Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Saving the Story

Saving Private Ryan is one of my favorite movies. It's a powerful World War II film about a small band of U.S. soldiers who are ordered to journey behind enemy lines to retrieve Private James Ryan after three of his brothers are killed in separate engagements (and all within days of each other). Ryan's would-be rescuers are initially resentful of their dangerous task, questioning why the life of a single ordinary soldier—who they've never even met—carries more weight than all of their lives combined. Somewhere along the way, though, the mission becomes more than just saving Ryan: The band of searchers also seek personal redemption, desperately striving to accomplish one decent thing, to regain a measure of their humanity amidst a multitude of unspeakable acts, to “earn the right to go home.” It's an incredible story about sacrifice and redemption with several unforgettable scenes.

Stay with me. I'll do my best to come to the point shortly.

Now suppose, for a minute, I ask two people (We'll call them Kate and Greg) what Saving Private Ryan is about. Let's pretend Kate has only seen the film once, while Greg is the movie's all time “biggest fan.” How about we go a bit further and say Greg has seen Saving Private Ryan no less than 100 times, he knows every line, and can even do a spot on Tom Hanks impersonation. His enthusiasm for the film has prompted him to become a World War II history buff who can elaborate in great detail about nuanced 20th Century European politics, precise troop deployment and military tactics during the invasion of Normandy, and he can even tell me what Himmler's favorite color was. Greg went so far as to become fluent in German, so he wouldn't need any of the subtitles. Now suppose our first person, Kate, after only one viewing, can more or less tell me what the movie is about (though she may have forgotten some of the character's names and certain details here and there) while Greg, on the other hand, is completely unable to explain the plot (even in the most simplest terms). Lets say Greg (who, remember, can act out every individual scene) earnestly describes Spielberg's gritty war film as a “romantic comedy.” Anyone who's seen the film, with its graphic violence and sombre tone, knows Greg is way out to lunch with his description. Given what we know about Kate and Greg, which of the two would you say has a firmer grasp of the story? Now suppose we're talking about a much more significant story than Saving Private Ryan. A similar occurrence to what I've just described with Greg, our fictional “movie buff,” unfortunately seems to happen way too often when Christians attempt to tell the story of God. They may be extremely well versed on several of the individual components, but they're, in many cases, tragically unable to identify the main beats of the narrative or even the overarching point of it all.

The Disconnect

One of the reasons for this inability to see the big picture is due to the disjointed way in which we typically learn the story (or better said, the way we learn the stories). N.T. Wright, in How God Became King, discusses how we tend to miss the forest for the trees in our reading of the four gospels, and I think the same can be said for our reading of the whole story. In Sunday School, we're taught moral lessons from the biblical characters' exploits (courage in the face of persecution, for example, through the tale of Daniel and the lion's den, learning to trust Jesus as Peter steps out of the boat, etc.). And then later in “big church,” we learn important theological concepts like the nature of the Trinity, the sufficiency of the cross, and so on (We tend to work backwards, though, using the stories as explanations and evidences for the important doctrines that we've isolated and to reinforce our resulting sophisticated theological models). Unfortunately, we quickly develop tunnel vision (the kind that has allowed Christians through the ages to justify the genocidal underbelly of “manifest destiny,” slavery, segregation, rabid nationalism, social isolation, consumerism, apathy toward refugees and immigrants, pursuing safety and security over the Gospel, etc.). The simple truth is we tend to live our lives based on our perception of what the story is about (including where it's all headed), even if the narrative we're operating under was merely Frankenstein-ed together in our subconscious from all the loose bits and pieces.

Maybe to me the story is best described as a low-budget indie film that gives an artsy close-up of my own “personal salvation” (in which the original widescreen narrative is conspicuously truncated, I'm the main character, and passages like Jeremiah 29:11 were obviously written with me in mind). It could also be more of a buddy comedy that follows me and my wisecracking, pocket-size Jesus as I’m “tossed to and fro” on a wild romp through relativism (In this version I'm too “authentic” for organized religion, so I pretty much improvise the story all by myself as I go). Perhaps I see the story as the feel good movie of the summer that whimsically chronicles my prosperous “best life now.” Maybe I’m at the other end of the spectrum, and it’s an intense thriller that’s built around a great escape theme (where my role in the unfolding narrative is to hunker down in this present liberal “hellhole,” withdraw from society, gather as much “helpful intel” from questionable pseudo news sources as possible, and wait for the hero to suddenly and dramatically break me out and relocate me to a beach in Tahiti). Perhaps I see the story of God unfolding like a political propaganda film that equates the U.S. to the kingdom of God and nationalistic endeavors of “making America Great again” with the Great Commission (in this script, the epic “spiritual battle” between the elephant and the donkey is center stage). I guess I could even see it as a bizarre sci-fi, in which the audience is frequently asked to suspend its disbelief, as nothing in the story makes any sense (I’m looking at you, Joseph Smith). Some say it’s a “love story.” We're probably getting warmer (It ends with a wedding after all). But if it’s a romance, it’s no Sleepless in Seattle or The Notebook by any stretch. It would have to be much more one-sided, something like When Hosea Met Gomer.

