Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Transformation and Redemption in Story

Back in the day, I took an English course at the University of Alberta. The professor was young, passionate about literature, and a wholly likeable guy. He was also passionate about preaching the dictums of postmodernism. He told us that postmodernism is the way of the future.
I wasn’t convinced.
One day he raised a finger to the ceiling and declared that most popular of postmodern edicts: “There is no ultimate truth!”
I cleared the earwax out of my ear and said, “Come again?”
He passionately re-exclaimed, “There is no ultimate truth!”
I liked the guy so I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Except,” I said. “That by proclaiming that there is no ultimate truth, you are in fact proclaiming an ultimate truth.”
He reddened.
I said, “Don’t you really mean to say that there is no ultimate truth except this one, that there is no ultimate truth?”
He stuttered.
“Except,” I went on, “If you believed that, then you would be soundly in the camp of the religious who would declare that they too hold to one ultimate truth. And in doing so, does that not unmask the whole thing as simply looking for another way to redeem ourselves?”
His surprising answer was that he began to cry.
In that moment I understood two things: 1) I was so going to fail this course, and 2) I had grown weary of the cultural meat grinder of postmodern deconstructionism.

On Monday, Katy pointed us to a video called The Arc of Storytelling by Bobette Buster. The whole video is interesting, but I’m focusing on the content from around the nine-minute mark to the end, which is where she talks about story as the vehicle by which we understand by “seeing” that transformation is possible, and redemption is attainable.

Every one of us has come through that meat grinder of postmodern thought. We’ve focused our questions and attention on deconstructing the notions of what it means to be human, and of pretty much everything we see, touch, think, hope for, and believe. But what I have noticed is that entire generations of people are weary, frightened, and hopeless. And these deconstructed people are looking for stories that show them they are more than the sum of their parts.

Transformation and redemption

Bobette Buster focused on transformation as the key story element that captures audience (reader) imagination and elevates that story to the position of “success” or “worth keeping”. I like how she phrases this by pointing out the transformation brings the character fully alive. It’s more than proving we are capable of change, it’s the hope that we can (will) become people who meet life head on with gusto, verve, purpose, and passion. Yes, purpose. Not mindlessly wandering from home to work to the TV set, to bed, and then start all over again the next day. But to know what it is we’re here to do, and then have the guts to go out and do it. Fully alive.

Buster ties the concept of transformation to redemption, which she means not in the theological sense per se, but in a more general sense. Still, redemption is more than the second chance; it’s a state of being in which transformed, fully alive live. The place where we understand that regardless of circumstances we are supported by someone or something greater than our self.

The generations who grew up inside of postmodern deconstructionism are still looking for the redemption story their guts tells them is out there. Even after been weened on the notion that such a thing doesn't exist. Stumbling, getting lost, losing hope, finding it again, they are searching.

For these people, ultimate truth is an answer they must be left to discover on their own (hence their distain for preachy stories with an agenda), but they are looking to story to remind them they are more than the sum of their parts, they have purpose, and a hopeful future. That they can be the heroes of their own lives.

Writers who are people of faith need to keep two things in mind: transformation is a journey that cannot and should not be summed up in a single prayer. It is a journey, and that fact must be respected in our story. Secondly, redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds, with courage, knowing there is “an inexorable force in the universe there to support you if you keep going, you will discover the faith, the courage to move on.”

Until we can approach the concepts of transformation and redemption sensitively, and understand the journey that they entail, rather than racing to the finish line, we will be stuck in the postmodern meat grinder, proclaiming that our ultimate truth is better than that guy’s ultimate truth.

To put it another way, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”


Susie Finkbeiner said...

{standing ovation}

This is a beautifully inspiring post, Bonnie! My thought upon reading the last words was "look at what God asks us to's fabulous!".

I'm in the research phase of a novel. I have a character who needs to learn that he is more. And, even more importantly, I have friends who are in the grinder, thinking that it's a comfy place to hang out.

Ooo....I'm all sorts of inspired. And this before the first cup of coffee!

Wendy Paine Miller said...


Especially loved the paragraph that begins with Writers who are...toward the end.

Powerful stuff today, Bonnie!
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I'm fairly certain I've never had a standing ovation on a blog article before. I feel very much like curtsying. :)
Really thrilled to be a spark in your morning.

It's a strange image thinking of your friends who hang out inside the meat grinder. Strange, but apt. Thanks.

Wendy: More applause! You ladies are generous and kind! Thanks so much, Wendy.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, Bonnie, if you knew some of my friends...

