Eugene Peterson, author of The Message and many other well-known books, tells a story of when his grandson jumped into his lap and said, “Grandpa, tell me a story and put me in it.” In essence, that’s what Christians are supposed to be – people who know and live their place in God’s story so they can retell the story and put other people in it as well.
The challenge of telling God’s Story is two-fold: first everyone thinks they already know the story. The Christian message is part of our western culture, albeit in a distorted form. Telling God’s Story is like trying to tell the original story of Pinocchio when the only version the audience knows is the Disney version. The audience is shocked by the original, responding, “That’s not how it goes!” (Think about all the Disney remakes of classics. Although entertaining, they are complete distortions of the original tales. Yet, for the average person, the Disney version is the one that comes to mind.)
In many ways, the average Christian in North America has grown up with a “Disney version” of God’s Story – reduced to “Four Spiritual Laws” or “How To” sermons or a myriad of other stylized presentations. Please understand, I’m not questioning the good intentions behind these presentations. I’m simply observing the challenge we face when we discover that our current Christian culture’s understanding of God’s Story is very different from how the Story has been told by God’s people for generations upon generations. And how we understand the Story – either the original version or our culture’s version – determines how we live our lives.
What ends up happening is as the Story is retold, the audience reacts to the original version with “That’s not how it goes!” And not with just the overall plot, but the layers of sub-plots and symbols as well. So words like “Gospel” or “Church” or “Salvation” or “Heaven” have different meanings depending on which version of the Story one embraces.
That’s where the real challenge occurs. Ultimately when one retells the Story, one has to choose whether or not to use the loaded words and symbols or attempt to find different language altogether. For example, do we use the word “Salvation” although the current understanding is flawed (ask forgiveness from God and have a personal relationship with God so I can go to heaven when I die)? Or do we choose a term from another tradition that is more accurate (“theosis” from the Eastern Orthodox understanding of participating in the divine nature – 2 Peter 1:4)? Or do we find altogether new language to communicate this part of the story?
As Mark pointed out in his comment in the last post, whichever way we choose, deconstruction of faulty storylines, sub-plots and symbols must take place. And because the current version has so defined who we are, this deconstruction is not without sometimes intense emotional response. Mind you, that’s not necessarily bad or wrong. When worldviews clash, there is always internal turmoil.
I also want to be very clear: I’m not saying that the North American version of God’s Story is completely wrong, just flawed by the way we have retold the story over and over in our context. Bottom-line, the flawed story causes most Christians (myself included) to live their lives in wrong ways. That’s why the Story must be retold in new ways to recapture our imagination and ultimately lead us toward proper life as Jesus’ people.
The second challenge is that God’s Story is just so dang HUGE! It’s hard to tell such a large story. Think about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It’s an awesome version of Tolkien’s work. But Tolkien’s work is so large that a retelling cannot capture its fullness and grandeur.
God’s Story began ages ago. And although centralized for a good portion of time in Israel, it remains a huge task to retell it. Each layer of story-line is tightly woven with generations of developing ideas, sub-stories, and symbols. And being so removed from that time and culture, we completely miss most of the nuanced imagery and read it or hear it from a 21st century perspective. That’s why scholars like N.T. Wright, Gordon Fee, Stanley Grenz and a list of others are necessary to help put on the necessary “glasses” to read the story clearly.
Gordon Fee also makes an interesting remark. He states the usually narrative or story-telling is used by us on a micro level and not the macro-level. In other words, we use stories illustrations for a specific point or to tell a very small sub-plot of the larger Story. Yet, we rarely use narrative to actually tell the Story. Yet, most of the Bible is narrative.
So what does all of this mean? Like I said in the last post, I’m not really sure. I think technical language has a necessary place in retelling and explaining the Story because it helps us to think more accurately and concisely about aspects of the Story. The average person — Christian or non-Christian — exerts more effort thinking about his or her job, finances, relationships, school, and other areas of life than they do about God and his Story. For some reason, we seem to want to simplify spirituality. But Jesus, Paul and the New Testament community were thoughtful theologians. It would do all of us well to follow their lead and think more clearly and concisely about God.
But as I have learned the hard way, technical language is not the best way to actually tell the Story. Something more is needed, something that I lack but am willing to explore and search for as I try to know and live my place in God’s spectacular Story.