A Word from Chad Myers
Walker Percy, the quick-witted American novelist who cherished life in the South and sustained a vibrant Catholic faith once said, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” I think that’s true. And I think it’s true of more than novels and short stories and movies. I think it’s true in any sphere where humanity inhabits. Good stories are the fabric of life. They sustain us by telling us something that rings true to our experiences. Due to the widespread disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity, the Christian story has come under scrutiny. Rightfully so. In the name of Jesus, harm has been inflicted upon creatures and creation. Most Christians don’t seem to embody a hope that says where we’ve come from and where we are going is good news. I’ve never been accused of that. Earthly pleasures are viewed with suspicion and we fear our own desires as if they are evil. I find that most Christians they don’t actually enjoy being human. How did we get here?
Do I think the Bible is a ‘bad book’ as Percy defines it? Not really. Do I think most Christians start in the wrong place, presenting a bad version of the story that has damaged many? Yes. Do I think there is a salvageable version that speaks to the whole self, calling people to a robust experience of work, play and rest with the realization that the material universe is first and foremost, good. I hope so. And that is my aim is in this brief article. To expose the popular Christian storyline as too small, imbalanced, inducing passivity and in need of reform. It undermines the intention of the Scriptures and handicaps humanity, thereby impairing the Missio Dei. I’d like to present an alternative storyline, one I think is considerably larger, more hopeful and more invitational to the whole person. A story we may want to find ourselves living in.
Have you ever walked into a movie late? (The worst! I get so anxious about being on time for movies, if I’m late, I’d rather not go at all!) Arriving late leaves us missing the setting and characters and we’re left playing catch up on who’s who and what the plot flow is. This can be confusing and frustrating. Have we walked in late on the Bible? I suspect so. Where we start the story reveals how we see the story and especially how we see ourselves in the story. And for many of us, we got started in the wrong place. For argument’s sake, let’s say the Bible reads in four acts, Setting-Conflict-Solution-Resolution, and their corollaries, Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. We usually start in Acts 2. We understand Acts 2 (Sin) and 3 (Salvation) well enough but not as they relate to Acts 1 and 4. We easily talk about the problems of the world, but what about the good humans do? The emphasis leans on the perversion of good, rather the good itself. We forget the Bible is a front-loaded book and we’re going somewhere good. The bookends are largely neglected.
If you asked the average pew-sitting-church-goer to boil down the message of the Christian faith, it may go something like this: “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven.” We teach it, memorize it, chop it up into bite-sized cliché’s, slap it on our bumpers and cock our head sideways if it’s ever questioned. But question it we must. This storyline doesn’t work very well or for very long. For starters, it makes my individual escape from this earth the center point of the plot. For late starters (see what I did there), it fails to call humanity to any responsibility outside of evangelism and spiritual practices, leaving many to justify their 9-5 by alms-giving and proselytizing. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we are left with the bifocals of Sin/Salvation, restricting our perception of God, humanity and the natural world. (It also makes the starting point of any conversation inherently about the ‘bad news’) What about the glory of Creation? Does salvation have anything to do with our relationship to the ground? Could the cultivation of farms and towns and civilizations exist within the scope of the Divine Drama? Could starting with original blessing over original sin change the way we see each other?
Many have taken the posture of wholesale rejection of the Bible, noting its harm done to creatures and creation. But lest we fall into slipshod thinking and jettison the whole thing, throwing out the proverbial “baby with the bathwater,” we must sift through bits of gold in search for deeper and wider veins. We would do well to remember our Latin lesson, Abusus Non Tollit Usum. (I didn’t take Latin. You probably didn’t either. But this is a great line.) It translates, “Abuse does not preclude proper use.” The storyline isn’t wrong, but it is much more than this. Let’s examine the statement and its implications through a narrative structure analysis.
Sender (God) Agent (Jesus) Task (Salvation) Receiver (humanity)
God sends Jesus to accomplish the task of salvation; the rescue of people from sin, granting them eternal life in heaven.
It looks harmless at first glance, but what are the implications?
