Voices from other worlds

Deeper Communion

March 28, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 6
Justin Sun, Anika Reynar, Ryan Dueck & Cindy Wallace |
Photo by Casey Horner.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I clutched the oversized cup of bubbly liquid in my hands. The room was dark, and I navigated the stairs frightfully. We were late. I was with my brother, sister and dad. We fumbled our way to our seats. I sat down just in time to glance up as the big blue letters appeared.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

Then that iconic theme came blasting through the theatre, the title card STAR WARS came into focus and I was in—transported to another universe as picture and sound did exactly what they were designed to do to a five-year-old experiencing a movie in a theatre for the first time. 

More than that, however, as I look back to 1999, I have a good feeling that at that moment I knew I was experiencing a turning point in my life. 

I knew at that breathtaking juncture: that I was taking my first steps on a journey with novels, films, TV and plays to people and places near and far, familiar and foreign, fantastical and fantastically mundane.

Without these journeys—without Anakin, Kira, Stark, and more—I would not be who I am today. Other than those brief teenaged-years when I was “too old for fairytales,” I have always been enthralled by stories and drawn to Voices from other worlds the power of imagination—character, genre, setting, conflict and symbols working together to become more than their parts. 

Though my interests have matured (some would dispute this), I remain fascinated by the tales we tell and the people who tell them. 

Why and how do people tell stories? Why has storytelling been ubiquitous in civilizations for thousands of years, both forming and mirroring who we are? 

In my work, I, like many pastors, struggle with the evolving state of Western faith, religion, spirituality and the related institutions. 

In this struggle, many I know turn to business strategies, charismatic personalities or new affiliations in hopes of carving out a space amidst unpredictability. From what I can see, the results have been as mixed as their methods. 

No one can offer a surefire solution to the multifaceted and intersecting struggles we as churches face en masse today. Sometimes, I’m not even sure we can clearly articulate the struggle.

In it all, through countless meetings, visioning processes and strategic plans, I wonder about the underlying stories we tell ourselves. How much of our struggle is natural to communities throughout church history and how much is context-dependent and due to our current shortsightedness? 

Years from now, will we look back and laugh or cry? How much of our struggle is due to an imagination calcified by a lifetime of being told (sold): “This is what faith looks like”?

At risk of mixing stories and angering fanbases, the recent release of Dune: Part Two has me dwelling not on “Lucasian” space operas but “Herbertian.” The sci-fi adventure film’s scalding and provocative evaluation of colonial religions, charismatic messiahs and amenable populations subject to extremism has me pondering my work. I feel unsettled as my established narratives are pushed.

That is exactly where I find hope. 

I hope that in our struggles as Christians in the 21st century we turn not only to so-called grown-up things; I hope we also return to stories, including the sort that capture five-year-olds. For we carry stories everywhere we go; they underly much of what we believe to be good, right and true.

When asked who we are, we often turn to stories; and it is stories written long ago that we trust to bridge our faith to the faith of our ancestors (even when we want to believe in systematic theological treatises instead).

Maybe, on top of all the grown-up things we must do as churches, a tale or two, good enough to unsettle imaginations, might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we might discover that the stories we tell and care about tell us something back in return; and maybe if we’re extra-attentive, we may discover God is in the stories all around us—whether in the pew or the theatre.

What stories are you attentive to today? 

Justin Sun serves as youth pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond, B.C. He graduated from Columbia Bible College in 2020. He can be reached at justin@peacemennonite.ca or on Instagram @PsJustinSun.

By Anika Reynar

These days, I sit with stories shared by Indigenous friends. Many of the stories hold a vision of the world as a community of beings, only some of which are human. Seeds and humans relate as siblings. Birds summon the rain. Trees hold memories of ancestors.

These stories compel my attention. They also unsettle my imagination. I struggle to understand what it means to recognize seeds as siblings, or to grasp the responsibilities this sort of relationship may require.

As I ponder these stories, I feel an invitation to return to stories that have shaped my imagination and faith, and to read them with new eyes. In her book The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics, Mari Joerstad speaks of the biblical writers’ attention to a world where humans are only one creature among many who relate and respond. Trees grieve deforestation and express joy when exiled communities return. Land fights, vomits, receives comfort and rejoices.

Perhaps these stories are simply metaphor. Then again, perhaps metaphor, like fantastical sci-fi adventures, allows us to hear voices from other worlds and invites us to pay attention to the wild creativity of God within a community of many beings.

– Anika Reynar, student of religion and environmental management at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

By Ryan Dueck

“What stories are you attentive to?” Justin asks a fantastic question.

We are surrounded by many competing narratives, from the personal to the political to the cosmological, all vying for our attention, all claiming to tell us the truth about who we are and what we are to do, think, believe or hope for.

I spend Mondays at the local jail, where I serve as a chaplain. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a former gang member, Satanist, and self-professed nasty dude. He is illiterate and wanted help with a Bible study he was working on with his cellmate.

The question before him had to do with the story of the lost son in Luke 15. He had never heard the story and asked if I could read it to him. Together we attended to a story about a guy who blunders to the far edges of ruin, then comes crawling back for scraps only to be dragged into a party thrown in his honour.

The story of a love that, to quote Francis Spufford, “never shudders at the state we’re in.” It was a beautiful reminder that the stories we tell matter more deeply than we often realize. 

– Ryan Dueck, pastor at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Lethbridge, Alberta

By Cindy Wallace

When I was a small child, my family underwent an enormous tragedy, and I found solace in stories. I read Little House in the Big Woods a dozen times, learning from the characters’ courage and dignity in the face of struggle. I needed this story; it carried me through.

Years later, reading Louise Erdrich and other Indigenous novelists, I began to see how my formation in stories of pioneer resilience came at the cost of dehumanizing Indigenous peoples. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing had been a gift to me, but at some point I had to mourn its failures.

I had to let other stories upend my assumptions.

With Justin, I believe stories are profoundly powerful. I often wonder what stories shape my imagination now? What stories shape my children, and my students and my church community?

What stories do we need to release, either because we have outgrown them or because they did harm all along? What old stories do we need to cling to, hoping with Walter Brueggemann that the path forward is forged by remembering? What new stories do we need to welcome so that we can be utterly surprised and changed?

– Cindy Wallace, professor of English at St.Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan

Photo by Casey Horner.

Share this page: Twitter Instagram

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.