Wineskins Archive

November 25, 2013

Tell Me a Story: Connecting With Postmodern Minds (Sept-Dec 2003)

Filed under: — @ 6:42 pm and

By Lynn Anderson

“I feel like my words are blanks fired into dead air,” Harry complained, “My son Aaron is a smart kid, and I think he has a great heart. But when I try to reason with him in plain logic about bedrock truth, he doesn’t seem to get it. What’s his problem?”

The problem may not be with Aaron. Nor with Harry, for that matter. This father and son may actually be talking past each other from two very different thought worlds—saying similar words, but with totally different meanings. Harry’s rhetoric convinces folks who see reality through what has been tagged a ‘modern’ worldview. But Aaron views reality through today’s postmodern lens. In Aaron’s world, rational, logical argument carries very little weight. But for him, a story can carry loads of theological content and persuasive force. Back in Harry’s world, however, stories are ‘made up’ and carry very little credible persuasive force.

Story-telling is a thoroughly Biblical way of communication. Sure, Scripture speaks some rational and logical content. But, the Bible is in fact, fundamentally a story. More correctly, it is the story. And the story is woven of a fabric of stories. Take the Exodus story for example. At the Passover feast—when the children became curious enough to ask, “What does this mean?”—the parents told their children an old story, “Our fathers were slaves in the land of Egypt and…”

The New Testament also embeds theology in story. The gospels are stories. The book of Acts is a story. So even is that apocalyptic extravaganza we call the Revelation. In their sermons the evangelists in the New Testament mostly told how the story intersected their own stories.

We most effectively persuade today’s people toward Christ by telling how our own stories intersect with the story, thus connecting the story with their personal stories. Mere passive listening to the story, however, does not necessarily move the postmodern heart. Rather, as many students of postmodern culture point out, today’s people understand the story best and it connects most powerfully when they can personally participate in or interact with the drama of the story line.

My friend Charles helped me with this. Charles is in his eighth decade of life and a veteran of some forty-five years of local, congregational ministry. Years ago he did doctoral studies in theology at Harvard. At our church Charles is our ‘resident theologian,’ a sort of stabilizing keel for us. Walking though a conversation with him is like walking through a rich and living library. He floods a room with faith. At a social gathering recently, I got Charles off in a corner to pick his brain.

“Charles,” I asked, “What good stuff have you been reading lately?”

Charles mentioned a book or two, then explained, “To tell you truth Lynn, I haven’t read much theology lately. I get the feeling that bright theologians tend to come up with interesting new twists, and then attempt to read their stuff back into the Scriptures— in a sort of revisionist way. I’m getting a bit bored with that. So these days, I mostly find myself just reading the Bible.”

Then, he added, “But I have a metaphor for Christian theology that is working well for me. Just a little idea of mine. May not work for anyone else.”

“Tell me about it,” I pressed. So right then and there, Charles unpacked his simple, but powerful metaphor.

“I summarize Christian theology,” explained Charles, “with the mental picture of a suspension bridge—like the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.”

Charles shifted in his chair and became more animated, drawing invisible graphics in the air with his index finger, as he elaborated further. “The two towers,” he explained, spreading his arms wide apart with index fingers pointed upward, “are the two advents: the first and second coming of Christ. And the twin cables strung between the towers are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

Now Charles’ eyes began to sparkle, “Both baptism and communion continually retell the story of the death burial and resurrection of Christ—and they keep the gospel story alive and personal across that span of time between the two advents.”

By this time I was intrigued.

Charles continued, “Our times need more—not less—emphasis on the larger meanings of baptism and communion. These two powerful dramas speak hugely significant things. Besides, they connect with more than the head—they involve the whole person!”

“Take baptism: at baptism, believers actually participate—spiritually and physically—in a drama, which tells the story—the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And at the same time baptism dramatically tells our story—death to an old life and rebirth into a new life in Christ.

We must not trivialize nor neglect baptism and its powerful re-telling of the gospel story.”

Then Charles turned to the Lord’s Supper, “Jesus said that the communion ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes!’  By eating the bread and drinking the cup we participate—physically and spiritually —in a drama that regularly retells the gospel story—and how it intersects with our stories. These two cables, baptism and communion, together keep telling the gospel story in ‘one bright chain of loving rite’ stretching—like the cables between bridge towers—from advent to advent. We simply must give more thoughtful reflection to the Lord’s supper.”

Friend Charles, your metaphor sticks in my head and touches my heart. Since that conversation, some mighty useful reflection has rolled back and forth on that suspension bridge.

And it connects in a most striking way with something I learned from a Leadership Network conference held in Denver three summers ago. They called the conference a “Lewis and Clark Expedition.”  Only this was a spiritual expedition rather than a geographical one. The ‘natives’ lived in the land of the under thirty, while the ‘immigrants’ were Christians over thirty attempting to speak the language of the ‘natives.’  Typical of Leadership Network events, it was a well-planned and wonderfully helpful conference. Several strong resource persons guided the expedition: experts such as Leonard Sweet, a serious student of postmodern culture; Ken Blanchard of management fame; Peter Senge, an organizational and systems guru, plus several others. While they did not all say it the same way the guides seemed to agree that Christians will most persuasively communicate the gospel to a postmodern world through story; noting especially that worship services which tell the story through participatory drama will connect best with postmoderns.

Note these key postmodern concepts: Story. Drama. Participatory assemblies.

Peter Senge’s closing summary of the expedition especially got my attention. After a disclaimer that he was new at this ‘Christian thing’ and did not claim to be a theologian, Senge suggested that rather than looking to the future, for new bells and whistles to make our worship services connect with postmodern hearts, we might instead look back into Christian history. “Two ancient Christian rites, powerfully combine story-telling and drama in a most participatory way: namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper!  In baptism our whole bodies dramatize the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. At the same time baptism depicts our personal death to the old life and resurrection to the new. And in the Lord’s Supper we physically handle and swallow bread—as the body of Christ—and personally ingest wine—as the blood of Christ.”

Bingo!  What drama could tell the Christian story in a more participatory way than baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

Friends—Harry, Charles, and Peter—you have set us to thinking:  Since the Bible was written into an audience that held a pre-modern worldview (a worldview which seems to look significantly more like a postmodern than a modern worldview). And since Scripture rarely—if ever—seeks to persuade through logical, rational proof—but across both Testaments, it passionately tells the God-man story. And since Scripture tells this story in high drama—through music, poetry, art and more. And since Scripture calls us to participate in the dramatic God-man story, and thus to actually come into relationship with Almighty God. Therefore, it would seem that the more Biblical our message and communication forms become, the more effectively we will connect Christ with postmoderns.

The words of the Fanny Crosby hymn “Tell me the story of Jesus” may still speak for today’s hearts: “Tell me the story of Jesus. Write on my heart every word. Tell me the story most precious, sweetest that ever was heard.”

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