The Most Pressing Question:
Who Gets to Narrate the World?
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”
William Shakespeare, As You Like It.
Life…human existence is a story. Stories trace the actions and interactions of people with each other and the world as we know it or wish to know it.
Stories have been called “equipment for living.”
There are a multitude of stories (or what we might also call narratives) in the world which determine our values and actions. There are family stories. And who knows that better than the young couple who has been married for only six months. Remember that season of life? Remember the tension as you and your spouse were trying to sort out the values – sometimes competing values – that came from two different family stories? Tough times. It’s a good thing we had stars in our eyes! Then there’s America’s story with all of its romantic rugged individualism and heroic sacrifice. But it also includes nearly two hundred years of slavery and the doctrine of eminent domain which brought unspeakable tragedy to this region of the country. There’s the story of capitalism and democracy. Socialism, Communism, and the progression of society are other interrelated stories. The Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century brought us the modern scientific narrative which has given us wonderful inventions like the light bulb, cars, and computers. But it has also multiplied the atrocities of war and normalized the murder of unborn children.
Eastern spiritualist stories like Buddhism or Hinduism seek to reveal the meaning of life. Finally, there are the great monotheistic narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Our world is a world of competing stories. Some stories are – shall we say – “short stories” and only address a limited number of people. Other stories, such as our own Christian faith, assert the meaning of life for all of humanity. While these stories are part of the human fabric around the world, postmodern thought rejects any notion that there is a metanarrative for all. Furthermore, those who try to apply their story to others are simply trying to impose their power over others. That may be true for you, but it’s not for me. Truth is relative. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the cultural air we breathe. Ironically, dismissal of grand stories – metanarratives – is a metanarrative itself grounded in the modern story of complete individual autonomy without accountability.
The “grand stories” of the world stand in competition with each other. Each seeks to narrate the world. Across the landscape our era, three of these stories are dominant:
1. The secular humanistic modern narrative worships reason and the scientific method. With science and reason, we will ultimately figure out all our problems. Nothing is impossible and no one is ultimately accountable. God is not a part of the equation. But this secular humanistic modern narrative has set us on a trajectory of cultural demise – a self-indulgent downward spiral that has brought us to a place of moral and (if things don’t change soon) fiscal bankruptcy.
2. Radical Islamists are deeply committed to the narrative of their faith. They have observed the festering moral decline of the so-called “Christian” Western world and are rising up in holy war against us. They are offended by our modern ways and seek, with often the most violent means, to bring the entire world under Allah’s rule.
3. The Christian narrative is under great attack by both modern secularists and radical Islam. Much of our story has been compromised by accommodation to the competing modern narrative without us even knowing it. Make no mistake. We are under assault and we must recapture the historic Christian narrative in all its fullness.
These are the three dominant stories of the world today. They each have a history, a present narrative, and a future plan. They are in direct conflict with each other. The most pressing question of our day, then, is, “who gets to narrate the world?” The question is not original with me. The insight and rationale behind the question were literally the dying words of my friend, mentor, and professor, Robert Webber. Bob wrote a book by the same title in the last three months of his life before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in April of 2007. For most of us, we recognize that the words of a dying man are uniquely profound.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 1:3-14
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.
God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.
God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.
That is the Christian narrative. That is our story.
THE CHRISTIAN NARRATIVE
We can frame the Christian story simply and powerfully in three words:
• Creation. God created all that there is for His own pleasure and glory. Humanity is the crown-jewel of God’s creation in that we are made in His image with the capacity to engage with him in deep relationship. But the image of God was marred and its full potential lost when we rebelled against our Creator. Moreover, not only have we been alienated from God, but the entire creation has been marred and is broken. That’s why bad things happen… The story of the Hebrews in the Old Testament is God’s initiative to form a people for Himself to eventually redeem His creation. The drama of Jewish failure and God’s covenant love throughout the Old Testament reveals God’s character and His plan for redemption.
