In Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy tale The Neverending Story, Bastian is a young boy at loose ends. His mother has recently died, both his dad and his schoolmates bully him, and he finds himself alone and isolated at school. In a word, in a world full of loss and pain Bastian feels hopeless and helpless to do anything about his plight.
The one refuge he has is an old bookshop and its cranky proprietor, Coreander. Bastian loves to read great adventure and fantasy tales. One day, while talking to Coreander about these great stories, Bastian’s spies a special looking book the old proprietor holds in his hands.
Here’s their conversation:
Bastian: What’s that book about?
Coreander: Oh, this is something special.
Bastian: Well, what is it ?
Coreander: Look. You’re books are safe. While you’re reading them you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.
Bastian: But that’s what I like about them.
Coreander: Yes, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.
Bastian: What do you mean?
Coreander: Listen (he motions for him to come nearer.) Have you ever been Captain
Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid was attacking you ?
Coreander: Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape ?
Bastian: But it’s only a story.
Coreander: That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read are safe.
Bastian: And that one isn’t ?
“Your books are safe,” says Coreander. Why? You remain in control of them. You read them for your own purposes (entertainment or diversion). You might identify with this or that character at various moments in the story but it never quite becomes your story. Our books allow us to escape to some different place where we may play a hero but we return to our world no different than when we left it.
Coreander’s book, however, is not like these other stories. He implies that it is not safe. Bastian is intrigued. And when Coreander is busy with other customers Bastian makes off with his book and retreats to the school’s attic to read it.
The story is indeed different, Bastian discovers. It grasps him and gradually he cannot neatly separate the “real” world from the increasingly “real” world of this story. At a critical point in the plot of this story, Bastian himself is summoned by one of the characters to join in the struggle to save their land from the threat of Nothing. He does so and discovers all the ways in which he is gifted and able to deal with difficulties that appear insurmountable.
The Bible is the same kind of story. We can, and do, try and read it as a safe story all the time. We read it for moral instruction, life skills, inspiration, history, theology in ways very sophisticated to quite naïve. And in all these ways we read it as a safe story. We want it to answer our questions about our lives and agendas and thus remain in control of this book. Truth is, the Bible doesn’t answer these questions very well (which probably accounts for people’s decreasing interest in reading it) though we continue to work industriously to do so.
The Bible is a story whose characters and Author (God) summon us into another world, a world more real and authentic than the sin-shaped and scarred parody passed off to us as reality. This is the world of God’s new creation, opened up to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us to live, love, and live lovingly the life of this new creation even amid the rubble and debris of “reality” (so-called), otherwise called the normal or the ways things are.
The Bible has no interest in making it possible for us to get along better or more successfully in this sinful reality. Rather we are to live in ways that subvert it in the direction of God’s original intent for creation. Living “new creational” lives amid the “old” creation will necessarily be conflictual. We will fight within ourselves, among ourselves, with the world around us, and even with the devil himself to so live. As we do so faithfully we implement and extend the victory Christ won at his resurrection and we do it by “taking up our cross daily” (which paradoxically has become through Christ the very instrument of God’s victory in his life and in ours).
It is to this story, and the way of life it engenders, that the Bible calls us.
Follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One; allow him to become your definition of reality; reshape your church to become such subversive counter-revolutionary movement – this is what the Bible is about. And it is to these things, the divine neverending story, that God summons us to embrace through the Bible! It is not a safe book!