I grew in Oklahoma and Kansas, in a very conservative Baptist church culture. My family went to church twice on Sunday and at least once during the week. As a kid I was heavily involved in Sunday School and Bible clubs, memorizing scripture for various rewards: stickers, medals and recognition.
One thing that was ingrained into my Bible memory from an early age was something called “the Roman Road.” The Roman Road, as I understood it, was a series of 6 or 7 Bible verses from Romans–though I think John 3:16 was also in the mix–that collectively spelled out exactly what individuals like me needed to do to get saved.
As a kid I knew the Roman Road well–I had it down pat–but I had no concept at all about what a “Roman road” actually was or how it played into the historical narrative of the world in which Jesus lived. I had no idea that “Romans” was actually a letter written by Paul to actual early Christians in an actual city called Rome.
The Roman Road I knew was about decontextualized concepts packaged for an individualistic purpose, not enfleshed reality within a big picture story. Christianity was about feelings and morals and me escaping hell. The phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the faith of today’s American teenagers, was a pretty accurate description of my youth group upbringing.
It wasn’t until years later that I had any idea that the broader story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, was indispensable to my understanding of God … and that the most important thing about the Bible was not my individual salvation, but rather the bigger story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.
Fast forward to January of this year: My wife and I were in Rome as part of a two week trip to Italy. It was amazing. We were walking among ruins of buildings that stood in Jesus’ day. We saw structures that Paul saw, the prison where Peter was held, the location where Paul may or may not be buried; we learned about the actual Roman Roads that were a key part of the infrastructure of the Roman empire which aided in Christianity’s fast growth.
All of it was real; tangible; a reminder that the Bible shouldn’t be read as just isolated ideas and ethereal concepts, but a tangible narrative that actually happened, in actual locations, with actual people whose stories are part of a continuum in which I am a part.
Going to the Vatican Museum was also powerful: Seeing the entire history of Christianity told through art, culminating in Michelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel roof. Then walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, built on the site of the Circus of Nero, historically believed to be where Peter was martyred. It was all a reminder of the grand drama of history that surrounds and gives meaning to the theology behind our faith.
Walt Russell, a New Testament professor of mine at Talbot School of Theology, likes to say that western Christianity often erroneously reads the narrative of Scripture through a vertical framework: It’s about us as individuals, and God above, and how we can “get right” with him through the atoning work of Jesus.
The way Scripture ought to be read, says Russell, is not primarily vertically but rather horizontally, as one big narrative that begins in Eden, builds through Israel, climaxes with Christ, includes the church and moves forward until Christ returns.
Yes, our individual stories matter, but mostly because they are subplots and microcosms of the BIG story God is telling. Each of our lives can be a reflection of the redemptive story God authors on a massive scale. Each is a compelling chapter in the epic of creation.
A movie that I think illustrates this well is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
Malick’s film is essentially about the birth and death of the universe, with an intimate story of a Texas family in between. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of the micro and macro… a “small s” story of the O’Brien family’s struggles with grief, love, sin and redemption, set against the “Big S” backdrop of God’s handiwork in the cosmos. One minute the film shows us the intimate moments of a mother grieving the loss of her son; the next minute we’re taken on a 20 minute tour of the creation of the universe.
The elliptical structure of the Tree of Life reflects its title, which is a nod to a biblical image–the “tree of life” that appears both in Genesis (in the Garden of Eden) and in Revelation 22 with Eden restored in the new creation.
All of our stories, like that of the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life, take place between these two trees: Paradise lost and paradise regained. All of our stories groan for restoration, for a return to the garden.
This unsettledness and in-betweenness fuels our desire to make art and tell stories, to express the the longings of life between the two trees.
Story is an incredibly powerful force in our world. It’s our DNA as human beings. It’s realm Christians must exist within, and be excellent within. And yet I’d suggest that the trajectory our culture is on when it comes to story is something we should resist. The more fragmented and isolated and self-oriented our stories become in this “iWorld,” the less impact they will have.
Our stories matter not because they are our stories, but because they are God’s. And this is countercultural in our self-obsessed, YOU-Tube, I-Phone, FACEbook culture. When we have the vertical orientation of seeing our story only in terms of “me and Jesus,” we miss out on the grandeur and drama of the big story, and our narrative impact will be relatively minor.
But when we situate ourselves within the horizontal story, connecting ourselves to tradition and meaning and struggle all the way back to the fall and forward to restoration, our storytelling will pulsate with a transcendent energy.
These are the types of stories we need to tell.
We transcend the “iWorld” when we begin to see how our own “ordinary” stories rehearse and reflect the Extraordinary story of God; when we can see the Roman Road not a conceptual roadmap for individual salvation, but as a real historical plot point in God’s ongoing narrative.
For Christian storytellers it’s crucial that we can give eloquent form to the big story. If we are educators or pastors or parents, we must teach our students, congregations and children the BIG picture of God’s story, grounded in theological depth and historical breadth. Part of the reason so many young people are abandoning Christianity in America is precisely because the Christianity they’ve known is primarily about disconnected “moral lessons” and a vague, de-storied therapeutic Deism that is untethered to anything other than individual salvation and individual happiness.
It behooves us push back against this. It behooves us to re-story the church.
Artists of faith play a crucial role in this too. We must resist the tendency of contemporary art-making to be primarily about SELF expression for the sake of self expression. Instead we must paint, photograph, film, compose, create and re-create work that glimpses the greater narrative — a narrative that includes us, but is bigger than us.
It’s a narrative that is marginalized in a world overwhelmed and exhausted by a million stories a minute; but it’s a narrative we need more than ever.
Note: The text of this post is from a talk I delivered at the 2014 Razor’s Edge Conference, which was themed, “Transcending the iWorld: Extraordinary Stories in a Fragmented Age.”