• In the Incarnation, God does not merely “step into history” as some sort of interruption, but He becomes humanity, time, space, and history to (as NT Wright puts it) “set the world to rights.” In His obedience even to death on the Cross, Christ does what Adam and all of Israel could not do. In His resurrection and ascension he overcomes the evil powers of this world, sin, and death and inaugurates the New Creation. As the early Church called it, Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection is the “eighth day” – the first day of the New Creation.
• Re-creation, then is God’s Kingdom – which is now but not yet fully realized. It is “the world set to rights.” It is our mission as God’s people who pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Read the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12…happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven….happy are those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will belong to them. Counterintuitive! That’s because we view the world through a broken lens rather than through God’s eyes. Our up is really down. Our down is really up in the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Notice, then, these things about the historic Christian narrative:
• It is cosmic. While Christ died to save individual sinners like you and me; that is only part of the story. He became one of us to redeem all of His Creation. He has undone what Adam did and we long for the consummation of time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
• The Christian story is corporate. Notice the text that we read. Only one part of it referred to the individual’s part (when you believed in Christ) and even in that phrase, Paul is referring to the corporate church in Ephesus. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, we see Jesus calling individuals. We must each individually respond to the Gospel. But God has always been in the business of seeking and forming a corporate people. He didn’t call Abraham out into the desert just to have a personal relationship with him. He was seeking a people. Abraham is called the “father of nations.” Look at the New Testament. Christ’s purpose was to redeem a people for himself. Those who believe have had their citizenship papers from the Kingdom of darkness revoked and they have been transferred, Paul tells us in Colossians 1:13, into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. Christ in you – plural; Christ in us, is the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
• Finally, the Christian narrative is unique. Islam cannot answer the power of evil, except by a God who demands complete submission to His law or suffer physical death. What other story has the Creator Himself entering into our suffering and death to overcome it and to redeem his creation. It is a story worth dying for – and many did. It is a story worth living for.
MY PLACE IN THE STORY
So how do you get to play a part in this grand cosmic story? Does God only cast “good people?” Do you somehow audition by doing good works?
How many of you have accepted Christ as your personal Savior? (Show of hands) Interesting. You won’t find the phrase, “accepted Christ as your personal Savior” in the New Testament. It’s not wrong – per se – it’s just not complete. The phrase “accepting Christ as my personal Savior” resonates in our culture where the individual and choice is preeminent. But it wasn’t like that in the New Testament. A study of New Testament conversion would be very helpful for us, but of course, this is not that message.
Conversion, in the end, is not my choice but rather a work of God. Because of that, there is a sense of mystery regarding the point of conversion. For some, it is like turning on a light in a dark room. For others, it is like the dawn of a new day as light slowly permeates your life until you finally see the sun in all its warmth and penetrating power. The New Testament has a number of metaphors for conversion: “born again” reflects the supernatural essence and newness of life; “adoption” reveals God’s initiation and love; “redeemed” reflects the enormous cost and the exchange nature of conversion.
In his book, Beginning Well, Gordon T. Smith tells us that the New Testament reveals seven elements of a Christian conversion:
• Belief is knowing that the Gospel is true and embracing its truth and implications for my life.
• Repentance is changing my behavior – moral transformation – living my way and then doing a “one-eighty” in my behavior to obey God.
• Assurance is that deep down feeling in our heart that we know – we just know – that we are God’s child. Romans 8:16 tells us that God’s Spirit tells us within that we are His child.
• Commitment to Christ is essential to being in His Story. Jesus said to take up your cross and follow Him. When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we give Him complete control in our lives.
• Each Christian is empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life that manifests Christ’s character.
• Water baptism signifies our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection.
• Assimilation into the Church family where you share your gifts and your life with your fellow “actors” in the Story.
All of these elements are the New Testament norm for being a Christian. Conversion is both event and process. At what point one is “born again” into God’s family is His determination rather than a result of some words we may have said or action we have taken.
The early church understood this well. In fact, as early as the second century, the process of becoming a Christian might have taken as long as three years before a person would be baptized and allowed to take Communion. There are many reasons why the conversion process took so long. Most significant, I think, is that ancient Christians considered following Christ as a radical departure from their culture’s lifestyle. For them, to say “Jesus is Lord” was to set oneself against Caesar, who claimed to be “lord of all.” For many, it cost them their lives. Somehow, we need to recapture the sense that following Jesus is counter-cultural.
