Below is my first completed short story ever – 1978 words if you want to know how short. I share this story for three reasons.
First of all, I share it because I want to take my own challenge in the Creating Art from Theology: Artist’s Guide to “produce art pieces or works based on biblical truth for the purpose of raising affections that will glorify God,” and “to introduce the surrounding communities and cities to art that portrays the truth of who God is.”
The second reason I share this short story is to encourage other novice artists like me as well as great artists, maybe like you, to consider using “a creative process that incorporates biblical study as a means for future artistic endeavors” and to considering forming, “communities of Christian artists who gather for the purpose of encouragement, teaching, and critique. ” As a side note, these are also goals found in the Creating Art from Theology small-group study available free on the Doxology Publishing website.
The third reason I share my first short story ever is because of something I read this morning that editor Kyle Strobel wrote in the concluding notes of Charity and Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.
“Spirituality without theology” he says, “is a dangerous thing, but in many circles its has become the only thing. Likewise, the opposite is true.” I hope this story hints at the danger inherit in both truths.
The Burden of Illumination
James Ruben Jackson, PH.D, stood in front of his freshman Greco-Roman New Testament History class just as he had done every spring semester for the last twenty years of his life. Since the day his college sophomore foot had crossed the threshold into the room, ironically grounded on Texas soil, where he was to be introduced to philosophical skepticism and where his dogmatic notions were to be forever untethered, Dr. Jackson had been on a diagonal, though nevertheless straight, path to this exact spot.
New ways of questioning and interpreting knowledge had enlarged Dr. Jackson’s mind so much so that he no longer fit in Texas. Those Texans, who thought they knew him well but who had also attempted to read at least one of his books or listen to one of his lectures, would argue that he had been on a downward slope to the liberal left all along. His own belief was that, on his unlikely journey from Texas doorsill to Massachusetts pedestal, he had progressed up and to the right – to what was right – loosing bits of his fundamentalist mindset, conservative politics, and a good bit of his Texas twang with each deliberate slanted-step-up.
The private college campus where he had settled and now stood was admittedly small, but he liked to point out that it was venerable and progressive. Its architecture that ranged from gothic to modern gave testimony to this fact even though the oldest buildings, the two gothic sandstones, flung Dr. Jackson’s thoughts back to the Dark Ages.
The less assuming gothic inhabited solely by his own Department of Religion sat perpendicular to and dwarfed by its illustrious sister, the towering cathedral. Though the buildings were not joined, from the far opposite corner of the central tree-lined greenway, they appeared as one.
The coldness one might feel upon entering The Department of Religion was softened by the mood generated from the golden glow of antique lights on its worn classroom furnishings. Dr. Jackson would say the mood was that of Rembrandt’s, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He had come to this conclusion a few years earlier on a visit to D.C. where he addressed the history faculty at The George Washington University about the benefits of using contemporary experience to explain the implausibility of miracles described in biblical texts. He hadn’t planned on it, but, when he heard that the Rembrandt was on loan at the Freer, he decided it would be a good way to pass his unscheduled time. Though the painting had burdened him with sentimental feelings of home and something akin to remorse, its warmth and welcome had truly captivated him.
Alongside the Department of Religion, in the shadow of the larger gothic’s spires, stood rows of redbrick colonials that contained the Departments of Philosophy, Education, and Communication.
Far beyond the cathedral’s spires, on the other end of the greenway, were modern outcroppings of mostly glass-walled buildings that housed what Dr. Jackson most admired. Inside these bright contemporary structures, one could enjoy the college’s prized modern art collections, take a design class, or be trained in physics.
Physics fueled Dr. Jackson fascination beyond his own scope of study because it was breaking with old paradigms and creating new realities with novel theoretical models.
Though the ancient architecture of the cathedral was meant to send the mind spiraling God-ward, it had ceased doing so for Dr. Jackson and was his least favorite. Still, even though Jesus, the Christ, had become nothing more than a composite ideal to him, he never hesitated to call himself a Christian. He really did believe God existed. He always had. Those who accused him of being an atheist could not understand that letting God out of the creedal box was not synonymous with unbelief.
But his recent undergraduate students were not so sure. It was true they had heard Dr. Jackson say, “There is, after all, one supreme God!” But the manner in which he had been making this assertion, which could only be described as halfway between humor and contempt, left the students wondering if he meant it.
Dr. Jackson had decided his dislike of the cathedral stemmed from a sense of uneasiness he had become aware of on an occasion when he had attended a particularly unsatisfying debate, “What separates brain cells from the soul?” He had noticed with each subsequent debate, or convocation, or performance that the uneasiness grew so that now just the thought of entering this behemoth of a building made him anxious.
Though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, Dr. Jackson thought his anxiety might have something to do with the eerie loneliness he felt of late despite his congenial relationships with a good many like-minded colleagues. His once consoling prayer life had all but subsided, and he suspected his difficulty formulating prayers had something to do with the borderless God resurrected from his re-imaginations.
Last year, New Year’s Day, he had decided to face his apprehension head on. With full intention of meeting God, he had marched himself right up to the cathedral’s massive wooden doors and, without hesitation, had thrust them open. He had resolutely strolled to the center of the nave and, after having shaken off the wintery chill, he had sat down on one of the benches assigned to the professors.