Establishing the Story's Important Landmarks

Back when I was an art student, my figure drawing instructor would teach us to roughly block out our construction lines and basic forms before drawing in the details and shading. One of the marks of a novice is how they're always too eager to move on to the fine tuning before laying a proper foundation, and it shows in their finished composition (No amount of shading can make up for a poorly constructed and disproportioned figure). The figure we're drawing here is Jesus. He frames the unfolding story from Genesis to Revelation. He's the Author, the Protagonist, the Beginning and the End.

So here's my best attempt at identifying the main beats of his story:

The story began with God (the only Hero in the narrative)
He created an Ideal universe by the power of his Word
Humans were made in his image as his representatives (God's plan is to reign over his creation through his human administrators). They were instructed to multiply and fill the earth.
A single law was given…
Followed by rebellion/exile/bondage/death (With the rejection of the Tree of Life, all of creation was broken and heaven and earth were torn apart)
A broken man and his family were chosen as representatives to a rebellious humanity (God is set on his original plan to reign over his creation through his image bearers). He promised to multiply them and bless the whole earth through this man’s Seed.
An expanded law was given…
Followed by continuing cycles of rebellion/exile/bondage/failure
God sent his Son, just as he promised, as a descendant of the man “who believed” and as a stand-in for his inadequate family. He accomplished on their behalf the task of keeping God’s law and reconciling the Creator and his broken creation (by way of his life, death, and resurrection). As the only obedient image-bearer (the perfect Representative), he reclaimed the family of faith’s original birthright and vocation (which also happened to be humanity’s original birthright and vocation) and dealt a fatal blow to rebellion and death.
Everyone who acknowledges God’s Son as the rightful King is invited to participate in his kingdom as redeemed and restored representatives. These redeemed kingdom people—who are collectively an extension of the King, his “body,” his “church,” his “bride”—are the true family of faith as they are marked, empowered, and led by his Spirit and instructed to multiply and fill the earth (by sacrificially and incarnationally declaring and demonstrating the story of what God has accomplished through his Son).
He writes his law on renewed hearts...
And by God's grace, his renewed people inherit obedience/reconciliation/freedom/LIFE (and the mended become menders).
All authority has been given to the King. He oversees his advancing kingdom, through the power of his Spirit, as he's presently seated at the right hand of the Father.
The human rebels who tragically opt out of God’s active redemptive plan for his universe, along with the instigator, will be judged by the King upon his physical return (at which point he will “make all things new” by raising the dead/swallowing death up forever, banishing evil from his universe/fully restoring his creation, completely reunifying heaven and earth with his presence, and submitting everything to his Father).
I see the story of God as a big-budget (considering that the Director has literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into its production), sweeping, redemptive story of how God is taking back his rebel world through the person and work of Jesus.
Core Themes
There are several significant themes threaded through God’s story. I’d like to briefly highlight a few. Redemption and restoration are among the most frequently reoccurring themes: that is taking something spoiled, spent, wasted, and ruined and making it new again (usually at great cost). God’s propensity toward redemption and restoration is illustrated on just about every page of Holy Scripture. He is gloriously inefficient in his stubborn refusal to simply scrap broken things and start again.
One of my personal favorites is the underdog theme. God has a noticeable affinity for the long shot. He often takes the youngest, weakest, unskilled, outsiders, never gonna happen, lowliest tribe, least likely, lost causes and losers and makes them into kings, prophets, freedom-bringing, giant-slaying, miracle-working, champions of God. He brings his best news to shepherds, beggars, orphans, widows, the marginalized, and the outcasts. In God's kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), and the King will wash their feet. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” says Mary, the mother of Jesus, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51b-53). God's own Son comes to us from a poor family, a marginalized ethnic group, laid in an animal feed trough, and raised in a hick-ville, backwoods part of Judea, formerly uneducated, and, for all intents and purposes, homeless (“he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”—from Isaiah 53:2). According to Paul there is a method to the Creator's madness, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Another reoccurring theme in God’s story (and the mechanism by which he carries out redemption and allows for restoration) is this idea of substitution: a person or a people standing in for others (this is no doubt difficult for individualistic Americans to accept, but none of the story makes any sense without comprehending God’s thinking on this). The first humans were assigned the task of tending to the world and being God’s go-betweens, his representatives or stand-ins to/from creation. Adam, as our first father, acted negatively in this capacity. In God’s mind, since all of humanity proceeds from this man, there is continuity between Adam and us. All of humanity has inherited his rebellion against God, his failure in the garden (we all subsequently contribute our own personal rebellion as well).
Redemptive human substitutes (as a foreshadowing of the ultimate stand-in) are often used of God to rescue by way of their own suffering. Joseph, as an example, was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly accused and thrown into prison, eventually vindicated, elevated, and ultimately used to rescue his family, the people of Egypt, and most of the Near East. According to Joseph, the whole thing was God’s plan to turn evil back on itself, to bring about good.