In our day, personal salvation has become just another therapeutic path for the betterment of our lives. And we Evangelicals haven’t helped by focusing our worship services on “relevant messages that speak to the felt needs of seekers” rather than on the grand Story of God. Call it the “Oprahization” of our faith. We invite folks to come to Christ to help them with their problems, make them more successful and in general, give them a better life. It’s not that being in Christ won’t bring meaning and purpose to our lives. It’s just not the full Story. It’s impoverished. The focus is on us. It should be on God who invites us into the Creation – Incarnation – Re-creation narrative of the cosmos.
I’m inviting you to a different way of thinking. Stop letting the culture press you into the mold of individualistic self-obsession. Let’s be transformed, as the Apostle Paul tells us, by the renewing of our minds. Instead of focusing on my story, let’s begin to act and think as players in the grand narrative of God’s Story. Let me illustrate it this way…
Back in the early nineties, we sang a very popular worship song that expressed thanks to God by singing “I’m so glad you’re in my life.” (1) Not really New Testament theology. Better stated, “I’m so glad I’m in Your life.” Now that’s what it means to be in God’s Story – to think of the Christian faith in a new way. And it’s consistent with Scripture. Consider:
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:3
“You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.” I Peter 2:9
“And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.” II Peter 1:4
And what might happen if we were able to shift our thinking from God as an addendum to my life to being full participants in God’s grand story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation? We would recapture the sense of what it means to be God’s family? Personal preferences and agendas would be seen in a different light as we honor one another as truly brother and sister. Since we are participants in the Story that spans all of history, we would not jettison the Church’s past with its rich creeds and hymns, but rather honor them and seek to be taught by actors in the Story who came before us. It is modernism’s code to reject all except the present and the future. As participants in God’s full story would be enriched and truly counter-cultural as we embrace our history – from the Hebrew’s story of the Old Testament, through the rich and varied history of the Church. It’s what Pastor Steve talked about two weeks ago. Living God’s Story is being on the Way – literally, “in the Way” – not as an obstruction, but fully immersed in Christ. Being immersed in God’s Story is participating in His completeness – experiencing God’s Shalom – His peace as Pastor Shawn talked about last week. God’s peace isn’t just another therapeutic option for handling the stress in our lives. It is participation in the third act of the Story -RE-CREATION - accomplished by Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, sin and death.
Understanding our part in God’s Story will bring fresh understanding to the songs we sing. “This is my story, this is my song” is no mere personal statement of faith, but rather a joyous realization that we are united those who sing the chorus with us. Or in a contemporary setting, if we sing this invitation:
All who are thirsty, all who are weak,
Come to the fountain, dip your heart in the stream of life.
Let the pain and the sorrow be washed away
In the waves of His mercy, as deep cries out to deep.
We sing, “Come Lord Jesus, come.” (2)
A modern person who is merely seeking personal help will see the song as a possible therapeutic path for their betterment. But, on the other hand, if the worshipper considers himself or herself as a participant in the Grand Story, he or she will recognize God’s universal call to join in His story. The worshipper will be eager and humble to “immerse” their heart in the stream of Life once again to find wholeness and healing in Jesus Christ. He or she may also recognize that the cry, “Come Lord Jesus” has been the cry of ancient Church since New Testament times. “Come Lord Jesus” is a core theme in God’s Story.
We live in a day of competing stories. The Christian Story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation stands in opposition to the competing narratives of modern secular humanism and radical Islam. Hear the words of a dying man:
“Whose God rules over our lives? Whose God rules history? Whose God will rule over all creation forever? We Christians had better be ready to give the reason for the hope that lies within.
It is not evidence, or logic, or philosophy.
It is the narrative.
All of it – in its fullness.” (3)
1. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” by Rick Founds © 1989 Maranatha Praise
2. “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Robertson ©1998 Vineyard Songs
3. Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 37.