At the centre of many Christians’ conceptions of Christmas is a story about how Jesus’ birth came to pass. The gospel writers supply different stories about Jesus’ birth and its significance – for instance, Luke emphasises Jesus’ humble origins and how his birth was announced first to the outcasts of society (shepherds), while John writes a stirring poem about Christ’s cosmic significance as the Word that became flesh.
Part of the magic, or one might even say mystery, of the Christmas stories is that people can meditate on them, discuss them, and draw out different meanings from them.
In his latest book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Canterbury Press, Paraclete: 2009), Peter Rollins returns the Christian ‘storytelling’ genre to centre-stage. The book features 33 of Rollins’ original short ‘tales’, followed by his interpretations of what these stories mean. They are divided into three sections, ‘Beyond Belief’, ‘G-O-D-I-S-N-O-W-H-E-R-E’, and ‘Transfigurations.’
In the introduction, Rollins likens his tales to parables. For him, ‘the parable facilitates genuine change at the level of action itself.’ Parables, then, are not concerned with revealing factual or objective truth, but transforming the listeners so that they become better people. But Rollins hesitates to claim the term ‘parable,’ as he is not ready to assert that his tales will have truly transformative effects on his readers.
Rollins’ tales communicate, in a condensed and creative format, many of the themes he has explored in his two previous books, The Fidelity of Betrayal and How (Not) to Speak of God. These themes include discarding definitions of Christianity that involve intellectually assenting to creeds, choosing to emphasise social justice and ethical practices rather than to discern correct beliefs, questioning God, and learning to live with doubt.
The quality and variety of Rollins’ tales is impressive, and they are best read slowly – perhaps at a rate of one per day – to allow the message of each one to sink in. Some of the best include a surprising twist on a biblical story, such as ‘turning the other cheek’ or ‘Jesus and the 5,000.’
The slower pace of the holiday season provides an excellent opportunity to burrow in to Rollins’ tales. His book can help Christians to start thinking again about the importance not just of telling stories – but of debating their manifold meanings.