One of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings is when Sam and Frodo reflect on people and adventures recounted in old tales and songs. Then Sam asks, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into.” At the heart of this question lies the understanding that we are all in a story, and that our actions have meaning in light of that story.
In the previous column, I laid out one of the big challenges facing the church in the West. It’s easy today for people to engage in religious practices in order to add a spiritual dimension to their lives, while under the surface the primary story that gives shape and significance to their choices doesn’t differ much from the nonreligious person. We looked at three examples where a lesser story has assumed the role the bigger, Scriptural Story should have: career, politics, and entertainment.
According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story . . . do I find myself a part?’”
Remember the three characters we looked at in the previous column. If you’re like Cameron, whose primary story is one of career success, the big decisions you encounter (and the little choices you make every day) will be determined in large part by their role in helping you take “steps forward” in the story arc of your economic progress.
If you’re Pam, whose primary story revolves around the political saga of Washington, D.C., you will orient your life and actions toward whatever you see as a righteous cause.
If you’re Greg, whose primary story is the pursuit of leisure and entertainment, you’ll make big decisions and little choices in light of how they either hinder or help you maximize your enjoyment.
In each of these cases, your story will influence the choices you make every day. Your story determines the chapter you write. The problem, from a Christian perspective, is that these stories are not the true Story of the world and will not satisfy us if we see them as the primary story of our lives.
Today, I want to take a closer look at what should be the story that gives shape and significance to the life of a Christian: the Scriptural Story. There are two aspects of the big Story that both deserve our attention, one public and one personal. Today, we’re looking at the public side of the Story—the cosmic, universal truth of the gospel: Jesus Christ is Lord.
The gospel as defined in the New Testament centers on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who lived a perfect life in our place, died on the cross for our sins, rose again to launch God’s new creation, and has now been exalted as Lord of the world. That gospel announcement only makes sense, of course, within a larger narrative: the Story as told in all the Bible, which chronicles God’s creation of the world, the fall of humanity into sin, the plan of redemption set in motion through God’s chosen people and brought to its climax through God’s chosen Servant—the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth to whom everyone on earth owes faith and allegiance, and who will return again to set everything right in the end.
This is what the missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin called “public truth.” It is news about something that has happened. The public side of the Story—the universal truth of the gospel—should be at the heart of the church’s liturgy and practice. We announce what has happened and where the world is headed.
If we are to live faithfully, we cannot allow this public Story as told in the Scriptures to be subsumed under whatever story unfolds through wins or losses in Washington, or technological advances in Silicon Valley, or chasing the American Dream. We must not shrink down the universal Story told in the Scriptures to the culture wars of one particular country, or the platforms of one political party. Neither can we allow the steady flow of distractions and trivialities now readily available at the touch of a button make us lose sight of the blazing reality at the center of the cosmos. If we truly believe in the public Story of the world—if we truly believe the powers and principalities of evil have been overthrown through the selfless atoning sacrifice of the world’s true King, then how can this be anything other than the primary Story that gives our lives significance?
The reason why spiritual disciplines like Scripture reading, prayer, and churchgoing are so important (and we will discuss these later) is not because we need a dash of morality in our lives, but because we are so often forgetful followers. Like the children of Israel in the Old Testament, we need to be constantly reminded of the great salvation achieved on our behalf.
When we lose sight of the public Story, we forget that it’s not our political opponents of flesh and blood whom we battle against, and that it’s not the increase of career success and material wealth that satisfies, and that it’s not in maximizing free time in which to gorge ourselves on the endless entertainment on offer in consumerist America that will fulfill our restless hearts. The public Story told in the Scriptures reorients us to an entirely new way of thinking and living.
Christianity is not a way of adding spiritual spice to your own recipe for bread. Jesus the only Bread that sustains and satisfies—the food you can’t live without. And the public Story centers on the scandalous, shocking news that everything has changed because of a crucified Messiah in the first century. The implications from that event reverberate throughout the cosmos and into every nook and cranny of our lives.
Public truth with personal implications. The personal Story is what we will turn to in the next column.