Frank McCourt, author of the wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning book about his childhood in Ireland, Angela’s Ashes, wrote an equally wonderful book about his years as a young teacher in New York. The book is called ’Tis and is full of humour and pathos in equal measure, with McCourt’s Irish brogue coming through in the written word.
There’s a wonderful moment in ’Tis when McCourt tells of sharing the nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’ with his class…
“Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the kings horses
And all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
Then he asks the class what is going on in the nursery rhyme and all the hands shot up to say things like: “This egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know that you can never put an egg back together again. I mean it’s common sense, really.”
So McCourt asks them another question, one that throws the class into utter upheaval, “Where does it say that it’s an egg?”
And the class erupts: “Of course it’s an egg! Everyone knows that!”
“Where does it say that it’s an egg?”
The class is thinking. They’re searching the text for “egg”, any mention, any hint of an egg. They just won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of “egg”. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never any doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of “egg” and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis?
McCourt insists that he’s not destroying anything. He just wants to know where they got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg.
“Because,” the class insists, “it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture must have known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.”
It seems to me that we sometime fall into this same trap in our lives of faith, and especially when we read the scriptures. It’s like the joke about the priest giving the children’s sermon who asks, “I’m thinking of an animal, what do you think it is? It’s small and furry. It’s got a long tail. Cute little ears…” And after an uncomfortable silence a little boy at the back raises his hand saying, “I know the answer is ‘Jesus’, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
We think we know what the answer is meant to be and so we fit that ready-prepared answer into whatever particular text is before us. We know Humpty Dumpty is an egg and there is nothing that anyone can do to convince us otherwise.
Our imaginations are often stifled by our refusal or inability to think beyond the answers we bring to the text, or to the ways we worship, or to the ways we participate in mission.
A couple of years ago, Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro in the Church of England wrote:
“If there is one significant threat to the church in the West, I think it’s probably its lack of imagination. We are very used to doing things in the same old way. We are much less good at finding new ways of being church and making the good news known. But we need to…Our God is creative, and creativity is one of his greatest gifts to us. By his grace, may we rediscover it, and in the process find fresh hope for the future.”
Perhaps Bishop Philip was remembering the great missiologist and linguist Charles V Taylor who said that, “mission is an act of imagination”. We need to be able to imagine the world and the Church and our lives as God would have them be and not be constrained by our experience of these things, or by our prejudices, or by our preconceived ideas.
Who says that Humpty Dumpty is an egg? Who says the Church must always look this particular way, or that worship must always be done like this, or that our reading of the text is the correct one, or that the answer we’ve already decided is the right one is actually right?
The God of creativity invites us to re-imagine the world and then to participate in bringing that new world into being.Jump to next article