Christianity is not primarily a morality: it is primarily a story. Indeed, one might say that Christianity’s very message is a story. Before there was a kerygma, there was an event. Thereafter, Christians have proclaimed, not a good idea, but a gospel, a word meaning good news. How does recovering the story make a difference?
I am probably not alone in having relatively fresh memories of eagerly awaiting the release of the next Harry Potter novel or movie. Or if not, someone may prefer to snuggle on the sofa with a Jane Austen novel. Others may choose to bleed out their eyes watching fifty episodes of Japanese anime downloaded from the internet. Communities used to gather to hear epic tales spun by the eloquence of bards. Today, we are more prone to tell ghost stories around the campfire, swap videos on YouTube, or delve for juicy tidbits from the latest gossip. But even in a day when we can often be suspicious of overly sweeping statements, one old adage might continue to ring true: everyone enjoys a good story.
The value of a story does not lie merely in its ability to amuse. Stories, skillfully wrought, can move and shape affections, challenge our assumptions, stretch our horizons, drawing us into worlds we have never before considered or imagined. There comes a point when a story is no longer “just a story.”
This way, stories also have the power to form and re-form identity. People’s past experiences are stories that in part define who they are today. Stories appropriately define communities. They can be embraced by young and old alike. Just let a six-year old choose between The Little Engine Who Could and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And as we identify ourselves with a community, the stories that define the community also become adopted as a part of our own identity. Americans might tell stories of the pilgrims, the Boston Tea Party, the Alamo, even of George Washington chopping down his father’s favorite cherry tree in order to give flesh to “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” These are examples of stories people tell in order to understand themselves and the world they live in. With Christianity, some have tried to strip away the historical “husk” to recover the universal “kernel.” But in doing so, even statements such as, “God is love,” become reduced to shapeless platitudes. Adjectives may be concise, but the stories show where the rubber meets the road.
It seems to be a common tactic in conflicts to paint the opponent in the bleakest terms of evil and/or stupidity that plausibility will allow. We do not have to go far to find examples of this, particularly as we witness the never-ending slugfests in the political arena. While the accuracy of such characterizations varies, it may be helpful to interpret many of these conflicts, not first and foremost on a scale of intellectual and moral prowess, but as a clash of the dissonances between competing stories. Have a brilliant or obvious solution to economic woes or violence in society? Chances are, it will not be difficult to find highly intelligent people who deem your solutions neither brilliant nor obvious, not because they lack intellectual capacity, but because they have bought into a story different from your own concerning how the world works. This is not to say that all stories are equally valid. Some may be more representative of life than others. But recognizing stories would most likely yield more insight than simplistically demonizing the other side.
When evaluating a worldview and its consistency in broad strokes, it can be helpful to ask story-related questions. Stories begin and stories end. Between a story’s beginning and end, there is usually some sort of conflict and resolution. Where did we all come from? What is the fundamental problem? What is the solution? Where are we headed? Christianity’s own story provides its answers to these four basic questions in the shape of the history of redemption: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.
Where did we come from?
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Jatravartids of Viltvodle VI believe we were sneezed from the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure; the end comes with the coming of the Great White Handkerchief. This leaves us with a rather severe antithesis between creator and creation. Or if our origin is from a random interaction of particles, the heat death of the universe or the Big Crunch as our final destination, we are left with a rather futile and pathetic existence in the grand scheme of things. Our work, our successes, our love are merely relative and on a mind-bogglingly insignificant timescale. In the end, there is no difference between the most heroic, self-giving, and praised and the most tyrannical, self-serving, and loathed. Origins and ends (protology and eschatology) imply how things should be. As few would espouse a philosophy of life consistent with the story of a meaningless material universe, is it a surprise that religious belief continues to hold sway on the majority of the human race?
Scripture begins with God alone as Creator, forming the heavens and the earth without aid or counsel. Genesis is concerned not with mechanics, but with purpose and place. God is not the creation, nor is the creation God. Other deities might be associated with natural forces such as the sun and the moon, but even before sun and moon were set to rule the day and the night, God said, “Let there be light!” God has neither equal nor adversary. Before him, even the chaos of the primal waters is tame. God is the one who puts the ancient Leviathan on a leash and takes it out for morning strolls. God creates, not emanating parts of himself nor even sneezing, neither by battle nor by begetting. Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline writes:
He does not build with trowel in one hand and sword in the other. There is no need for the sword. More than that, there is no need for the trowel. The builder does not use tools… The word of his will is his all-effective instrument.
Creation is not a natural necessity of the Creator. We are the result of his sovereign pleasure, on a different plane of existence as he, not autonomous but upheld by the oath of his covenant (cf. Jer. 33:20, 25). In light of this, it is a good thing to hear that God is unchanging (Mal 3:6). But difference does not entail an antithesis between Creator and creation, and diversity is not the source of disharmony within creation. God declared his creation to be very good; he made us for a good purpose. We are no more incomplete in failing to be divine than a pot is in failing to be a potter. Creation maintains its own integrity by continuing to be creation without divinization. Creator continues to be Creator without naturalization.
What is the fundamental problem?
I had a friend who once told me that she didn’t think there was something fundamentally out of sync with the cosmos. When she was on the verge of tears upon hearing of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, I did not feel that it was an appropriate time to reopen the question. Perhaps there may be a quibble with the way I had posed the question, but for a politician of any political stripe, or a student who studies hard only to fail a class, or a mother who loses her child, it seems pretty safe to say that not all is as it should be.
