Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra


There is an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation entitled “Darmok.” The set up is that the Enterprise meets an alien race with which humanity has never been able to communicate. The humans have a “universal translator,” which means that they can understand the words that the aliens say. But they can’t comprehend their meaning.

Why not? Because the aliens only communicate through allusion. Instead of saying something directly, they use metaphors based in the common narratives of their culture. So, instead of saying “I am having romantic feelings” they would say something like “Juliet on the balcony.”

The captain of the alien ship teaches Captain Picard how to communicate by forcing him to have a shared experience, a fight together against a common enemy. While working together, Picard comes to understand how the other captain communicates. Of course, the biggest problem that the humans are going to have in talking to these aliens is that they don’t have common stories. So, when the alien says “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” he means that two heroes must fight for a common goal. Unfortunately, the humans don’t know that story, so they have no reference point for what the aliens are trying to say.

I recognize how increasingly like these aliens I am. I was sitting in a meeting a few weeks ago. The person leading the meeting was talking about “spiritual formation.” That’s kind of a buzz word in the church world right now. He had lots to say about this topic, and what he had to say was very well thought out. I, however, had a hard time understanding what he was saying. Why? Because he didn’t use any stories. There were not examples, no parables, no narrative. Because there was no narrative, no “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” no “Juliet on her Balcony,” I couldn’t grasp the material. I understood every word he was saying, but the words were like vapor in a disembodied haze.

I find the same thing to be true when I watch movies. I love movies, but one of the things that makes me hate certain movies is their lack of narrative structure. Take “Babies,” a sort of documentary that follows the first year in the life of four newborns. It is cute, it is sometimes beautiful to look at, and it gave me an appreciation of some of the different ways people raise babies around the world. However, I hated the movie and was ready for it to be over 15 minutes in. Why? Because the narrative was so weak, really non-existent. Clint Eastwood’s latest “Hereafter” also struggled to have a real narrative structure, putting it on my “bad list.” Then there was Transformers 2 which, apart from terrible acting, had a maddening lack of narrative continuity. Therefore it sucked.

All of this leads me to a greater point. I think about the people who are outside of the Church, those who don’t know the great stories of the Bible or of Church History. They come into our church, and we might as well be talking about Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. We have common narratives within Christianity, but for those outside I would assume that these can be hard to connect with.

If I were a “seeker sensitive” guy, I would say that the solution to this is to stop using Biblical narratives. Instead, I would rely on movie clips and pop songs. Another way I could respond would be to just not worry about those people. I’ll just use my church language, my “Christianese,” and they can just figure it out or not.

I don’t wish to accept either of those options. I believe it is essential to maintain our stories, we just have to do a better job of teaching the Grand Narrative to those on the outside. We have to be careful to use language that invites them in, while recognizing that there simply is no slang word that can substitute for “propitiation.”

I think the best way to do this is to tell the Grand Narrative each and every Sunday, which is in fact what we do in the Anglican tradition. Through our Eucharistic liturgy (two Church words to be sure!), we tell the story of the God who took on flesh, was born, lived, taught, suffered, died, rose, ascended, sent the Spirit, and promised to return. I’m not talking about what we say in the sermon, I’m talking about the entire movement of worship.

I am a person who loves good stories. I love to read them, hear them, watch them, and tell them. Most of all, I love the story of Jesus and I long to tell that story over and over again until the whole world has heard.

Thomas McKenzie is the author of The Anglican Way, a book he describes as a traveler’s guide to the Anglican tradition, as well as The Harpooner, an Advent reader featuring harpoons—how awesome is that. He graduated from the University of Texas and attended seminary at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1998 and planted the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville in 2004, where he is the still pastor. He’s also keeps samurai swords in his office, and wears a skull ring.


  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I thought Hereafter had a narrative structure, it was just an unusual one.

    I love this post! I also find that I refer to other stories in talking about things. And I think your solution is perfect.

  2. Andrew C

    This is beautiful, Thomas. Each of our lives are also a story that connects beautifully to the Grand Narrative, if we will have the eyes to see it. I recognize this increasingly in my own life as God uses life’s experiences to give me a greater appreciation for the Gospel…and I pray that it does the same thing for others who are involved in my life or watch it. Thanks for this reminder!

  3. Rich W

    In the public classroom where I teach I use the 10 commandments…. When I ask the students who has heard them before fewer and fewer kids raise their hands. Out of a class of 25 this year only 4 raised their hands. I also use a quote from Job and the 23rd Psalm. We are losing this generation! Keep the narrative learn to re-communicate the message.

  4. Aaron Alford

    Oh my goodness. Major geek-out here. That phrase from that episode comes to mind more often than it should for an average human. I can hardly believe there’s someone else who remembers this, let alone write such an insightful piece from it.

    I love the idea of corporate worship having a narrative structure. I am Catholic, I love the mass, and I’m also a deacon at a small, non-denom church (long story!). A few years ago at New Hope Non-Catholic Church, we started taking communion every week (and it wasn’t even my idea). It’s helped to shape the character of our small, growing community as each week we are reminded of the self-sacrificing God and the table (and altar) of friendship. This is a good story to tell, a great story to be part of, and it gets better every week.

    John, with Peter, at the supper table.