Dr. Jackson had let his eyes follow the immense gray buttresses up beyond the stained glass to the intricate gold-laced cobalt-blue tile work that filled the ceiling spaces where the supports thinned and crossed. He had waited for a divine revelation to enter his head, but, other than an esoteric idea of love that was something like inclusion and acceptance, for the life of him he had been only able to push aside intrusions that climbed from the theories of his modern historical scholarship and think of what God was not. And so, after awhile, he had wearily dragged himself up and left carrying with him the sensation of a cold weight pulling at his neck that frightened him more than had the apprehension with which he had entered.
Across the greenway, catty-corner to the Department of Religion, sitting at the end of the assorted but distinctive buildings built in the mid-twentieth century, that housed the schools of psychology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and pharmacology, was the campus library, Dr. Jackson’s favorite building. Without knowing when it was built one might guess a 1960’s construction with a 1920’s influence. It was a solid rectangle composed mostly of large translucent white marble panels held firmly in granite frames.
Cold milky light streamed through its rooms so that on a sunny day one could sit at the tables that bordered its books and feel quite refreshed and clear-headed. For that reason, Dr. Jackson had named it, “The Luminary.”
Sometimes, less now than ever, an obscure lecture point would prick at his genuineness and he would stroll over to The Luminary to clear his conscious. He did this in three steps.
- First, he would reason that some hidden vestige of his badly informed childhood dogma had been irritated.
- Next he would purge himself by rehearsing the logic of the particular scholarly argument that lay beneath the contentious point.
- Finally he would console himself with the brilliance of the argument he had set forth for his students’ consideration – a thought process he often had to force upon them.
Since a cynical type of questioning was at the core of the historical process he taught, this force of thought imposed onto his first-year students, Dr. Jackson believed, was quite necessary. “After all,” he said, “one had to solidly believe something in order to learn to question it.”
Most of the freshmen nowadays, Dr. Jackson noted, though influenced by the religion that is Christianity, were ignorant of it. But, even though he pointed out, in not so flattering ways, that their Americanized world views were very definitely shaped by faulty biblical interpretations, these students naturally absorbed all he had to say. His points and arguments that would have seemed so shocking to someone like himself at eighteen-years-old, was mostly absorbed by these pliant, agreeable ears so that they did not bring about much provocation on their part or pleasure on his.
But sometimes, he would get a Fundy or two as Dr. Jackson harassingly referred to the protestant fundamentalist type he knew so well, and his heart would rise to the challenge and beat with the glee that anticipates victory over an opponent whose premises and pitfalls he, after years of debates with the most skilled of their kind, had long since mastered.
With veiled vehemence for the Fundies, he skillfully wielded the Bible as a weapon against the imperfect pillars that held up their impassioned but unenlightened beliefs. And, though he publicly proclaimed he only meant to destroy false confidence in the claims of outdated and misguided scholarship and the pigheaded hate-filled ideas of right and wrong that ensued from it, what he often-times destroyed was faith.
Secretly he was aware of this destruction, but he did not blame it entirely upon himself. Feeling, he reasoned, had long replaced serious scholarship in the Fundy camp so that even the typical pew-sitting Christian could not explain with any depth of reason what he believed and why. And, as far as he could see, other than vile rhetoric toward homosexuality, abortion, and public education the Fundies didn’t look in anyway dissimilar to the culture they railed against. In fact, in most aspects, their arrogant certainty made them look worse. If he could bully them toward acceptable truth, he reasoned, they, and culture in general, would benefit.
Dr. Jackson’s basic five-step plan of attack was as follows:
- Disallow consideration that Christian scripture is God’s word.
- Re-date biblical prophecy to remove its predictive character.
- Redefine a prophet as one who interprets his contemporary culture from the framework of political aspirations and label Jesus as such a prophet.
- Redefine miracles by giving them spiritualized meanings.
- Use specific excerpts from biblical texts to support these premises.
That day, the first for his 2014 freshman Greco-Roman Biblical History class, he had just finished emphasizing to his students that they would be looking at biblical texts historically, not as the word of God, when Ms. Madeleine Maison from New York State astonished with the absurdity of his point blurted out, “People still actually believe God spoke?”
“Yes.” Dr. Jackson answered curtly.
“If God said something to me I don’t think I would tell anyone. All the people I know would assume I was crazy, schizophrenic really, if I claimed such a thing,” Madeleine continued, unaware of Dr. Jackson’s annoyance.
“I suppose they would,” Dr. Jackson said sharply and moved on.
After class, still feeling a bit agitated by Madeleine’s uninvited comment Dr. Jackson wandered across the greenway to The Luminary and found a quiet table. He sat down and enjoyed the light flooding over him. He rested his head like he used to do in elementary school. He closed his eyes, let out a heavy sigh, and thought how nice a nap would be.
“James Ruben,” an unidentified voice interrupted.
No one on campus ever called him that. Dr. Jackson opened his eyes and turned to see who the intruder was, but he only saw cold white light.
The voice continued, “You think intimidating my children and taking advantage of their trust is the right thing to do?”
Dr. Jackson recognized well enough the reference to Jesus’ words in the Mark 9:42 passage and imagined himself being pulled down, drowning from the weight of a big stone around his neck. Then he remembered the Rembrandt. After a while, James Rueben slowly rose and exited The Luminary. He walked, not near as confidently as he had come, along the diagonal path, across the greenway, back to the Department of Religion.