Really, I see them being ground down by life. They are more afraid of having Jesus than staying in there, being turned into ground beef. And they think this is all they get out of life. (sigh)

BUT! They all have a friend obligation to read my book when/if it gets published. So they'll HAVE to read about hope!

Camille Eide said...

Really got me thinking, Bonnie. I needed this just now. Thank you!

Bonnie Grove said...

Jack: Thanks!

Camille: Glad you found it useful. :)

Jennifer Williams said...

I will be thinking on this post for a while. So inspiring!!

Marcia said...

Wow, Bonnie, what a confrontation with authority! I admire your boldness.

But now you've got me wondering, what did that professor do after he cried? Did he dismiss class? Did he say something else? Did you? Or another student? And did you fail the class? Do tell the rest of the story. You've left me in suspense!

Anonymous said...

I cry easily, so remind me not to cross you in a classroom setting...

Fella by the name of Richard Rohr says transformation occurs by prayer or pain...a few achieve it by prayer (saints, those lucky-ducks) and the rest of us via pain...and what better medium to pluck the heartache we all carry? Story...once upon a time...maybe even happily ever after. Good storytelling touches the postmodern weeping professors as well as the crusty old CroMagnon evangelicals.

Excellent standing ovation, but only because I'm feeling crusty today.

Bonnie Grove said...

Marcia: I was surprised that he cried. He so believed in his post modern ideals. He tried to defend the position a bit more, but his heart wasn't in it. I ended the conversation by asking him a question about Keats' wonderful poem Autumn.

I hesitate to mention what happened to the guy after that because people will likely draw conclusions. . .
I got an A+ in the class. The professor quit teaching and moved back to Ontario.

The episode was surprising, but I had already earned my right to speak. I was one of his favorite students because my enthusiasm for the content nearly matched his own. And I respected him a great deal.

But that doesn't mean I had to agree with everything he said. ;)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I was watching the Ark of Story video when a student came in this morning. The mother, when told of the premise said she could not agree. Then she read your blog post and came out enthusiastically in support of everything you said. Maybe I didn't explain the premise well....
Once upon a time the general population did not have to come up with truth from themselves. Society fought over things that really matter (land, food and the girl next door) and no one took anti-depressants. And I think people were freer to create.
Now, since we waste so much time rediscovering the wheel for ourselves we have to churn out the same flotsam as everyone else. And we call it individualism.

"And these deconstructed people are looking for stories that show them they are more than the sum of their parts." Pandora really, really needs that hope that came last.

Bonnie Grove said...

thebeautifuldue: Good storytelling touches everyone. I couldn't agree more. Now I have to go look up Richard Rohr.

Henrietta: I always enjoy your comments. There have been good things that have come out of the postmodern meat grinder--for one, a global awareness that North Americans simply didn't have before. The notion that we should be sharing in the burden of humanity more than we are which we have come to realize only because we started to deconstruct the comfortable constructs that have kept our heads in the sand for so long. But there is so much good that has been tossed aside as well.

Storytellers (writers, musicians, painters, sculptures, song writers, etc) carry the same burden they always have: not to merely understand the culture they live in, but to speak into it, shape it, give it vision.

Steve G said...

"People don’t want to transform into churchgoers"

As a pastor I read this and totally agree. So many churches run as if they are the end purpose of it all - they aren't. The thing they do want is much more closely tied to God's mission in the world (the one the church SHOULD be doing) - that of transformation and purpose. Art, including storytelling, speaks the post moderns' language. Those who write to preach write only to the church.

I also think we need to be careful about some of these things we borrow from sociology, like "tribes", that is supposed to be our whole new way of reaching the masses. Look at Africa and the Middle East and you may second guess your desire to become "tribal". I think that people are telling us Tribes is a new thing, but it seems more of an old thing used in a new way to fool us into doing something that used to be done by publishers. Can we have a post or two on this?

Bonnie Grove said...

Steve: You're right, story is the language of the postmodern generations. For this, I'm grateful, as I think in story rather than, say, images. If you want my full attention, tell me a story.

We don't tend to talk a great deal about marketing novels on Novel Matters. You are, of course, referring to Seth Godin's book Tribes (and I could go on for days about how I disagree with his premise), and how the CBA has adopted his ideas as a method of moving all of the marketing responsibility onto the shoulders of the author.

Sharon said...

I'm a couple of days late reading this, but I really loved these thoughts Bonnie. They don't need comment, I just really loved them.