A man, newly convicted of a crime, arrives at the prison that will be his home for a large portion of his life. An older inmate soon befriends him and begins to acquaint him with prison life. One day the two inmates join a group of others sitting around the courtyard laughing. The new inmate was intrigued by what he saw.
As they sat in a group, an inmate would call out a number, followed by laughter from the other inmates. “Seven,” one would say, evoking hearty laughter from the others. “Twelve.” Again, laughter. Over and over, for about a half of an hour, seemingly random numbers would be called out punctuated by bursts laughter.
After it was over, the new inmate asked his friend, “What in the world was going on?” The older inmate responded, “Oh that. Many of us have been here so long that we’ve told each other the same jokes over and over. So we eventually numbered the jokes and instead of telling the joke, we just say its number.”
This baffled the newcomer, but he figured if he was to fit in this new environment, he needed to learn the ropes pretty quickly. The next day, he and his older friend joined the same group in the courtyard. And like yesterday, the group was engaged in “joke-telling.”
Finally, the new inmate worked up his courage and called out, “Ten.” He was mortified by the silence that followed. All the inmates stared at him. After further awkward silence, another inmate called out “Ten,” evoking more laughter. And the inmates carried on like before.
The younger inmate leaned over to his friend, “What did I do wrong?” who responded, “Oh, you just told it wrong.”
That story reminds me of most of western Christianity and especially of myself. We are guilty of reducing a beautiful and incredible Story to overly-simplified and virtually irrelevant doctrinal bullet points. Rather than telling and re-telling God’s Story in fresh ways that capture the imagination of our hearers, we use catch-words like the inmates used numbers. “Gospel.” “The Fall.” “Salvation.” “Covenant.” Or if we feel really impressive, we’ll use “Eschatology” or “Pneumatology” or other words that end with “-ology.”
However, the answer isn’t to simply abandon these concepts for a more “practical” style of communication. Many corners of Christendom have attempted to make Christianity relevant to their modern audience. For a while, it seemed like every church marquee advertised a “How To” sermon. The problem is that although it may be relevant to the felt-needs of one’s audience, this solution extracts us from the Story that has been told and retold for ages and generations. The result is a new generation of Christians who know how to have a good marriage, how to raise good kids, how to be a good employee, how to be a good steward, etc., but have no idea of where or how their lives fit into God’s Story other than “Jesus died for me so I can go to heaven when I die.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty on all points. For awhile I had adopted the same techniques and could preach “How To” messages as good as the next guy. But as I’ve shifted from that style in an attempt to understand and communicate God’s Story, a realization has come crashing down around me – I haven’t developed the necessary abilities to tell the Story. This was especially driven home over the last couple of months as our community has been exploring the sweeping movements of God’s Story from creation to renewed creation.
It’s kind of sad. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to get a degree to simply throw words around like the inmates threw numbers around. I have found myself cast in the role of a Story-teller, yet I’m unable to craft the right words to stir the imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for my education. I’m glad I have been trained to think technically and critically about theology. There is a necessary place for it. But it’s not the primary place.
I’m not even sure what I’m grasping at. All I know is that concepts must be coupled with imagination and vision. Not in cute little stories, but in ones that open windows into a mysterious and majestic realm where an eternal God cooperates with animated dust to usher in a new creation unlike anything we know; where eternal fullness is displayed through human hands, eyes and mouth; where the baton of incarnation is passed from perfection to imperfection, from one person to a community that struggles through the ages.