True Tales, Told God’s Way

19 July 2009

In the preceding post, I argued (contra Gordon Clark and various others) that the object of saving faith is the Person Jesus Christ, not merely a proposition or set of propositions about Him.  Among my theology-wonk friends — and there are many of them — this point usually provokes a particular response.  “So it doesn’t really matter what propositions I believe as long as I’m looking at Jesus?” they ask incredulously.

Well, of course it matters.  We’re talking about a particular person here, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David, supposed son of Joseph.  As with any particular person, not all things are true about Him.  He had a certain height, and not some other height.  Eyes of a certain color; hair of a certain length; born in Bethlehem and not in Gaza, born to Mary and not to Elizabeth, suffered under Pontius Pilate and not under Nero, and so on.  Certain claims about Him are true, and others false.

We are called to represent Him, and to do so according to His nature.  Because He is the Truth, we represent Him truly.  We must therefore be faithful to what we’re given about Jesus.  We must say of Him the things Scripture gives us to say.  We must tell the stories Scripture gives us to tell.  We must be true to the volume of material Scripture gives us to present.  When we don’t have time to tell the whole story — which, let’s face it, is almost all the time — then we try to summarize or tell a piece of it that’s particularly important for this person at this time.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Jesus Himself does it all the time, as do the apostles, and we have them for a pattern.

But we should not confuse telling a small piece of the story with “boiling it down to essentials,” as though we could do without the rest of it.  If we’re to be faithful to what God actually gave us, then we’re going to overflow with stories, poetry, songs, parables, proverbs, and much more.  We’re introducing people to a Person, and that process proceeds by addition, not by subtraction. You don’t get to know someone by paring away all that is not essential to the person; you get to know someone by adding more and more: different situations, different angles, different facets of the personality.  Trying to do it the other way around is trying to live in a world God just didn’t make.  We can’t view the abstract proposition as “the essence of it all,” because God didn’t give it to us that way, and we must truly represent what God gave us.

Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication — a point I will take up shortly.  But those propositions come in a cocoon of stories.  Apart from the story context that they elucidate and from which they take their meaning, the propositions are not even false so much as utterly useless, completely without referent in the real world.  Just try to explain “By grace you are saved through faith” without telling a story.  I dare you.

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Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
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It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?