Monthly Archives: May 2012

living the narrative of jesus christ

This is part of my final exam for Theology of Spiritual Formation:

In a world defined by success, accumulation, and the delusion that the individual is capable of re-writing her or his own story, control has become the idol of the age. The Church offers an alternate story that frees the world from the need to author itself. For the Christian, there is only one story: that of life, death, and resurrection as embodied by Jesus Christ. This story is narrated in countless ways.

To live the story of Jesus Christ, we must live with an expectation of real, painful deaths with the reassurance that resurrection lives on the other side. The resurrection is not a mere resuscitation of what was prior to death; this is not the God of CPR. Rather, resurrection implies a transformation, new life, new possibilities that are only available on the other side of death and not even imaginable from where we stand now. “If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence, becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s saving work.” Each life is a unique narration of the Jesus story.

Church is where the individual learns to embody the story in the particularities of her or his own narrative. Salvation through death and resurrection is not only illustrated by Jesus, but constituted through him. When the individual becomes enfolded into the story through baptism, the old remains but is now brought into something now. This first death refigures the individual’s story with that of Christ, offering a new telos and new way of being. The community is important not only as a witness to this first event, but as a space in which Christians learn to sacrifice their very self to the community’s needs and narrative texts. The learning is always in process as the individual continues to allow their being to be interrogated by the texts and as the individual learns new ways of offering into the community.

The gospels are storied. It is not enough to simply have heard the teachings or Jesus, to know the truths intellectually. The form chosen by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John points to a deeper truth: the story must be lived. The significance of the storied gospels are that character and circumstance are most themselves through their interaction; Jesus is the unity of what he did, the way he did it, and what was done to him. Such a reality “cannot be explained, but only described.” The identity of Christ is constituted by the narration of intention as it is carried into action. Only characters who carry complications of a past and expectations of a future are open to the possibility of tragedy and transformation.

Too often we jump to the resurrection, to the happy ending. We must be reminded of the death of our divinity upon a government torture device, and the hours after this death in which the ending of the story was not known. This requires a dual lens: that of the Christian who knows Christ is risen, and that of the Christ follower who does not yet know, but only experiences the reality of God crucified. Because we know the resurrection as both an event that has already happened and a reality that is always happening, “the Christian meets pain in acceptance and hope. He or she confronts it, identifies with those experiencing it, and then struggles through it to grow into a new humanness.” The story is to be lived by entering into the dark places in our own lives and communities, knowing that new, transformed life is offered only on the other side of death.

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away we go

The Bible is a big book. Actually, it’s a big collection of books. There are so many verses, details, and themes to study on a small level that it can be hard to remember that this is one collection, bound together for a reason. It’s the story of God and His people. It’s one story. It’s good to study specific books, passages, or themes, but when we do it’s often easy to lose sight of the over-arching picture of the one story. Since it can easily take months to read the Bible cover-to-cover, it can be useful for us to find parallel stories that we can see and understand in a few hours. One such parallel story is found in the movie Away We Go (2009), which has an over-arching plot similar to that of the Bible.

Both Away We Go and Genesis begin with a couple and an ideal. In Genesis 2 God creates Adam and Eve, thus embarking on an epic relationship with humankind. Their relationship is intended to be so close that “they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2v24). The garden in which they live provides them with all they need. Similarly, in the opening scenes of Away We Go, we see the ideals of Bert and Verona, the protagonist couple. Although not married, they share respect, love, and devotion, and the baby growing in Verona is proof that they’re becoming one flesh. Their ideals are often voiced through Bert, who speaks of his high hopes and plans to become the kind of father he wants to be. He’s already preparing before the baby is born; as he gets ready for a family defense class he tells Verona : “I want to be that dad that knows how to make stuff out of wood, you know? I want our kid to wake up in the morning and walk out on the back porch and find me cobbling … I got this great book on knots … I still have to build that kiln. Man, we gotta be ready.”

In a scene shortly after, Verona is driving them to his parents’ house for dinner when she takes a bite of an apple. Perhaps this apple is a signpost to an apple with more mythical importance, an apple that grew during the beginning of human history and relationships. In Genesis 3, Eve is tempted to eat fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and shares it with Adam. For the story of humanity, this is the first negative turn. Before the apple, life was predictable. Afterwards, humanity lives in a broken world full of pain and suffering. For Bert and Verona, the apple has similar significance. Right after she bites into the apple, their world loses its stability.

In the next scene their world is shattered when Bert’s parents inform them that they will be moving to Belgium. The couple had moved to Maryland to establish this community for their unborn child, and now find themselves unmoored, much like Adam and Eve must have felt after being expelled from Eden. Thus, Bert and Verona begin a journey across the continent in search of a new community in which to raise their child.

During their quest, the pattern of brokenness is extended and elaborated upon through each family encountered. Each family has some awareness that we all live in a broken world and each handles it differently. They all wander like Moses and the Israelites in the desert, looking for the best way to find a sense of home. Lily, the mother in Tucson, declares that children are “kids are … genetically predetermined anyway, they’re screwed up out of the womb,” so she has given up on protecting her children from the knowledge of good and evil. LN and Roderick practice “continuum family” which says the world will give people “plenty of alienation and despair in good time, so while we can we should hold them close.” The extent to which they do so is played as a comical gaffe, but is similar logic to that of Tom and Munch, who keep their children from watching the second half of The Sound of Music in order to protect them. “We think they can live a few more happy years before Juicy Couture and Hitler,” Tom explains. Later we meet Bert’s brother, who can’t bear to tell his daughter that her mother has left. He wants to protect her from that disillusionment for a few more days. Every parent tries to keep their children living as close to Eden for as long as possible. We all know how hard the renewal process can be after our reality is shattered, how many pages of our stories we must wander through before reaching Revelation 21 and 22.