Scripture finds the problem not in the way we are made, but in our choices which result in what we become. There are those who celebrate the eating of the forbidden fruit as progress, the serpent hailed as the great liberator. But this misses several key points of the story. Humans were already made in God’s image; they were made like God to imitate Him in the ways we were designed to. This implies having true knowledge already (cf. Col. 3:10). The tree is not of mere knowledge, but of the knowledge of good and evil, an idiom that may have more to do with kingly judgment than with brain power (2 Sam. 14:17; 1 Ki. 3:9). At the judgment tree, Adam should have known good and evil after God’s thoughts, naming the serpent not a liberator but a liar, ejecting it from the Garden. Instead, he decided what was good and evil in his own eyes (cf. Judg. 21:25), rebelling against the goodness of the Creator, and becoming like God in a way in which he was never designed to function correctly.
Could it be that much strife can be attributed to a humanity not united by a common good, but instead billions of autonomous gods each deciding his or her own right and wrong, accountable to no other? If man is the measure of all things, then no less is evil man the measure of all things. And if our own conflicts were not bad enough, the Christian story tells us that the futility of our labors is also a curse of the Fall, as is the ultimate futility we all must eventually face: death.
What is the solution?
Our stories may also suggest a solution or at least a coping mechanism. If ignorance is the fundamental problem, it would seem that education would be the logical solution. If poverty is the problem, then the solution would be the generation and distribution of wealth. If we just need self-esteem and an over-abundance of warm, fuzzy feelings, perhaps enough therapy sessions or the right drugs would do the trick. But haven’t we encountered enough educated criminals, useless millionaire playboys and heiresses, and people just a little too full of themselves, to question if something more is needed?
Scripture’s solution to the problem posed by the Fall is the center of Christian proclamation: Christ has come; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Even this declaration is posed in the form of a story. It is no accident that the Apostles’ Creed is concerned neither with abstract proposition nor ethical imperatives, but is focused on the persons and work of the Triune God, centered on the events surrounding the incarnate Christ: God in the flesh. The Creator became creation; the Lord of Glory came as a humble baby to reverse the curse of the Fall; the Author inserted Himself into his story. More than that, He would bring creation to its consummate end. Christ is the second Adam, the head of a new humanity. He is Israel’s long-expected hope and consolation. the prophet greater than Moses, the great high priest in the line of Melchizedek, the king greater than Solomon, ruling on David’s throne forever.
We have made ourselves the inherent problem, thus the solution must come from outside of us. The Christian story gives us no cause to become proud. Neither holier than thou, nor cooler than thou, we gain redemption not by our own performance nor merits, but by the perfect performance and infinite merits of the man Jesus Christ. His love is such that while we were helpless and even hostile to God, Christ died for us on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous (Rom. 5:6f). In His resurrection, He is the conqueror over death, the victor over the grave (1 Cor. 15). And in His ascension, we have our flesh in heaven, a pledge to all who trust not in themselves but in Him, that where He is, there we shall be also.
Where are we going?
During my days of graduate studies in physics, we would occasionally receive phone calls or mail from random people seeking consultation on such projects as faster-than-light communication or warp drive. It is no surprise to find among them people who believe that Star Trek is our future and that the physicist’s purpose is to lead us into that promised land. Those who envision our destiny to be more along the lines of The Day After or the Terminator movies may be more skeptical of this hagiographic view of physicists. Our vision of the future and how we get there shapes our present hopes and labors. Eschatology is immensely significant for the here and now.
But the future is more difficult to nail down than the past. Even among Christians, widely varying stories are told concerning the time between the ascension and the second coming of Christ. A more pessimistic view as popularized by the Left Behind series posits an utter antithesis between believer and world, with relief to be found in the rapture or simply dying and going to heaven. Others, such as Anglican bishop N. T. Wright, take a more optimistic stance where the renewal of creation is happening now on earth and Christians labor to help bring this about.
Scripture does not seem to fit entirely with either of these versions. A tension seems to exist between, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). Christians find themselves in the world but not of it (John 17:14–18), at the juncture between this “present age” and the “age to come” (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:21; 1 Tim. 6:19).
Pessimism may lead one to think that the world is going to heck anyway so why bother with the environment or culture? But the story that begins with the goodness of creation and ends with the ultimate renewal of creation (cf. Rom 8:21) counters that sort of thinking, calling on us to engage in all levels of cultural endeavors in display of the goodness and wisdom of the Creator. On the other hand, optimism may mistake material successes for the blessings of the age to come, burdening down the faithful who are not so rich or so healthy. It may also tend toward mistaking a particular cultural direction as the only viable Christian option, aligning the faith with a political platform and submerging the gospel of grace under the workload of societal fixes. Daniel gained the respect that earned him the top administrative post of the Persian Empire, not by legislating the Ten Commandments nor by trying to turn Babylon into the New Jerusalem. But it was by his integrity as an able governor, working for the good of the city in a land he did not consider his home, for he continued to pray toward Jerusalem. Like Abraham, he looked for a better country, a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10).
While the story of how we get there has many variations, the concluding chapter remains: Christ will come again. This present age is marked by shades of gray. The fixes we concoct prove to be double-edged; one man’s delight is another man’s poison. But the consummate age to come, as Christ ushers in the new heavens and the new earth, will all be revealed in black and white—white in its full spectrum of Technicolor! Some imagine that when all wrongs are made right and all shall be as it ought to be, we will be stuck in a boring, static existence akin to Pleasantville. Nothing could be farther from the Christian hope (or at least this Christian’s hope). We cannot imagine how a world without sin can be any fun because every human attempt at it is a snafu. God is infinitely more creative than our wildest imaginations. The sweetest of this life’s pleasures will not compare to the blandest in the next. Yes, it will be better than sex. There will be a new story to live and to tell in the new creation, just as a new song is sung. And it will be a fantastic story because there among His people will dwell our glorious God.