For Part , see here.
For Part , see here.
For Part , see here.
It’s a wonderful thing when something entirely natural suddenly breaks out of its skin and shows you that it is, in fact, magical. There is a tree at Magdalen College that stands between the old-looking ‘New College’ building and the deer grove. It’s called ‘the Magdalen Plane’ (or sometimes, ‘the Great Plane’), planted in 1801 by the college bursar of the time. It is a hybrid of another ‘Plane’ first spawned in the Botanic garden across the road in 1666. But despite my seeming to be able to tell you something about where it came from, I confess that – in reality – it seems it must have come from an altogether other place. That is, it does things differently to normal trees.
When you look up at this tree you find yourself being swept up into its narrative as its tentacles spiral up in all sorts of different directions. Like many of the trees around here and in the deer park, it has to be propped up halfway along some of the branches by big ugly black poles. This is because some branches have become so ‘horizontal’ in trajectory that they were in danger of becoming unsupportable. It was as though the tree had failed to read the script of what a tree is supposed to do. Trees in cities can often seem so monotonously boring, lining the roadsides like inadvertent broccoli. Nice, yes, but I don’t feel any urge to lie down on the street pavement as a result (which should always be the mark of a good tree). This tree, of course, was different. It was an imaginative tree; an invasive tree; it imposes itself upon you by its sheer audacity to grow in such a way. Indeed, it feels ‘alive’ in more ways than one. As I looked up its branch staircases connecting it to various crevices and cloistered cubbyholes I immediately thought about an Enid Blyton book that my siblings and I used to hear over and over again as children: The Magic Faraway Tree. It was the only story we had on cassette, and even though we also watched copious Disney videos, it was ‘the Faraway Tree’ (as we knew it) that was most dear to our hearts and caused most excitement when we lined up at the kitchen table to listen (it was one of those curious eras in the late-80s/early 90s where tape cassettes were only ever played in the kitchen, never the lounge – which remained the exclusive domain of the TV and the record player, if your parents still had one). The Faraway Tree was special to us, perhaps, because it was ‘limitless’, and because we had to imagine what it looked like, and so it never ceased to disappoint.
From what I recall, the tree had different levels that you couldn’t see from the bottom because it went so high. It was a world unto itself, and there were characters like ‘Moonface’ and places up high where you could eat a special dessert that switched between being apple-pie-hot and ice-cream-cold as you ate it. Looking up at the Magdalen Plane with such fantastical memories, I won’t deny that an unsuppressed child-like part of me suddenly wished I could climb the branches. They seemed invitingly easy to climb, after all (bar that silly social convention that it isn’t really ‘the done thing’ to climb on other people’s trees, or whatever). If I had succumbed to the urge, I thought, there was at least a fifty percent chance that I would find Moonface up there somewhere.
It was inevitable, of course, that this aesthetic episode on my travels would spawn another flurry of thoughts about the life and expression of the Christian faith. Indeed, the Christian life – though built on the solid and unchanging rock of Christ – is always more interesting than we imagine it to be, and always more interesting than a mere rock. This is also one of the reasons being a Christian isn’t always as ‘convenient’ as we’d like. We ought to be open to the possibility that God may want to cause branches to grow horizontally from time to time, even if they subsequently require propping up. One of the ways you see this principle rashly forgotten is in our Christian communication, whichever form it takes. Most frequently, of course, this evokes the thought of Christian sermons (though it really relates to how any Christian communicates their faith). Some sermons are almost identical in their monotonous form because they attempt to short-circuit their way to conveying profound truth without the prior contemplation and leg-work that allows that truth to come alive in both themselves and their words.
