The Underrated Storyteller

“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” ” (Genesis 41:51–52, ESV)

Yesterday we went for a walk through the historic Strand in Galveston, Texas. We poked our camera down old alleyways and histories and odd tumblings-together of old posh and urban chic. I loved the Strand for its beauty. I loved it for its bravery.

I loved it for its scars.

There are two plaques to the left of the door. The lower one commemorates the Great Storm of 1900; the upper one marks the surge line from Hurricane Ike. Both were above my head.

On September 13, 2008, the soul of Galveston was devastated by Hurricane Ike—the latest in a century-long series of tyrants. In many ways it remains a scarred city. The buildings still whisper the story of Ike’s arrival: plaques inscribe a version of prose while hammers and saws give a backwards account. (Repair really is an underrated storyteller. So is redemption.) Nostalgic souls and cans of spray paint still trace out the old watermarks in an effort to say, “I’m here. I’ve suffered, and I’ve survived.”

It’s important to remember.

The lettering reads, “Ike water line.”

But traces of the storm mark the inner face of the city too. Ike still has a say in conversations and timelines are still bracketed by the consequence of his arrival, by the likelihood of others like him. And when the Gulf becomes restless, residents do too. Some desire to forget and others need to remember, but no one is ever the same after a storm.

In Genesis 37-50, we read the account of Joseph. It’s a storm story of a different sort, really. In the surge of his brothers’ betrayal, Joseph was tossed in a tide that brought him to slavery, prison, and still more betrayal. But when life began to settle, Joseph’s reconstruction began. After all, marriage and an upward change of circumstance meant a new life—a chance to shed the memories in the rush to rebuild.

But no one is ever really the same after a storm, are they?

“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’” (Genesis 41:51)

Is it possible to forget a thing like that? Forget a storm that has shaped the landscape of one’s soul? I wonder. I think upheaval may be the point of the storm in the first place. Isn’t this is how we read the Gospels? Witness Martha, Lazarus, and a reformed Mary kneeling in worship before the feet of Christ. Then comes death on the heels of the departing Christ and the little domestic scene is shattered. Jesus does not come. Healing does not arrive. Lazarus is dead, and it appears as if faith might follow him to the grave. Martha questions but Mary despairs beyond the questions. Then comes the Christ to redeem what was lost (John 11:1-44) and to show that this was His purpose all along.

“Agony means severe suffering in which something dies—either the base thing, or the good. No man is the same after an agony; he is either better or worse, and the agony of a man’s experience is nearly always the first thing that opens his mind to understand the need of Redemption worked out by Jesus Christ.[1]

It was a lesson Joseph appears to have learned. With the arrival of his second-born a new Joseph emerges from the page.

“The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 41:52)

“Fruitful in the land of my affliction.” I love that. I love the heart of the God who is not interested in the manufacture of tomorrow only, but in every watermarked moment of the past. His desire is not to merely overcome the past, but to redeem it. Redemption is for this moment and that future Moment of moments before the Throne, it’s true. But it also marks every other second in between. Sometimes it means reconstruction; other times it’s the inscription of a scar that says, “I’m here. I’ve suffered, and healed and survived.”

It’s important to remember. Jesus is recognized by His scars (Zechariah 12:10; John 20:20) and sometimes so are we (Mark 5). After all, scars tell stories too.Image

“It is through these glimpses that we understand why the New Testament was written, and why there needed to be a Redemption made by Jesus Christ, and how it is that the basis of life is redemptive. If Jesus Christ were only a martyr, His Cross would be of no significance; but if the cross of Jesus Christ is the expression of the secret heart of God, the lever by which God lifts back the human race to what it was designed to be, then there is a new attitude to things.”[2]

No one is ever really the same after a storm but I think that’s the point of the storm. He doesn’t mean for us to be the same.

[1] Oswald Chambers, The Shadow of an Agony (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1996).

[2] Ibid.

Bringing Up Girls: A Book Review

Sometime back I was asked to review the book, Bringing Up Girls. Given the fact that so many of the doubts that lie closest to the heart have to do with our children, I thought I might include my review here.

The book has several draws, not the least of which is the author. James Dobson is a likable guy. He is intelligent without being brash, compassionate but not shallow, and, at times, he can be quite blunt. It’s a personality reflected in the book, beginning with Dobson’s invitation for readers to, “grab a cup of coffee or put on a kettle of tea, settle down in a comfortable chair, and let’s talk together.” (4)

Cover of "Bringing Up Girls: Practical Ad...

Cover via Amazon

Dobson brought a great deal of experience and passion to this project — a passion that marks every one of the book’s 272 pages. Citing “what has become [his] obsession” Dobson spoke to the felt-needs of women in language that was both knowledgeable and endearing. As a woman and mother of daughters, I appreciate the respect he brought to the subject.

There were a few minor quirks:

  • The book is informal. Very informal. Perhaps too informal at times. The tendency was even more telling as Dobson frequently relied on his readers to understand the cultural and commercial clichés he used to emphasize his points.
  • Ubiquitous and un-cited studies, while not frequent, made enough of an appearance so as to trouble those of a scholastic bent. (To be fair, the book was not necessarily intended for academia at all. Rather material is presented to aide the well-intentioned mother and/or father experiencing typical pressures of raising girls in the Western world. Consequently, while bulimia, cutting, and others are discussed, the more specialized issues of clinical depression, bipolar, etc. are not addressed.)

Traditional stereotypes were often employed to help distinguish between the reality of statistics and the ideal of what moral femininity should be. However, one might wish for a more substantial basis for change, something more than nostalgic imagery. The Bible is that something more–a point he emphasized at the end.

Quirks aside, a couple of items deserve special notice:

Feelings.Dobson attached a high value to the way a woman or girl feels. Husbands and fathers are strongly cautioned against neglecting these feelings–so much so that Dobson obviously felt compelled to add an aside–“please understand that it is not my purpose to browbeat men or disparage their effort…” (89) However, the balancing call for women was not presented. Feelings can be a deceitful affair, it’s true. It is unfair and destructive to assume others are to blame for the way one feels. Daughters must be taught the role of thought in keeping emotion accountable. They must be taught to ask the question “Is this true?” (Proverbs 28:1; Philippians 4:8) This balance was missing from the book.

Morality. Dobson’s book, like the radio program he made popular, is free of deep theological dissertation. Indeed, the word “biblical” doesn’t even make a debut until page 49. Instead, he made morality a foundational element throughout most of book. Make no mistake — James Dobson did not bury his faith in order to write this book. In fact, the final chapter revealed what I took to be the heartbeat of his entire ministry. Quoting from the formerly released, Bringing Up Boys, Dobson reiterated the realities of life in a fallen world,

“Human beings tend to struggle with troubling questions they can’t answer. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so the intellect acts to fill the void. Or to state it differently, it seeks to repair a hole in its system of beliefs. That is why so many young people today chase after twisted and alien `theologies,’ such as New Age nonsense, the pursuit of pleasure, substance abuse, and illicit sex. They are searching vainly for something that will satisfy their `soul hunger.’ They are unlikely to find it… Meaning in life comes only by answering the eternal questions… and they are adequately addressed only in the Christian faith. No other religion can tell us who we are, how we got here, and where we are going after death. And no other belief system teaches that we are known and loved individually the God of the universe and by his only Son…” (259)

That, I believe, is the message that meets the need. Had the author woven this message throughout the book–had he not left it to languish at the end–the result, I believe, would have been an even finer work than the one he has presented.

A complimentary copy of Bringing Up Girls has been provided by Tyndale House Publishers, for the purpose of review.