Story-Making as Shalom-Making

(On October 24, 2015, I delivered this keynote address at the Christian Courier Story-maker’s Symposium, celebrating that Christian newspaper’s 70th anniversary. Give and take some spur of the moment revisions and minus introductory remarks and the power point slides, this is the presentation I gave.)

I am going to show a music video as part of my talk today. But before I do that, I am going to read three passages from the Bible. There are well known Bible passages. And then, I will give some background info so that you can appreciate the video better, then show the video. And after that, I will try and tie them all together in my talk, somehow.

Read Genesis 11:1-9; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Proverbs 14:12.

I am going to show you a music video by Sinead O’Connor. Sinead O’Connor, if you don’t know, is an Irish singer, raised Roman Catholic.

Sinead O'Connor By Pymouss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sinead O’Connor
By Pymouss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a couple of things you need to know about her in order to fully appreciate the music video I am about to show you. First is that Sinead became an international music star in 1990 when her hit song Nothing Compares to You hit No. 1 in several countries including the UK and the USA. Nothing Compares to You, which I think is still the song that most people remember Sinead for, is basically a song about a woman lamenting the departure of her lover, as nothing is the same without him in her life because, well, nothing compares to him. Its accompanying music video also became iconic, where the video comprised almost entirely of a close up of Sinead’s face as she sings the song. Remember this iconic close up shot (for the video).

A note about Sinead’s shaven head – she originally shaved it as a protest against traditional views of women, it became her trademark but also became part of her identity. She once said, “I don’t feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I’m an old lady, I’m going to have it.” [Barkham, Patrick (20 February 2007). “The Bald Truth”.The Guardian (London).]

One other thing that Sinead O’Connor is (in)famous for is her appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, where during her performance, she presented a photo of Pope John Paul II to the camera and ripped the photo to pieces and said, “Fight the real enemy.” Sinead, throughout her career, has, shall we say, a testy relationship with the church? She has often criticized organised religion although she has said before in interviews that she still considers herself a Christian. She is an outspoken feminist and had spoken against child abuse in the church.

That’s what you need to know to more fully appreciate the music video (embedded below).

Story-Making

Let me preface myself by saying that I am not suggesting that Sinead O’Connor got all her theology right or that she should be our model Christian here. But this is an interesting song. There is a story behind the song, obviously – given her history with the church, it’s amazing how Sinead chose to write a song called, “Take Me to Church“. But there is a story within the song! This is a song of repentance and of hope. There is a narrative here – the female protagonist in the song is repenting of her old ways:

I don’t wanna love the way I loved before
I don’t want to love that way no more
What have I been writing love songs for?
I don’t wanna write them anymore
I don’t wanna sing from where I sang before
I don’t wanna sing that way no more
What have I been singing love songs for?
I don’t wanna sing them anymore
I don’t wanna be that girl no more
I don’t wanna cry no more
I don’t wanna die no more

She realizes that her old paths were not paths of true love, but paths of self-destruction. It ultimately led her to a noose around her neck as she hangs from a tree. She realizes her folly:

So, cut me down from this here tree
Cut the ropes from off of me
Sit me on the floor
I’m the only one I should adore

Now, this last line, “I am the only one I should adore,” should not be understood as self-exaltation. I don’t think in the context where she confesses to doing so many bad things it hurts, and needing a place of healing – take me to church – in that context, I can’t see how it would suddenly suggest self-exaltation as in self-adoration. I think in its context, “I am the only one I should adore,” means a self-realization that I should not be killing myself with these old ways of false love, the old love songs where a woman’s life revolves around a man’s love – e.g. Nothing Compares to You, which was superimposed onto her face at the beginning of the music video – and a realization that I need to truly love myself, and save me from this way of death. In the video, I suggest that her removal of her wig to reveal her shaven head is a removal of the masks, the sexism that exists to pressure women to look a certain way, and she reveals her true self, as she is, she learns to love herself, shaven head and all.

