Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Hearing the Story and Making It Our Own (Nov-Dec 2001)

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by Mark Love
November – December, 2001

I am an Iowan. I have never lived in Iowa or even visited Iowa at an advanced enough age to remember anything of the sites, smells, and feels of the farms around Ames. Still, I root for Iowa every year during March madness and have an unquenchable soft spot in my heart for all things Iowan. What explains this attachment? When I was a boy, twelve years old, my father spent a summer telling me stories of his life on the farm in Iowa. I know the stories of Lucky the dog and Foxy the inebriated school bus driver. I know stories of corn cobs soaked in buckets and then thrown past and around hay bail fortresses, tales of pet pigs and chickens, and yarns about imaginary adventures in the cornfields. I am an Iowan, not by natural descent nor of human decision or a father’s will, but by story. I have chosen stories of Iowa as my own. I am an Iowan.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that a person becomes a Christian when one learns to read scripture autobiographically. In other words, we become Christians as we choose to participate in the ongoing story of scripture. We become a Christian when God’s story and our story become one narrative. Paul says it this way, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b-20). Paul’s life story can no longer be told apart from his primary identification with the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In another place, Paul describes his life as “being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is a Christian because his life has taken on the same shape as the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Being a Christian is more than just believing a set of facts. It is much more. Being a Christian is to join a story already underway. The Christian faith is less a system and more a journey. We are a people gripped by a story-a story that calls forth certain commitments and allegiances. And we live as Christians when our lives take on the characteristics of the story.

To bring others to faith requires more than just convincing people of certain facts, or even getting them to obey certain commandments. Evangelism that keeps in view the very nature of the gospel invites people to join in the drama of the Christian story. Christianity speaks in its native tongue when it is telling the story. Early Christian speech, says, Amos Wilder, was “addicted to narrative.” The first Christians trusted the power of the story, particularly the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to change lives. The truth is, propositions convince, but stories convert. We will discover our evangelistic birthright to the extent that we learn to tell and live the story well.

Does it make a difference that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Would the nature of the Christian faith be different if Jesus had not been born in a small town? Would the story mean something different if Jesus were born in a palace rather than a manger? Would the nature of Christianity be different if he had simply been taken up into heaven like Elijah, avoiding the shame associated with crucifixion? Would the nature of the faith be different if he had died in battle alongside Peter, sword drawn, at the hand of Roman oppressors? What then would it mean for Paul to urge Christians to “let the mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”? (Phil. 2:5).

The details of our story determine to a great extent how we choose to live in the world. When I vote in national elections I have a great deal of sympathy for issues related to farmers because I am an Iowan by story. Israel, when it lived true to its identity, took care of widows, aliens, and sojourners. Why? Because God chose them and delivered them when they were slaves in Egypt. Israel learned what it meant to live in the world largely in relation to the character of the Exodus story. Israel’s best memory told them to be suspicious of kings and royal uses of power. Israel’s story taught them to care for the oppressed.

Christians live by the story of God’s becoming flesh in Jesus. It matters immensely that God connected with us in Jesus. It matters just as much where he became flesh. God did not attach himself to human history at just any point. He affixed himself to the human story at the greatest point of vulnerability. He connected with the culture at a despised place so that the gospel would be for all–even for the despised.

In living by this story, Christians find their voice. Living the upside down way of the cross reveals a very different kind of wisdom. When we live by our story, suddenly we have stories to tell-stories that can be told no other place and by no other people. When we live by the instincts of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we find that we have things to say that are really news-good news.

All ministry is incarnational. Ministry in each context, in each age, and in each land will look different. There is no official Christian language. There is no official church structure. There is no such thing as a gospel that is irrelevant. Nor is there such thing as a gospel apart from cultural expression. The church must always be asking the question, “are we connecting with the culture.” Some say the task of ministry and evangelism is to make the gospel relevant. But the gospel is already relevant. The death and resurrection of Jesus is more than just a heavenly transaction whereby our sins are forgiven. The cross teaches us about the nature of God’s power. It provides for us definitions of love that move beyond the sentimental and temporary understandings of love held by our romance obsessed culture. The cross teaches us about forgiveness and patience. It teaches us how to think of possessions. The cross shows us what it means to be a self created in the image of God. The task of ministry is to let the gospel say certain things and act a certain way so that its relevance becomes plain.

We live in a day when our connections with the culture can no longer be taken for granted. We live in a postmodern, post-Christian society, and all of the familiar ways of speaking and acting in our culture have been lost to us. In our attempt to reconnect, however, we might be tempted to regain a place of significance in our world by appealing to the “story” of the dominant culture. Sometimes, we would rather our story begin in Jerusalem or Rome than in a manger in Bethlehem. We are tempted to make a statement by jumping off the temple into the arms of angels rather than by eating with tax collectors and sinners. We would rather present the faith as a way to get ahead than as a way of leaving all behind for the sake of the gospel. We would rather talk about avoiding pain and suffering than call people to enter into it. Sometimes we would rather connect with the culture someplace other than the cross.

It is, however, precisely in times of anxiety producing transition that we should attend to our own story. We believe that the story that claims us as Christians is powerful to save-to save us not only from hell, but from emptiness and insignificance. As we learn again to tell the story (recital), and discover words for how the story continues in our lives (testimony), we will find the places where the gospel calls us to connect with our culture. Stories work. They work especially well in a postmodern context that often dismisses rational arguments as only a version of the truth. But a commitment to the narrative structure of our faith is far more than a wise cultural strategy. It returns us to the genius of the faith and allows us to regain our bearings along the contours of a story well-told, a story well-lived.New Wineskins

Mark Love

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