Exploring the power of stories and Christ's return
The Alliance's Forum for Change co-ordinator Marijke Hoek helps us examine theological questions in our daily lives...
Do Christians underestimate the power of stories?
At a recent Alpha group, frustrated by the complexity of the Bible, someone sighed, "I wish God had written an executive summary." But God chose not to hand us a list of truths about Himself, or an instruction manual, but an epic story in which He reveals Himself. The declarations about the God who "heals you", "sees you" and "brought you out of Egypt" both reveal character and are backed up with action.
When things seem wrong, people recount the stories of God's intervention in the lives of our forefathers (Psalm 44). This reminds us of our identity and gives hope. The prophet encourages us to remember our origins in order to build confidence for the present: "Look to the rock from which you were cut" (Isaiah 51.1-3). Retelling the history of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reminds us what kind of God we are praying to: the one who has shown Himself faithful throughout time and will act again on our behalf. Later, the sermons of Peter and Stephen recite the significant events and purposes in the history of the people of God, placing our lives in a larger context.
We are a community shaped by stories. Anthropologists, philosophers, historians and theologians agree that we experience our lives and the world around us narratively. We seek beginnings and endings, climax and conclusion. We also weave our own personal stories into larger ones like human progress through science, social systems or religion. We all want to be part of a bigger story than ourselves.
Despite the post-modern announcement of the death of metanarratives, they still seem deeply rooted. However, the Church has at times been scared of story, treating the narratives just as a source from which to distil doctrines, which somehow are seen as a purer, safer truth. Yet storytelling is an important part of formation of the Christian community and integral to the dynamic of teaching.
Moreover, with our storytelling we subvert dominant narratives around us. In Disciples and Citizens, Bishop Cray wrote, "Jesus was a storyteller. He taught in parables. Many of the parables retold Israel's story in ways that seemed familiar when they began, but brought the listener to a conclusion they did not expect. In this way, He gave His listeners the opportunity to see their assumptions and worldviews differently and to respond accordingly... This was subversive engagement with Israel's understanding of its story. We need to find similar, imaginative ways to retell, subvert and challenge our nation's stories."
We need to find imaginative ways to retell, subvert and challenge our nation's stories
Jesus' parables were provocative stories, inviting the hearers to leave conventional understanding and encounter new and potentially transformative views. And we are called to shape our work, family life and community activity in such a way that it points to the story of Christ.
The oral tradition didn't merely characterise the 1st century; it can be as powerful in our time, enhanced by a diversity of creative media forums. We live in a culture that values authentic voices and stories.
"The social-ethical task of the Church... is to be the kind of community that tells and tells rightly the story of Jesus," wrote Stanley Hauerwas. "We continue this truth when we see the struggle of each to be faithful to the Gospel as essential to each of our lives." Good stories, whether explicitly or implicitly biblical, have the potential to awaken consciousness in society.
Were early Christians wrong to expect Jesus' imminent return?
The hope of Christ's return prominently marks the identity of the 1st century Church. As NT Wright said in Surprised by Hope, it gave a proper shape and balance to the Christian worldview, telling a story of beginning, middle and end. In their vulnerability in a harsh context, the "day of the Lord" shed a significant light on their situation, generating hope and endurance. Their view of time interlocks the present and future closely together: future hope significantly affects the present.
Future hope significantly affects the present
Throughout history, Christians have faced the ambiguities of hope and delay. The delay is addressed explicitly in 2 Peter 3. But the opportune dimension of time, rather than chronology, is critical for enduring hope. Paul sets the community's transformation and vocation in the timeframe of the day of the Lord (Romans 13.11). The day that is breaking forth is already reflected in a measure of His glory, character and reign in the world.
For Christians, all of life - including suffering, enemies, social status, grief, happiness and possessions - is placed in the context of Christ's return (1 Corinthians 7.29-31). We are already experiencing the power and gifts of the new day and adopt a lifestyle that reflects this. Our devotion to Him takes primacy, fuelling our motivation and sharpening our message. It leaves no room for complacency. This larger picture may need to be reintroduced in our message, particularly when our sense of purpose and passion is tempered. Paul's expectation of the Lord's coming and his vision for a glorious Church still powerfully appeals to our zeal and endurance (2 Corinthians 11.2). Without such fervent hope we are poorly equipped for mission, as well as for life itself.
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Marijke Hoek is the Alliance's Forum for Change co-ordinator, writing in conjunction with MediaNet's Liz Hunter