So, cut me down from this here tree
Cut the ropes from off of me …
Oh, take me to church
I’ve done so many bad things it hurts
Yeah, take me to church
But not the ones that hurt
‘Cause that ain’t the truth
And that’s not what it’s for

She needs a place of healing but she recognizes that not all self-proclaimed places of healing are really offering life and truth but some are distortions of the real thing. Through healing, she turns from this past of wayward love songs to singing songs of life:

I’m gonna sing. Songs of loving and forgiving
Songs of eating and of drinking
Songs of living. Songs of calling in the night
Cause songs are like a bolt of light
And love’s the only love you should invite
Songs of longings but fulfilled
Songs that won’t let you sit still
Songs that’ll mend your broken bones
And don’t leave you alone

May I suggest that these are songs of shalom? Songs about true love, not the sexualized and romanticized oppression that passes off as love but songs of forgiveness, of life, of longings fulfilled, songs of healing.

Shalom is the Hebrew word that is loosely translated as “peace” in English. But it means much more than that. It is perhaps better translated as “flourishing”. To experience shalom is to flourish in all one’s relationships – with God, with one’s fellow human beings, with the non-human creation, with oneself. Such “flourishing” … goes beyond the absence of hostility, to fulfillment and enjoyment.”  (Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice and Peace” entry in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, IVP 1995, pp. 19-20)

Stories are all around us. Stories are not only found in books or e-books, but also in movies, in songs, in commercials, even in the news. Stories are how we answer the question, “who are you?” Stories are how we make sense of our lives, it’s how we organize and express our meaning-making, our attempts at finding purpose, values, identity. Our worldviews are shaped as narratives or stories.

So, what kind of stories do we make? Do we make stories of seeming love and seeming life that only lead us to self-destruction, leading our collective culture tied to a tree with a rope around our neck? Or do we make stories of shalom: stories of forgiving, joy and life?

Babel-Building = Meaning-Making Gone Wrong

I think there is something that all fallen human beings do: babel-building. Babel-building is essentially fallen humanity’s attempts at making meaning, purpose and identity for themselves apart from God. In verse 4 of Genesis 11, we read that the Babel-builders were building this city and this tower as a means to “make a name for ourselves”. Making a name for themselves is not simply to make themselves famous. In Old Testament cultures, names are about one’s identity. Making a name for themselves is about identity making. And identity making and meaning making are intrinsically connected. We cannot answer “Who are we?” without also answering “Why are we here?”

So, without necessarily going through an exegesis of Genesis 11, as that will take more time than I have, let me suggest to you the following items about Babel-building: Babel-building is rooted in Humanity’s Achievements/Striving. It is based on Distrust, Fear and Control.

The Babel-builders were afraid of being scattered over the face of the earth. There seems to be a great desire to control their environment and to control people – to draw people together into one city.

Babel-building is also centred on the exercise of Power-Over. Jim Olthuis in his book, The Beautiful Risk (Zondervan 2001), mentioned two different kinds of power – power-over and power-with. Power-Over is about coercive control, about manipulation, about conquest, about mastery and ultimately, oppression.

The Babel-builders were not only exercising power-over their environment and over people, they were also attempting to exercise power-over God. The Tower of Babel story, as it is preserved for us in Scripture, probably is a sideways critique of the Babylonian empire. Shinar is the land where Babylon was located. The word babel in Babylonian means, Gate of God. And archeologists have unearthed Babylonian towers called ziggurats. And what historians discovered was that these ziggurats act as stairways for Gods to come down and bless humanity (not to get up to God) – it’s to bring God/heaven down to earth, not to bring humans up to heaven. The tower is a means to exercise power-over the gods. (See The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, IVP 2000, entry on Genesis 11:1-9, pp. 41-42.)

Human society is still building babel today. We are still trying to make a name for ourselves. Everything good has been co-opted into babel building projects to aid in human control/power over creation, over community and even over our creator. Babel-building comes in many different shapes and forms – individual or collectively. And it can be very subtle. Even story-making have been co-opted into Babel-building. Remember the love songs that make people cry and die?

