We've just had our children's Holiday Club at church, which has become an annual event over the past few years. This year the format and timing were slightly different because of the change in the school year that Oxford have introduced: the move to a six term year. (I won't even try to explain this, since it passes all understanding and explanation. I think it's something to do with having a new director of education, and the severe temptation that so many people in new jobs suffer, to change things for the sake of it, just so that it looks as if they're doing something. This is surely one of the worst compulsions of modern times.)
During this Holiday Club, then, I had the opportunity to tell two stories: one of them was supposed to be the story of God's Greatest Rescue; in other words, the whole of salvation history in a five or ten minute story. This ended up - because I couldn't think of any other way, and because that was how the story told itself - as a mixture of the simply biblical: annunciation, birth, life of Jesus, crucifixion and resurrection; and the mythic or Miltonic: that all this was a part of the great drama of the good vs. evil struggle between God and his Old Enemy, the devil.
How can you tell this Big Story any other way? And yet, it feels not so very different from the Big Story of fundamentalism that Dave writes about. It simply is the Christian Story, as told by the Bible, Dante, Milton, C.S.Lewis, and all. Where is the boundary between the Story that changes lives, and the Story that destroys them?
I want to say, it's at the point where the person using the Story makes the move from the Imaginative to the Rational. You have to make that move. It's imagination that changes lives, more than ideas. But after your imagination has been engaged, you're bound to want to think about what it means, and what you have to do in consequence. The crucial thing is, how you make that transition. It's when you not only tell about hell, but start to measure it - its duration, temperature, population - that you begin to tear the wings off the butterfly of the soul, and force it into the shape of a dried stick.
One of the hardest temptations to resist, is the temptation felt by every preacher who tells a story, to go on and explain it. Jesus didn't do this - much to his disciples' distress, when they urged him to tell them what the parables meant. Nothing in my own ministry has convinced me so much of Jesus' superlative skill as a storyteller - the Storyteller - as the experience that when I have yielded to that temptation myself, it kills something precious. And so it must be when you turn an image into a dogma. The unquenchable fire that Jesus warns his listeners about is just such an image, designed to move your imagination so that you see the urgency and crisis of your present situation, and do something about it. Provided that the something you do is not to formulate the dogma of eternal punishment, and use it to deform people's souls and manipulate their lives.
I didn't mention hell in my story, as it happens. But I did mention 'God's old enemy' in a way that would become dualistic and Manichaeistic, if you made a dogma out of it. In the story, it was an image or device to make the hearers see that there is a conflict, an agon, and that we are synagonists in it.