Abraham and his family, which eventually became a nation, were also said to serve as a stand-in for humanity. God purposely used Abraham’s family to retell the story on a smaller more intimate scale (he’s a skilled storyteller who knows good stories need characters, faces, and flesh for humans to connect). God promised to bless this family so that they would be a blessing to everyone else. They were to be a nation of priests, or go-betweens, leading the world back to the Creator and mediating between the two. But, as Wright points out, the proposed rescuers needed rescuing themselves. So Jesus (as the descendant of Adam, Abraham, and King David) stood in for all of humanity, but, more precisely, as the heir to David’s throne, he stood in for Abraham’s family of faith (who, in a sense, was standing in for the rest of humanity). That gets a bit convoluted, but it’s important to understanding the progression of the story (how the sub-story of Israel plays into the story of God). The gospels make it clear that Jesus was standing in for Israel, fulfilling their vocation, as he was depicted symbolically retracing their historic steps (He was called out of Egypt, passed through water, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, and so on). At every turn, he was faithful where his ancestors failed (he withstood temptation in the wilderness, he perfectly upheld the law of God, he overcame in the garden). He’s Israel’s divine do-over—and, by extension, he’s humanity’s do-over too.
Another important theme that drives the narrative is God’s desire and promise to dwell among his people. God is of course everywhere to begin with (“omnipresent”), but he hasn’t made his home, his dwelling, everywhere and in the same way (Just as a husband and wife can simultaneously occupy a room, perhaps in a state of disinterest or strife, and yet still fall short of the closeness that God is after). Before Adam’s rebellion, the Creator and his creation enjoy a state of indescribable unity. It’s far beyond just occupying the same space.
This early idyllic state embodies God’s original intent, in which all of creation acts as his temple, his dwelling (a fully unified heaven and earth), and he reigns over the natural world through his human administrators (Genesis 1:26, 28). We can see, then, how the shattering of this paradise, due to human rebellion, causes destructive ripples throughout all of creation.
After the Fall (the rending of heaven and earth), God illustrated his promised return, in the dwelling sense, through a number of artifacts, icons, and “holy” places (the Ark of the Covenant, the Urim and Thummin, the Temple, etc.). These were objects or locations (in which heaven and earth symbolically intersect or “interlock,” as Wright would say) that prophetically pointed forward to the scene described in Revelation when paradise is restored, God comes to dwell among his people on earth, and we see him “face to face.” Solomon’s Temple (as the pinnacle of these holy spaces) illustrated this same longing for a return to Eden, when creation effectively functioned as God’s temple, with numerous pictorial examples of trees, fruit, animals, and nature.
Jesus—a genuine human who is also the exact image of the transcendent Creator—is the ultimate example of heaven and earth intersecting. He is “God with us,” and, as such, he naturally supersedes all the illustrations that came before. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the true Temple of God. He tells the Samaritan woman at the well (in response to her question about where one should worship the God who dwells in heaven) that a time is coming (and has come) in which location will no longer be an issue. Through the person and work of Jesus (which includes the sending of his Spirit), God has extended this heaven-and-earth-intersecting phenomenon (illustrated in “spiritual hotspots,” so to speak, like the Temple, but truly realized in Christ) to everyone who wants in. This present existence—being a Spirit-filled extension of the Living Temple, a mobile, kingdom-bringing spiritual hotspot—is merely a taste of what’s to come.
The full consummation of this theme comes with the physical return of Jesus and the complete restoration of his creation. At which point, he will “dwell” with his people in a freshly restored and seamlessly reunified, heaven and earth. The story of God, then, is a long and painful round about trip back to the beginning. Well, almost. It’s a bit more than just ending up back home where we started. Paradise begins with the early seeds (two image-bearers and endless potential) of what God ultimately envisioned and is finally reborn with a whole city, made from “living stones,” of redeemed and restored administrators who possess intimate knowledge regarding the weight of rebellion, the sting of death, the high cost of redemption, and the unfathomable distance our King will go to put things back on track.
Simple Steps Forward
We might have added a third character to Kate and Greg: Let's call him Phil. Phil has really only seen about ten cumulative minutes of Saving Private Ryan (He was in the bathroom, getting snacks, talking, and sleeping through the rest). He probably still has a strong opinion about the story, though. And if any questions come up, Phil will likely ask Greg (he's the expert after all). One of the most immediately helpful remedies for the mass confusion surrounding the story of God is for all Christians to simply see the whole movie. I’m a slow reader, myself, and getting through all 66 books can definitely seem like a daunting task for a newcomer (especially Numbers), but a through-the-Bible-in-a-year format (in which the whole Bible has been conveniently broken up into 15-minute daily readings that correspond to a calendar year) has really been helpful to me (it’s exciting to start spotting repeating themes and important parallels, especially when you progress through the Old and New Testaments concurrently). There are also a bunch of great audio and video options to have Scripture spoken to you on your computer or smartphone if reading isn’t your thing (You can even find one with a British accent for when you’re feeling particularly classy). Don't be dissuaded by those who imply anything short of reading from a page is somehow a less “spiritual” method of learning the story (especially if you're an auditory or visual learner). I recommend changing versions each year, too, in order to have a fresh look at something that may already be familiar to you (I like the NIV and ESV in most cases, but I also enjoyed reading God’s story by way of the NLT this last go around). The big idea is to consume and metabolize the story, though, in whatever format compliments your individual learning style.