In both stories, there is a major positive turning point. In the Bible this is very clearly divided between the Old Testament and the New; humanity before Christ and after. Before Christ, we were wandering in the wilderness with little sense of where we were heading. Jesus lived, died, and lived again so that we can live with hope for our own personal futures and the collective future of our species. Through His words and actions, through His tender strength, we learn about redemption, renewal, love, grace and peace.

Similarly, in Away We Go we see the couple wandering from city to city in search of a community. With each prospect they find more brokenness and suffering. Each place they go, they sense that their search won’t end in this place. On a trampoline in Florida, Bert hits his breaking point, declaring about their friends’ relationships: “there’s nothing we can do about it … [it] can’t be fixed.” Yes, he’s talking about the individuals that he knows, but he’s also touching on the world’s uncomfortable reality: the whole world is broken. And he’s just a human. On his own, he has little power to fix anything.

The turning point comes in Verona’s steadiness. With the strength and tenderness with which I imagine Jesus must have spoken she states, “it can be fixed, and you know it.” Given that hope, they immediately begin to fix what they can. It’s not in their control to fix their friends’ flaws, to heal society and the environment and all the unfairness “that bad parents still get to be parents, and good parents die when their daughters are in college.” Instead, they must dedicate themselves to fixing what they do have control over: their relationship, their lives, their behavior towards each other and their unborn child. They immediately take personalized vows on the trampoline – a most beautiful marriage bed that fits their relationship. It’s untraditional, some might say it’s not very stable, but it’s springy and flexible and helps them, in the most literal sense, to jump with joy. It suits them perfectly.

In the Biblical story, where we go from here is largely up to us, but we do have the help of John’s vision as found in the book of Revelation to show us where we’re headed. Revelation is full of beautiful images of our future kingdom. Interestingly, many pieces in it are renewed versions of what we find in Genesis. Genesis describes a garden (Genesis 2v8); Revelation is set in a city (Revelation 21v2) – which can be viewed as the evolved garden, or many gardens near each other. In Genesis we see the river in Eden (Genesis 2v10), and again “the river of the water of life” in Revelation (Revelation 22v1). The Tree of Life grows in the beginning (Genesis 2v9) and again at the end of times (Revelation 22v2). Very concrete parallels exist between where humanity started and where humanity is headed. Revelation points us back to Genesis; in order to find out where we’re going, we must first learn about where we started.

This is exactly the process Verona goes through. The morning after the exchange of vows on their trampoline marriage bed, she does something she normally refuses to do: she talks about her childhood. She speaks about her past, her siblings and parents, and the joy she experienced where she was with her family at that time. And immediately afterward, she and Bert share a look that says “we know where to go.” The next scene shows them driving to her childhood home. Verona began her story in a happy home with loving parents, and she wants to end her story by providing the same joy and love for her future generations. Just as the tree is a link between Genesis and Revelation, Verona’s story of her childhood involved a tree, and it’s still there when she and Bert drive up. As she recounted to Bert, this tree is covered in plastic fruit, making it a comic version of the one in Revelation, which “bear[s] twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” They’ve found a way to restore themselves to their Eden.

In his teaching “The Importance of Beginning in the Beginning” (8/16/2009), Rob Bell states “where and how you begin the story, and where and how you end the story, shape and determine what the story even is.” There are clear parallels in Genesis and Revelation that give us the over-arching story of paradise, brokenness, and redemption. Bert and Verona’s story shows how the big-picture multi-generational story presented in the Bible looks when lived out small-scale for this one couple. We can also see the same story lived out in the life of Jesus, who lived a perfect life, died, and lives again. The story is seen in every baptism: we’re born innocent, are broken through the trials of life, and mysteriously through  physical act of being immersed in water, are redeemed, renewed, restored.

This is where I see my role in other people’s lives. Not to make things holy or to convince people to behave in a certain way in order to avoid eternal damnation. My role is to tenderly and with certainty point out to people who they were created to be, and to help them look into themselves to find out how to better become the person they were made to be, the person who deep down they already are. I am completely powerless to make anything holy or to add anything new. My job is simply to point out what’s already there and share the good news that everything God created he called good (Genesis 1), and that new life is possible.

Just as humanity’s beginning as described in Genesis 1 and 2 gives us clues as to where we’re headed in Revelation 21 and 22, Verona’s personal beginning showed her where she needed to end up. In both the Bible and Away We Go we see a comfortable world that is broken, the wanderings of characters struggling to find a  home, and finally a redemption that connects back to the past that had been left behind. This is Bert and Verona’s story. This is the Bible’s story. This was Jesus’ story. Humanity’s story. Your story. My story. The miracle is not only that Jesus lived, died, and lived again. The miracle is that each one of us is born, broken, and resurrected to new life. The miracle is that humanity was created, has fallen, and will rise again. The movie ends in the place humanity is now: still broken, unsure of what will happen, but doing our best with the lives we have and hoping for a more perfect tomorrow. Just as Verona says  in the very last line, we don’t know if the kingdom of God will become reality, but we “really fucking hope so.”

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