I read very few novels during my formal studies in university and graduate school. There was too much required reading for my courses and, when combined with the ordinary demands of small kids and everyday life, there wasn’t much time (or energy!) left for reading fiction. One of the joys of seeing my university and grad school days recede into the mirror was the prospect of reading novels once again. It was (and is!) nice to be able to read a book without the expectation of evaluation looming large in the background.
One of the best parts of reading good fiction is the way that deep truths about the human condition emerge out of the narrative, just popping up like unanticipated guests. This passage from Serbian author Dragan Todorovic’s Diary of Interrupted Days, for example, stopped me in my tracks when I first came across it:
There is no narrative of exile. There are poems of exile, long successions of short verses, plenty of metaphors, abbreviations, aberrations, abeyances. Exile is not transferable. It is a chopped-up existence. Exiles live their days as a series of small coloured stones whose final order is never fully revealed to them. The mosaic they create in the end will be visible only to their descendants.
The word “exile” immediately brings to mind the great Old Testament themes of judgment and restoration and characters like Abraham and Joseph and Ezra and Isaiah and Jeremiah. The theme of exile runs throughout the OT and, as Todorovic alludes to, it is often through poetry and metaphor that the nature of this “chopped up existence” is described. The story of Israel’s exile does not come to us via a blow-by-blow, coolly detached description of events; it comes, rather, via anguished lament, impassioned rhetoric, harsh words that leave our ears bleeding and tender reassurances that there is yet hope. The language of exile involves us as whole people who think and feel and hope and worry and grieve and exult and love.
The New Testament also uses the language of exile to describe the status and experience of followers of Jesus. We are described as, among other things, strangers and pilgrims—exiles in the land. God’s world is good and we were made for it, but it is also not our true home. Human beings have chosen to become the kind of creatures for whom home, in the truest sense of the word, cannot be experienced here as it was intended to be. All of creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8. The fit is off. We are still exiles.
It is sometimes frustrating to hear well-meaning Christians talk about the life of faith as one in which everything all of a sudden arranges itself nicely into a well-ordered whole—as if placing our faith in Jesus somehow makes everything in our lives and in our minds come together in a nice rationally ordered and coherent package. As if giving our assent to the correct set of propositions about God and sin and salvation suddenly transforms our experience into one of straightforward and uninterrupted transparency and clarity. As if the stones are instantly arranged into an obvious pattern. This is an impossible ideal, and when it inevitably goes unrealized, can often lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and confusion.
Following Jesus certainly involves us in the big story of a world and a people returning from exile. And this is truly good news! But I think that even as Christians we ought still to expect somewhat of a “chopped up existence.” We ought still to expect the final order to never fully be revealed to us while we journey. We ought still to expect to walk by faith and not by sight. We ought still to expect both the deep joy and rightness of our lives as the kind of creatures we are in the kind of place we are and the intense longing for the home we can never experience here. We ought to expect to feel like exiles, even if we are profoundly hopeful and grateful ones.
So what? Is there no practical benefit to a life of faith? Well, I think that even as exiles we have many important clues about the nature and author of the story and how it will turn out and there is great joy and strength to be derived from being on the journey and from knowing the one entrusted to lead us home. We may not always know exactly how the “small coloured stones” of our lives contribute to the big picture of God’s story, but following Jesus has never been about having the pieces lined up precisely as we would like them. Indeed, part of what it means to follow Jesus is to trust that the one we are following knows more and sees more than we do, and can be trusted to reassemble and re-imagine and redeem all of the chopped up pieces of the world he has made and for which he died.
This is the Christian hope. Exile is never the last word.