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Janie B. Cheaney: Transforming the ordinary


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Transforming the ordinary

When Jesus casts his “bright shadow” across our common moments, they become extraordinary

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LINDSAY MAST, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 15th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Lindsay Mast.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney on finding the “bright shadow” of Christ in the world.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: As an avid elementary-school reader, I devoured Greek and Norse mythology. A particular book series published in the early 1960s fed my appetite with illustrations of a muscular Prometheus chained to the rock and a willowy Psyche spying on Eros. Gorgeous people, heroic poses, shiveringly gory incidents of a pecked-out liver and a snaky head swiped off. It’s no wonder myths have an enduring appeal, whether retold, resold, updated, or upended.

By contrast, what was I learning in Sunday school? Instead of gold dust we can almost smell the camel sweat on the heroes of the Bible. In Genesis we mostly encounter old men. One hears a voice and builds a boat, another hears the same voice and leaves his city for a life of perpetual wandering. We’re told there were giants in the earth at one time, but they are barely worth a mention. A massive flood sweeps the earth clean of titans. And instead of featuring magical hammers or golden fleece, Old Testament stories often tell of common conniving, contrivance, and everyday ambition.

Many of the Bible’s supernatural events, even a pivotal one like the flood, are just nature stretching itself to accommodate divine will. The holy visions are curiously down-to-earth: a smoking pot passing between animal carcasses and bright angels on a staircase. Heaven shines on dirt and sweat, not on bronze-muscled heroes, epic voyages, or fantastic monsters.

In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalls a key moment in his conversion. It came when he discovered one of the romances of George McDonald in a book stall at a railway station. He picked up the book because it promised epic adventures and supernatural encounters—and he found those, but also something else–an otherworldly light shining on this-worldly commonplaces.

All his life to that point, Lewis had been struck at times by an intense longing for what he called Joy: something that spoke to him from Olympus and Asgard and other mythical places, something that didn’t exist in real life. But through McDonald’s Christian perspective, he says, “I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

The Bible’s ultimate hero, Jesus, walked on dusty roads and ate common food. Most of the miracles, or “signs,” he performed were simply stretching nature to multiply fish or undo a malady. But, as John writes, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” He came to us where we are and his “bright shadow” falls on our ordinary moments—whether we see it or not. But I’m trying harder to see it.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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