Bring Your Own Fire | Parables | Hell

Hindu God

Good to see that Pete’s iPhone app is out now – and contains a collection of parables and other writing, including the competition-winning re-working of ‘Footprints that I wrote last year. He’ll be adding to it over time, so well worth getting in early and picking up a copy now.

Stories are vital to all aspects of belief in all faiths. I can’t think of a faith where story is not absolutely central, and while some may mock from the sidelines and say that this is because all faith is fiction, I’d argue that this is precisely the point: faith concerns something that must be told obliquely. Rationalise a sunset and you’ve destroyed the beauty.

I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s new book Nine Lives over the past week or so. Dalrymple is a wonderful writer, and a brilliant observer of history and conversation; Nine Lives is an attempt to do for Indian belief what he did with the remnants of Byzantine Christianity in From the Holy Mountainexamine the endgame of religion in a country developing so fast it is in danger of losing its identity. Dalrymple takes a very simple approach – telling the stories of nine Indians, ranging from a temple prostitute to a caster of bronze deities to an illiterate story-teller/dancer.

The stories of the gods within Hindu culture are myriad – easily a match for Greek mythology in scope and psychological significance. This one about Lal Shabaz Qalander struck me in particular:

One day Lal Shabaz Qalander was wandering in the desert with his friend Sheikh Baha ud-Din Zakariya. It was winter, and bitterly cold and as the evening came they decided to build a fire to keep warm while they camped. They gathered some wood and built a pyre, but then realised that they had no way to ignite it. So Baha ud-Din suggested that Lal Shabaz turn himself into a falcon, fly down and bring some fire from hell.

Off he flew, and hours passed. Eventually the bird-god soared back to Baha ud-Din, and fluttered to his side, empty-handed. Cold and bewildered Baha ud-Din asked him why he had not brought fire back with him. “There is no fire in hell,” he reported, changing back into his usual form. “Everyone who goes there from this world brings their own.”


5 responses to “Bring Your Own Fire | Parables | Hell”

  1. “…while some may mock from the sidelines and say that this is because all faith is fiction, I’d argue that this is precisely the point: faith concerns something that must be told obliquely. Rationalise a sunset and you’ve destroyed the beauty.”

    Hi Kester..

    Firstly, for me, I think the understanding of what exactly a sunset is and how/why it occurs takes nothing away from the experience of its beauty, for me it only adds to it.

    Secondly, the beauty of the sunset is just our romantic experience of it. The sunset does not ‘posses’ inherent beauty. So, is faith likewise then something without inherent substance? i.e. We tell stories that obliquely describe our longing, but that longing is an internal condition and not descriptive of reality (or at least only of an internal subjective reality of experience).

    I wonder if much of religion is about lingering in romantic ignorance. Falling in love with the experience of love?

  2. Thanks Gavin. I’ll be honest – when writing this post this morning, in rather a hurry with teaching to prepare and kids to get to school, I paused at the sunset example and knew it wasn’t quite right. So, yes, I’d totally agree with you!

    As for religion as romantic ignorance, that’s a great phrase, but I’m not sure that follows with the ‘falling in love with the experience of love.’ Why? Because I’d take a tougher line on what love was, and try to move it beyond the romantic notion. So religion is about love, but is not romantic.

    What I was getting at with the idea of story is that a parable, from whatever faith tradition, can tell us something in a way that simply telling it can’t. Take any of Jesus’ parables and to simply say what it means without telling the story is actually to lessen the meaning, not enrich it.

  3. Mike Berndt

    Kevin, this is my first visit to your blog and I really enjoyed it. I did want to say something that, for me at least, redeemed your sunset example after having read Gavin’s response. I would like to say that while rationalizing a sunset may not destroy it’s beauty, it does destroy it’s magic.

    The experience of magic is something that is sorely missing in western Christianity, I think. There is a cost when we seek and learn truth sometimes that we don’t appreciate. I’m not advocating ignorance as a lifestyle in anyway, I’m just saying when we learn how a rainbow is really just refracted light and how it happens, it’s easy for us to take credit away from the Divine sometimes.

    That’s how I want my experience of God to be. No matter how much I may love or hate Him at any given time, I want to at least acknowledge I can’t understand everything about Him, probably hardly anything, but that sort of makes the experiencing of God that much more incredible.

    Sorry, I’m on a break at work and have to get back, so I rushed through this (much like your morning was, haha). I hope it makes sense, I’ll read it later.

  4. Karsten R

    If this kind of telling is “obliquely”, I wonder what would you suggest to be the basic telling. I do simply not accept your “must” on this point, because the beeauty or magic of the sunset does neither affect our circumstances in life, or the path that may or may not be set before us neither has it implications if or if not there may be anything significant waiting for us after this earthly life, yet in faith all these are major issues, and they`re only “major” if they go beyond beauty and magic, if they really do affect the very real life.

  5. Though the sunset (and I’ve already noted in the comments that I don’t think it was a great example) may not ‘affect our circumstances in life’ it might well, in the tradition of sublime philosophy, affect our response to our circumstances.

    I’m not sure if I’ve got the gist of what you are saying correctly, but I think that what you may be after in these times is some kind of certain teaching – something solid ‘beyond beauty and magic’ that impacts directly on our real life.

    My problem with this is that the certain element of teaching can end up less helpful as its particularity in one place and time is lost. The beauty of parables is that their ‘meaning’ is oblique, and thus, counter-intuitively, not only more timeless, but better remembered and easier to apply.