It’s a little trickier if it turns out we’re Greg, the confused film enthusiast, who already considers himself an expert. It’s incredibly difficult, once we’ve firmly established in our mind that Saving Private Ryan is a romantic comedy, and spent years interpreting each of the individual grisly scenes with that understanding in mind, to then humbly step back and look again with new eyes. There are many of us who, like Nicodemus, need to unlearn what we've learned so we can start over from the beginning. Jesus of course commended the “Gregs” for their thoroughness in some areas. Greg's extensive historical knowledge, for example, could potentially give him a greater appreciation for the film (a depth that Kate may not experience with her single viewing and lack of background info). It's awesome if one has studied Hebrew and Greek and given a lot of thought to historical context and complex theological concepts. But Jesus also sternly rebuked the Gregs of his day for being overly attentive to small things while neglecting the “weightier,” or “more important,” aspects of the law (the aspects that reveal God's heart for “justice, mercy, and faithfulness”—Matthew 23:23). I've read and heard many respected teachers and theologians who, despite their extensive biblical knowledge, sometimes express gross ignorance about core themes of the story of God (as seen in many of their conclusions, allegiances, and endeavors). Our mastery of the individual components is pointless if, like Greg, we fail to comprehend the overarching story.

Learn to tell a 3-5 minute version of the Story of God from Genesis to Revelation (Just thinking about the overarching story and how best to tell it is incredibly good for us). Practice with other Christ-followers, and ask for feedback (People aren't always hearing what we think we're saying, so this becomes a very helpful exercise). If we've succumbed to the story of God—been transformed by the good news of his better kingdom—then we need to be ready to explain to onlookers just exactly what's happening (not only within our own lives, but what God is up to in the world and where it's all headed). I've heard it said, "The Gospel found you on its way to someone else." Become a great story teller, like Jesus, and share his good news often and in everyday life. Be familiar enough with the story to be able to contextualize the Gospel to your hearer's specific brokenness (the story doesn't change, but what we emphasize and how we deliver it should be customized as the Holy Spirit leads us). Jesus addressed a promiscuous woman's underlying longing, for example, by offering “living water” that would satisfy her true thirst. In an earlier encounter, he told a jaded theologian that he would need to start over and be “born again” (this time, by way of the Spirit). Jesus also invited a young rich man of power to give it all up and find his treasure and identity in the true King instead.

A film like Saving Private Ryan has an actual story that the writer, director, cast and production team are trying to tell. We, as the audience, aren’t at liberty to just rewrite the movie as a slapstick comedy, a horror film, or a western. We’re of course free to create our own stories, but we shouldn’t commandeer or misrepresent someone else’s story. All the more, we should take the time to get God's story right. Remember that our understanding of the story will inform how we live our lives (for better or for worse). So let's invest in developing a strong foundation built around the main beats of the narrative and a firm grasp of the overarching themes (It's all well and good to progress on to deeper truths, but we should first get the basics down). Ultimately, it's through the story of God that we come to know him, know ourselves, and become known. As we faithfully read the script, we find that God has written each of us into his epic redemptive tale. But if we fail to see the story unfolding—what God is up to in the world—then we'll undoubtedly miss our cue, and the story will simply carry on without us.

...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” - Luke 24:27

(The Bible Project has a bunch of great videos that guide you through God's story book-by-book. They just finished their through the Bible series, and they also have some great theme videos. I highly recommend them as a resource.)

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