Puppets Freak Me Out

The Suttle family took what will most certainly become a yearly trek down to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown KC, to see the Paul Messner Puppets put on their nativity production. I’ll be honest – I was not excited.

Time for a little bit of self-disclosure here. Puppets have always freaked me out a little bit. It’s not reasonable I know, but everything about them is just so exaggerated – with their oversized heads and overstated body movements just to emphasize a single word. Puppets have never been trustworthy people in my opinion – they are far too given to hyperbole. I know they’re not real… I can tell. Ever since I was young I’ve been wary of puppets. It’s to do with the eyes…. too many puppets have crazy eyes – it wigs me out.

In my experience puppet shows aren’t really something you plan to go to, they are something you happen upon. You take your kids to the library and say, “Oh, look! They are having a puppet show. Let’s watch it.” Or you are walking through the mall when you hear some music and laughter in the distance. So you leave your wife who is trying on jeans in “The Buckle” and walk the kids down to see what’s going on and, “Wow, it’s a puppet show! This will make two hours and the mall ever so much more bearable.” So you buy a pretzel and drinks for the kids and settle in to kill 25 minutes. That’s how you see puppet shows – you happen upon them. You don’t buy tickets and show up early to get a good seat.

I was wrong. My attitude toward puppets needs to change. I owe an apology to the entire puppeteering community. Because I learned last night that if you’ve never seen the nativity story told by 10 ft. camels and 8 ft. tall Mary & Josephs; if you haven’t watched a 7 ft. tall shepherd count his sheep (who are drinking from the baptismal font); if you haven’t heard Victor Raider-Wexler (who has been on Seinfeld, Friends & just about every TV show and sitcom ever) tell the story of the birth of Jesus… you’ve never heard the story as it’s meant to be told.

Seriously this was an awesome night that came as a total surprise. The Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral is, in my opinion, the most beautiful church in Kansas City – hands down, it’s not even close. Built in 1870 this 140 year old building looks like something straight out of medieval Europe and is the perfect setting for a production like this. But the story telling genius of the Messner and his puppeteers really blew me away.

Hans Frei was a famous theologian and one of the fathers of the “narrative” approach to scripture – to which I subscribe along with many, many others in my generation. Frei once wrote, “The most fateful issue for Christian self-description… is that of regaining its autonomous vocation as a religion, after its defeat in its secondary vocation of providing ideological coherence, foundation, and stability to Western culture.”

Christendom is over. The Christian story no longer formats the hard drive on which our entire society operates. The Christian story is no longer the reason for the season in the larger culture – as witnessed by the fact that besides a puppet show, we saw no less than a dozen of those ungodly-long limousines out last night, all of them seemingly chauffeuring holiday office party slash drinking tours and pub crawls around the city. Just over the past 50 years Christmas has really changed in our culture. It’s not about the story anymore.

So, when the rest of the world is “over” the idea that the idea that our faith should be determinative in the way we live our lives, all that’s left for us to do as Christians is to tell the story.

We tell the story and allow it to reset the compass in our brains to true north. I’m really grateful to the Paul Messner puppets. They told the story with such artistry and imagination, that I’ll never hear it the same way again. I can’t wait to take my kids back to hear it again next year because this story can define us as members of a community different from the world around us. This story can shape who we are becoming in such deep-down ways that no other vision of the world will have any power over us.

We are meant to be tellers of such tales & Messner’s troupe really got it right last night. The primary vocation of the Christian is to tell the story – to speak it, to act it out, to allow it to narrate our existence – and to do this in ever more artistic and creative ways. I’ve been surprised by the story once again. It has shaped my imagination. I’m ready for Christmas to come.

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