FAITH AND CULTURE | Lessons learned from Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish

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Going to the movies is one of a few events with the power to bring people together and grab hold of our collective imagination. For many, the experience of going to the movies with friends or family is a common ritual. Each year, movie trailers announcing the new movie selections are critiqued and analyzed. For avid and devoted moviegoers, the fascination with the big screen often transcends genres, languages and cultures.

This visual pop culture experience culminates in the Oscars — now on its 90th season. Over the years, this experience has provided millions of people around the globe with a shared experience, but has also developed a whole industry supporting and contributing to its overall success. Today, viewers are privy to all kinds of pre- and post-Oscars analysis, guiding and preparing us for the spectacular evening event.

Whether we're devoted watchers or not, we can't avoid the overall cultural fervor surrounding it and permeating our mundane encounters with others. While we have different perspectives, tastes and sensibilities regarding particular movies, we can't deny that there is something powerful about the way our human spirit relates and connect to the power of story. Intuitively, we're drawn to narratives that take us to deeper levels of self-awareness and provide us with a renewed sense of the mystery of the human spirit.

This penchant for the power of story and mystery isn't just relegated to the movies or entertainment industry. On the contrary, this fascination with story has been around for millennia. We can point to its use and centrality in many of the world's ancient religions and discover its long history and distinct cultural beginnings. In our own Jewish-Christian culture, for example, the power of story has often been the preferred pedagogical and catechetical method for ongoing formation and growth. It would be hard for us to imagine our faith journey empty of such colorful and emotive stories.

While there are plenty of stories to choose from, I find myself drawn to the story of Jonah and the big fish (Jonah 1-3). In the story of the prophet Jonah, not only do we get a most fantastic and creative story of a wayward prophet learning his lesson, but we also have an insightful biographical narration, showing us Jonah's personality and character. While the story offers us a number of descriptive and extraordinary events, what draws us closer is Jonah's idiosyncrasies.

This particular biographical story is powerful for us because we can follow and relate to Jonah's odyssey: like Jonah we, too, are often tempted to run away from the word of God (1:1-6); like Jonah, we readily cocoon ourselves in the "belly of the fish" (1:17-2:2:10), opting to ignore the needs that surround us, only to discover that our sheltered lives leave us wanting; and like Jonah, we grow angry and stubborn (4: 1-11) at the realization of God's generous and extravagant mercy.

So as we prepare ourselves to be dazzled by the powerful stories that will be elevated on Oscar night on March 5, take a few moments to also revisit the story of Jonah? I remain confident that our rereading of the Jonah story will not disappoint. On the contrary, it appears that this year, in particular, water and fishes have much to offer us — after all, one of the top contenders for the Oscars is the story about a fish and a woman. Perhaps this Lenten season can be our opportunity to dive more deeply into the waters, going beyond the belly of the fish, knowing that God's grace will suffice.

Orozco is executive director of intercultural and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. 

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