A while ago I recall hearing three Christian student talks on consecutive days for a fresher’s week event on a university campus. Each of these talks was attempting to speak about the most incredible thing that could possibly be communicated, and every single one was insipidly bland and predictable, belonging to that regrettably Christian category of speech: boring-but-true (or, as a friend of mine often says, ‘not-wrong preaching’). Almost nothing in these talks seemed significant. We never got the impression that this was something important enough to stake our lives upon. Indeed, the one thing that did stand out from each talk was that all of them quoted C. S. Lewis in exactly the same way and from exactly the same place, regardless of the fact that they were supposed to be covering different themes (‘faith & science’, ‘surviving at uni’, ‘happiness’, etc.). Each speaker reeled out that eminent mudpies-in-the-slums quote from The Weight of Glory (or, perhaps, Google), the one that declares ‘we are far too easily pleased’ in our attempts to pursue joy in this world, and so we go on making mud pies in the slums when we were offered something far more enjoyable. It’s a great quote; I have happily used it myself on occasion, and I genuinely love its insight. But by the third time I had heard this quotation from the third ‘different’ speaker on the third day in a row, it actually became painful to hear. I realised that something had gone deeply wrong. What these bluntening repetitions showed was that, somewhere along the line, a vital wire had been cut: there had been a fundamental departure from the very character of the quote itself. It’s as though all of these speakers had read and followed the same script for ‘How to do a CU talk’: Step 1 – make joke about students being poor; Step 2 – quote a Scripture; Step 3 – quote C.S. Lewis, re. Joy, etc...’ It’s not that they were wrong to use the quote, but that it seemed to be a judgement upon the rest of their talk, as though this truth belonged in a far more profound place than those sermon notes. The speakers, it seemed, had barely thought about what it might mean to actually incorporate Lewis’ tenor of wonder, de-familiarisation, and imagination, and they just extracted this bare truth and stuck it in their non-imaginative talk as if C. S. Lewis would do their work for them. Indeed, I thought, we are far too easily pleased with our C. S. Lewis quotes!
The result, unsurprisingly, is that such a strategy usually has zero affect on us because it doesn’t seem like it’s real beyond the narrow borders of the talk itself. When we hear it, we nod in an ‘ah, yes, hmm...’ kind of way, but it no longer does anything to us. This is not because it ceases to be gloriously true but because we have a neat shelf in our minds upon which to put it. We expect it, just as we expected it every other time we heard it, and we think we know what to do with it when we hear it (we don’t). The problem is that every preacher since Alpha seems to have used such a quote (or a similar one), probably without even reading it first-hand. This means that something is missing from the whole communication itself – it hasn’t come through the speaker, it has been inserted by the speaker, much like filling a hollow tree with concrete so that it stands up straight. When we hear a talk like this, we immediately switch off because whatever is being said can’t be that significant because it is merely repeating the journey of the last several dozen talks we’ve heard in precisely the same way. Soon enough, you begin to think not of the glories of God and the Gospel but about the tuna & sweetcorn sandwiches awaiting you at the free lunch bar afterwards, and whether or not they have any cheese&onion crisps left. The very use of the C. S. Lewis quote actually serves to turn us back to our mud pies!
On this matter, of course, the Magdalen Plane may become our teacher. This is because it rejects the formulaic without losing its structural integrity. It really is alive, and its branches are real and genuine, even though they seem crazily deviating. We would do well to imitate trees like that from time to time. Of course we must bear in mind our sinful inclination to hide behind the hows and forsake the whats. This is no call for the introduction of ever-zanier illustrations and visuals to keep up with floundering attention spans; this is a call to be genuinely open to what God might ask us to say (or do), and even to think hard about how we do and say things rather than doing and saying them simply because that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done. We do not forget that it is the Word rather than our broken pots that will bring transformation to the lost and lazy. But precisely because of this exceptional Word, we must stay open to surprising varieties of form (ask Jeremiah!), and we may benefit from resisting some of our unnecessary inheritance of hows – however recent – lest they send us down hopeless communicative cul-de-sacs. If we take such well-trodden paths without ever wondering why we are taking them (as with some of our favourite quotations) we may even miss the content as well as the form, and we should not be surprised if ears remain sealed.
A God who created things as ridiculous as bumble bees and semi-magical trees ought not to seem so divorced from such boundless creativity in how we choose to speak about – and for – him. Like the tree, his Word comes from an altogether other place.