Even religion and spirituality, even Christianity, has been rooted in fear, mistrust and control. Religion have been co-opted into babel building to make a name for ourselves – religion becomes a formula or rules for us to bring God under our control, and to bring people under control. There are some churches that hurt, but that ain’t the truth and that’s not what they are for.

“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Prov. 14:12, TNIV)

Babel-building and Power-over are seductive and intoxicating. They give us a false sense of security, success, and stability. Through babel-building we create systems to give us meaning, purpose and structure. All our -isms are such babel-building systems, e.g. sexism and patriarchy as the song suggests. And these systems become our “normal”. They appear “right” to us. We think that by means of babel-building we can attain flourishing life. This is a delusion. It does not give us flourishing life, it only gives us death, enslaves us to our false gods – the more we exercise power over things, the more we actually give them power over us! Babel-building promises love and life but it leads us to death on a tree.

Shalom-Making = God’s Meaning-Making for Us

Instead of Babel-building, God’s meaning –making for us is Shalom-making. Shalom-making is rooted in God’s Work/Accomplishments. It is built on Faith, Hope and Love. It revolves around the exercise of Power-With. Even God chooses the path of power-with rather than power-over. God incarnate chose to be God with us, rather than God over us. Even in creation, God chose to delegate powers to humanity created in his image to work and to take care of the Garden, to have dominion and to rule as his ambassador. God shares power, God empowers his creatures to be co-creators in his creation. This is the true way to meaning, to our true identities, to abundant life.

It is imperative that we do not confuse God’s shalom-making with human babel-building. We do not bring about God’s kingdom, God’s shalom, by exercising power-over, and by revolving around fear, mistrust and control. When we write our opinion columns, our news stories, our songs, our poems, our analytical pieces – do we examine ourselves, and ask ourselves: what kind of story am I assuming, or am I implying with the way I am framing the issues? And is that way of framing the story/narrative a way of shalom – of faith, hope and love – or is that a way rooted in fear, distrust and control?

God is truly a God of order and not of chaos. But in our limitations of looking at the world as in a dim reflection in a mirror, we might confuse our babels for God’s shalom. We might confuse our Babel world order for God’s shalom order. And God, out of his mercy to save us from our own self-destructive ways, might just have to turn our world upside down, because that’s the only way to turn us right side up. God might need to disrupt our babel-building order, and that will definitely feel like chaos to us.

To relinquish our cherished orders that give us a false sense of control and mastery, to relinquish our hostilities and antagonisms, our us-versus-them categories, our neat ideological, even dare I say, theological, boxes, to relinquish our power-over things and people, that will certainly feel like chaos to us. And there may be a scattering that occurs. A scattering that looks like an exodus from our city and our tower. But it is an exodus from our Babel. It is not necessarily an exodus away from God.

Shalom-Making Story-Makers

Shalom-making story-makers need to foster faith, hope and love for the common good. There was a recent Christian Courier (Sept. 14, 2015 issue) article by Elisabeth Gesch about Hope-mongering. I like that. Hope-mongering. I think shalom-making story-makers need to be hope-mongers instead of fear-mongers, faith-mongers instead of distrust-mongers, and love-mongers instead of control-mongers.

In a world that is increasingly full of competing Babels, each exercising power-over each other, it is very tempting for us to be sucked into fear-mongering and control-mongering. May I encourage all of us to hold firm to faith, hope and love, especially love. In our story-makings, in our writings, in our reporting, be patient. Be kind. Do not envy or boast. Do not dishonor our so-called enemies. Do not simply seek the self-interests of Christians and of our tribe. Do not be easily angered. Forget the wrongs done to us. Do not focus or dwell on the evils in the world but highlight and rejoice in the truths in the world! Always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere. Knowing that it is not our efforts that bring God’s shalom to fulfillment but God will bring us all one day to his new heaven and earth.

God’s Spirit is at work in the world. God is busy making shalom. God has enlisted us as his co-shalom-makers. And God may have also enlisted others, like this song by Sinead O’Connor perhaps, to help spread his shalom, to take us to church. Let us be encouraged. Thank you.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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