In an interview with Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, the theologian N.T. Wright spoke about the importance of narrative in understanding Scripture and the ways of God.
What Wright emphasizes is the eschatological message that God is doing something in history; that the Jewish and Christian faiths aren’t simply about moral laws, abstract concepts, and disconnected canonical books but are rather about a grand story starting in Genesis and moving forward, “a project going somewhere,” in Wright’s words.
The story has a beginning, soon followed by disaster, which is followed by God’s effort to transform and renew the world, to redeem it and to make things right and whole. (Obviously the Jewish and Christian faiths, while sharing a common origin, differ in how they eventually unfold.)
I was reflecting on this insight, this important reminder, on both a macro and a micro level. The macro level has to do with the situation of Christianity in America today, as the dominant culture moves further and further away from traditional Christian beliefs, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. This is causing tremendous fear, uncertainty, and anxiety among many people of faith. They are struggling with how to deal with this loss of cultural influence. Christians are not all that familiar with being a minority faith, at least not in America. Yet in some important respects, that is what’s occurring. The reaction among some is to push back even harder, to tighten their grip during what they perceive as a tipping point. For others, the reaction is to warn of the impending wrath of God. And for still others, the reaction is resignation and giving way to the temptation to withdraw.
On an individual level, think about when life is marked by shattering experiences: the death of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, a failing marriage, being estranged from your child, a besetting sin, the loss of a job, a life-altering accident. We all know these stories of grief and loss and sadness; we all eventually travel through one valley or another. That is the nature of life in this fallen world. The question is how we process these things, how we make sense of it all. Which brings me back to Tom Wright and the power of narrative.
In my experience, the people who see their lives as part of a great drama tend to be the most liberated of all. That doesn’t mean individual chapters aren’t difficult and painful and confounding. But if you believe that your story has an Author and direction, that there is purpose even in suffering and that brokenness in our lives is ultimately repaired, it allows us to live less out of fear and more out of trust. That is true of us as individuals, and it’s true of us as citizens.
“We used to be the home team,” one person of the Christian faith said to me. “Now we’re the away team.” The challenge facing Christians in America is to remain deeply engaged in public matters even as they hold more lightly to the things of this world; to rest in our faith without becoming passive because of it; to react to the loss of influence not with a clenched fist but with equanimity and calm confidence; and to show how a life of faith can transform lives in ways that are characterized by joy and grace. How all this plays out in individual cases isn’t always clear and certainly isn’t easy. Some circumstances are more challenging than others. But it is something worth aiming for.
Engaging the culture in a very different manner than Christians have–persuading others rather than stridently condemning them–may eventually lead to greater influence. But whether it does or not isn’t really what is most important. Being faithful is. And part of being faithful is knowing that God is present in our midst even now; that anxiety and hysteria are inappropriate for people who are children of the King, as a pastor friend of mine recently told me; and that hope casts out fear.
A story is only as good as its author. It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that we have a pretty good one. That, I think, it what N.T. Wright is saying.