  5. Barbara

    Makes me wonder about the narrative structure (or lack thereof) in communities we’re drawn to versus those we avoid…and about how much that structure will encompass. The stories told and the theology preached in a church, for example, might largely hold together – even in those cases where a person has to become fluent in Christianese to even begin to understand it. But does that necessarily mean that the stories lived in the dailiness of members’ lives will keep the narrative structure from falling apart?

    Thinking out loud…
    Thank you for this, Thomas!

  6. Peter Br

    This comes up often with me in Dad mode. I’m trying to communicate some spiritual truth to my children — often in response to a question — and they’re all “Shaka, when the walls fell”.

    To pull from an earlier post, I’ve found our two story bibles (The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible) to be remarkably effective in recalibrating my own narrative lexicon. Not only do they lay out truth in a beautifully simple manner, but they encourage and enable me to articulate the Story in similar terms that an outsider — or a child — can understand.

  7. Jud

    Thomas, you have no idea how timely this was. Hope you don’t mind me sharing it with a few of my church leaders.

    I miss ST:TNG; it was a fine TV show. Darmok was one of my favorites.

  8. Aaron Roughton

    I think another component of the solution is what the alien captain did with Picard. Share experiences. Avoid removing ourselves from the lives of the people who don’t know the Grand Narrative. It’s something I have to be intentional about.

    And one other thing, as my wife and I worshiped at your church’s Sunday morning service during Hutchmoot, we were weepy. Your sermon was great, but that wasn’t what got us. The things that moved us in a way we didn’t expect were the things that tied us to a tradition of faith that has existed for a couple of thousand years. We said creeds and prayed prayers that have united groups of Christians for centuries. We are a part of that story. It’s not something we do at our “seeker sensitive” church, which I fully support, but it’s something that I have started to think about on behalf of my kids. Thanks for the great reminder.

  9. Robert Austell

    Oh – my very favorite ST:TNG episode!!!

    You didn’t go where I thought you were going to, though I very much appreciate your post.

    I love it because it reminds me of the incarnation. Though God has spoken in scripture, the greatest revelation was coming among us so that Jesus and humanity might share a common experience, from suffering to judgment to death to life. The alien in the episode CREATED the Picard and ??? at ??? moment by giving his life to save Picard. And it was THAT shared event that made all the difference.

  10. Ashley Elizabeth

    I have nothing substantive to add other than my heart-felt thank you. You’ve pinpointed exactly why I crave depth to the one Story. Thank you.

  11. Andrew

    Thank you for sharing this, and you are right on! As a “seeker sensitive” Christian who was steeped in Christian culture as a child, I have been mulling this thought over for a long time. The biggest reason that non-christians think we are whacked is that they have no frame of reference to understand our beliefs.

    Primarily, non-Christians who are basically nice people and law-abiding citizens, and don’t understand the concept of sin, don’t see themselves as sinners, and therefore don’t see a need for salvation. They see us talking about sin and salvation and shake their heads the same way the crew of the Enterprise did. I agree that we should not stop using Christian terminology, but we should start relating the grand narrative.

    Many, Many of the most vocal atheists I have had conversations with love to point to the extremely hard-line and utterly impractical edits set forth in Leviticus as proof that the Bible is delusional at best, and evil at worst. However these same people do not know the stories of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, nor His teachings, so they have no understanding that the extreme difficulty of fulfilling the law was the very reason Jesus came to earth. That Jesus was the answer to Leviticus (and the rest of the law) so that be relying on Jesus sacrifice, we don’t have to follow all the Old Testament religious obligations.

    I think we need to stress that the Bible is a narrative, so taking one part of it out of context is to miss its message.

  12. Becky from NE

    Really like this idea of Jesus’ whole life on this earth as a shared experience that translates GOD into something we can understand (in a limited way). He trained disciples with 3 years of shared experiences. “Zacheus, come down from that tree and let’s go have some dinner”–shared experience. Death–shared experience.

    Perhaps we/I need to speak less of our foreign language, and do more translating by sharing experiences and ourselves with others. Good food for thought.

  13. David

    Following Jesus is like being issued a red shirt on the original Star Trek. It means you’re going to have to die as the story advances.

  14. MichelleG

    What a wonderful post and concept! I, like many others, loved the “no slang word that can substitute for ‘propitiation'”!
    When the Lord called me in college I had quite a time catching on to the Christaineeze. Some of it was valid, ie: I had the toughest time figuring out what was meant by “devotions” or “quiet time” – I just called it “reading my Bible.” I also had a few funny exchanges about terms that describe churches or theology, ie: in response to a question about whether the pastor of my church was “charismatic” I replied “well, he does seem like a people-person…” :o)

    I had never read “propitiation” in my NIV and I remember trying to explain the gospel to someone, grasping for words and stories to explain what I knew in my heart to be true, “its like when the blood of the lamb on the doorposts protected the Israelites during the exodus… its like God doesn’t see my sin because I’m covered in Christ’s blood…” and then a friend chimed in and said “that’s propitiation- He took our sin and punishment and we get His righteousness” – I was so thankful there was a word that summed up all I knew I had gained in Christ! I have never loved a word before that moment.

    You’re right, there’s no slang for propitiation!

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