how and where one chooses to begin a story establishes whether folks will continue to listen. Although the bulk of Ruth's story is yet to come, something is already becoming abundantly clear from these opening verses: the picture of life that is being portrayed in this book is not one that is necessarily pleasant or happy. In a time in which the barriers between fantasy and reality remain as unclear as ours, the picture here is one of stark reality. In a time when folks are consumed with self-indulgence, chasing after beautiful bodies, and always believing that compiling a few more things will lead to comfort and security, the storyteller here presents us with a picture of life that is minimalist in all its aspects. This narrator has the audacity to suggest that we can expect difficulties and unanswerable questions in life—in fact, that they are inevitable. This runs counter to many of the myths which make up 21st century America.
Growing up in our sometimes isolated ghettoes we are told a different story. In a time of uncertainty and in a climate of fear, we are encouraged to look for strength in security. As Pax Americana stretches out her wings below whom all are called to bow, we naively believe that where we go, we take with us primarily freedom and liberty—all of which falls largely on the deaf ears of others who view our actions as both paternalistic and full of hedonistic self-interest. Here at home, we are told a story which posits consumption and competition as the highest values. All that we aspire to in life has behind it the singular goals of economic and political power. Many, if not most of us, may have even been lured here, to this place, not for an education, but for a degree. And the reason we need a degree is so that we can get a good job, so that we can make more money, so that we can accumulate more stuff, and thereby, discover our primary purpose in life.
Or perhaps we have fallen prey to a different narrative which circulates in the evangelical subculture. Here, we are promised health and wealth this side of eternity and eternal bliss the other side if we will simply “come to Jesus.” Having said the sinner’s prayer and displayed Jesus on the bumper stickers of our cars, we somehow believe that if we work hard, give occasionally to Christian causes, and fill our lives with Christian rhetoric (or, Jesus-speak), we can expect good things to happen to us in life. We are warned not to get too caught up, however, in the pleasures of this life, but to learn to live cautiously and pray for those poor bastards who are unlike us. Just maybe, if they listen to our words of warning, recognize that we are the true messengers of God, and come to Jesus--even they can find a place in heaven and a life filled with lots of good stuff this side of eternity. And, more importantly, they can be assured of a “get into heaven” pass via a direct rapture while all the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
The Bible unmasks both of these narratives for what they are—blatant falsehoods, facades of the gospel. Instead, the Christ who walked the way of the cross is better seen in the death and destruction of today’s story in Ruth. This story literally drips with irony and would have caused its original hearers to have suffered a bit of religious shock. For here, the story of God’s people lies suspended by a thread that is both foreign and female. God’s salvation history hangs suspended on the faithfulness of a woman who will risk everything she has and, as we will see later, by so doing provide one of the crucial links that leads inexorably to Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. To a world which clings to a narrative freighted with power and prestige, the shocking reality to which we are introduced in this little book has the potential to turn the world upside down.
And that’s just what good storytelling does. It insists on beginning in a way we might not expect and in a place far removed from our own and, by so doing, shocks us out of the lethargy of our current comforts. This biblical story, this story of salvation which confronts the opposing story of success insisted on by our culture, claims in Eugene Peterson’s words, that, “salvation is not a one-time stand,” (147). For the Hebrews, this could be summed up in the word HESED, which was most often attributed to God. Sometimes simply translated with the word, “kindness,” the roots of the word are probably better expressed with our term, “faithfulness.” What is being represented is long-standing commitment, no matter what the cost. This is a word of relationship which refuses to reduce one’s connection to another to issues of blood, contract, or economic benefit. HESED means a willingness to die with or for another, even if one cannot see or understand the reason for doing so. HESED is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to not flee the German prison at his first opportunity, but to remember those who were imprisoned with him. HESED is what a man demonstrates when the doctor tells him that there is no hope for his wife, but he refuses to leave her bedside. HESED is what the best soldiers demonstrate whenever a comrade has been wounded and, at the risk of their own lives, they stay behind not knowing whether there will be any other opportunity for rescue.
And HESED is what Ruth demonstrates at the end of this narrative to Naomi who has now chosen the name, Mara, to represent her bitterness and loss. In the midst of her grief, the matriarch of the story cannot even see the grace of God made manifest in this young woman who refuses to leave her side. The story concludes on this single thread of hope in which the emptiness of the older woman is set alongside the HESED of this foreign, powerless, child of incest. “Ruth the Moabite has chosen Naomi the Judahite. Ruth the daughter-in-law has chosen Naomi the mother-in-law,” (Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 174). On such a choice hangs the outcome, not only of this particular narrative, but of God’s larger salvation story. This is no one-night stand. This is a commitment almost beyond comprehension.
Of such a beginning are great stories made. Into such a world came Jesus Christ. Out of such bitterness and through such faithfulness will emerge hope for all people, of all ages, and of all nationalities. And that, my friends, is a story worth telling!