Christianity and Pluralism (5): Christianity = Statement or Story?
April 13, 2012 4 Comments
Many years ago, our human ancestors huddled around fires listening to shamans and elders telling narrative stories by which they made sense of their world and their lives in it. They told myths about the world’s origins, and about how they as peoples came to be….They recounted myths about fairies, spirits, gods, and powerful cosmic forces. By narrating such fictional stories, our ancestors recounted meaningful explanations of a world that was to them mysterious and dangerous….As primitives, telling such stories, myths, and legends was the only way they knew how to explain the world and contemplate how to live in it…
But all of that has changed. We moderns no longer have to huddle around fires telling fanciful myths about creations, floods, trials, conquests, and hoped-for paradises. Science, industry, rationality, and technology have dispelled the darkness and ignorance that once held the human race captive to its fanciful fables. Today, through progress, enlightenment, and cultural evolution, we now possess positive knowledge, scientific facts, rational analyses. We no longer need to be a people of ballads and legends, for we are a people of periodic tables, technical manuals, genetic maps, and computer codes….We have left behind myths and legends….Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.
Such is the story we moderns–huddled around our televisions and computer work stations–like to tell each other. This is the dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it. (Moral, Believing Animals, 63-4)
In this recounting of the contemporary Western narrative, Christian Smith captures nicely just how addicted we human beings are to story. In fact, Smith would say that stories are an essential part of our lives. We keep making them, and they keep shaping us.
We tell and retell narratives that themselves come fundamentally to constitute and direct our lives. We, every bit as much as the most primitive or traditional of our ancestors, are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is, who we are, and how we ought to live by locating ourselves within the larger narratives and metanarratives that we hear and tell…. (MBA, 64)
Enter Lesslie Newbigin‘s final point of preparation for Christians taking their message to others:
…the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear. (GPS, 12)
Faith isn’t so much about believing a statement, but rather believing a story.
Of course, as Smith points out, believing a story is not a uniquely Christian thing. At the end of the day, we all make meaning of our lives by telling some story. The story may be exciting or boring. It may be simple or complex (or both). It may bear more or less resemblance to reality. But one way or another, no matter how you slice it, it’s a story.
The Christian story, rooted in the Bible, is an interpretation of human history set within the history of the world. I happen to believe it is a true interpretation of that history. I also believe it is exciting, sometimes stunningly simple and sometimes confusingly complex. Every time I wrestle with it, it continues to ring true in my ears. It encompasses all other stories I have heard with elegance, grace, and clarity. But most importantly, it centers on a protagonist that I just can’t get out of my head.
God. Particularly, God as he came to us in Jesus Christ.
The entire story of the Bible finds its focus in Christ, is fulfilled and makes sense in Christ. If it has been a while since you heard the basic plot line of the story, let me briefly recount it for you.
God created the world, including us humans, and everything was so good. Part of that goodness in human beings was our free will. We could truly choose to love God, not like automatons, but like people. But tragically, we chose not to. We continue to choose not to. And the pain and evil we put out into the world sticks to us, and to each other. God kept trying to woo us the world back to him through the people of Israel, but they just kept choosing to run away from him out of selfishness and pride and laziness. Finally, God decided to take matters into his own hands.
He became a human being, in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus turned to God when the rest of us wouldn’t. As a human being with all the temptations you and I face, he chose freely to love and obey the Creator of the universe. Then, letting all the evil we put into the world stick to him instead of us, he died on the cross. Our rightful punishment and our justifiable shame died with him.
But he didn’t stay dead. He rose from the dead, defeating death, and showing us what would happen to those who accept his record as their own. Ever since he ascended to be with the Father, we have been waiting for him to return and set the world right once and for all. In the meantime, he has sent his own Spirit to us so that we aren’t stuck in the evil that use to stick to us anymore. We can finally use that original gift of freedom to love God once again.
Christians don’t so much put their faith in a series of propositions. We put our faith in a person. The person of Jesus Christ, the center of the story of all human history, and the hope of our future.
We all have a story. And, I don’t know about you, but I find this person, and his story, pretty compelling.