- Getting to heaven is the point of it all
- Salvation is a self-contained goal (it doesn’t heal with a purpose in mind)
- Creation is irrelevant
- Why bother with the Old Testament and the whole of history
- Human beings are recipients and therefore passive
- Daily life is largely unimportant
- The natural emphasis of faith is individualistic, dualistic, private and escapist
This makes Jesus sound less like a savior from sin and more like a savior from existence. Perhaps this is why churches feel more like morgues than rehab centers, the former is only death, while the latter is a seed of hope for a new life. Motivating people to hold on until life is over can be exhausting. This thinking impacts our hymnody as well. Consider this verse in the popular song Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
I remember singing this in church on warm, summer, Sunday nights while outside the West Texas sunset exploded with hues of pinks, purples and blues. I remember trying really hard to turn my eyes upon Jesus, because I couldn’t help but think about all of the homework I had, the food I was looking forward to sharing with friends afterwards, and the anticipation of holding my girlfriends hand during the sermon. (Seriously, much anticipated) I tried. I failed. Guilt ensued. I tried harder. I failed. More guilt came. Maybe you can relate. Why is it one or the other? What are the things of this earth and how do they grow strangely dim? Am I to conclude that the closer I get to Jesus the less I’m invested in life here? Sadly, for many this is true. This framework pits grace against nature, something the Bible never permits us to do. A view of redemption that fails to affirm the goodness of creation is too small a view.
In Augustine’s reflection upon the created order he exclaimed, “Every entity…insofar as it is an entity, is good.” (Whatever is, is good. That’s Genesis 1-2 in 4 words.) “It was good” marks poetic refrain in Genesis 1. In essence, He’s saying “if you can see it, taste it, touch it, feel it, hear it, it’s good.” You mean things like churros and chimpanzees, daisies and dandelions, sex and soufflé, beer and burrito’s, that’s good? You mean the activities of designing clothes, programming apps, and launching a business are good? Wait. Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic are good? (Sorry kids. It’s. just. SO. true) To be human was to be good. The need for food and drink, rest and leisure, work and community was good. Being finite and limited and in need of others was good. C. S. Lewis said, “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” How about some more music? Consider the two lines of the hymn This is My Father’s World, composed by Maltbie Babock in 1901:
This is my father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
Or listen to the famous Christmas carol Joy to the World:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
This is my Father’s world, every square inch of it. He pours himself into it and anything and anyone that reflects his goodness. This world is the place where blessings will flow and the rehabilitation of humanity through the resurrection of the Son facilitates the removal of the curse from the ground. The setting of the story is inherently good.
That’s not what I inferred growing up nor do I hear it from Evangelicals today. I grew up thinking that things like the body and work and sleep and homework and sex and sports and material goods and basic earth-type stuff that takes up the majority of daily life wasn’t good. I grew up thinking the eternal, unseen realm was good and the temporal, physical realm was at best a necessary evil and at worst, just evil. I grew up thinking that if you wanted to be serious about your faith you became a missionary or a pastor or sold everything and became a vagabond for Jesus. This led me to almost reject everything I learned. Almost. I don’t think that way anymore. And it was a question that saved me. The issue of this magazine is about questions. And this question, as my friends put it, is an everything question:
Does creation serve redemption
Does redemption serve creation?
Our answer informs and shapes our understanding of the plot of Scripture, additionally serving to expose our initial interpretive lens. Let’s tease the question out. Is creation merely the necessary context in which human beings live out their temporary lives? Is it solely the backdrop for the cross? Does the third movement of the story obliterate the first? Is redemption limited to rescuing people or does it include the cosmos as well? Paul assumes the latter. (See Col. 1:15-20) The cross is God’s exuberant “Yes” to repairing the goodness of physicality. The death and bodily resurrection of the Son of God affirms not only the fall but the glory of the place we fell from and the need for restoration. Unfortunately, many Christians take their cue from Plato rather than Jesus, emphasizing a salvation from the physical/material world rather than for the physical/material world. This leaves many thoughtful people deeply unsatisfied with the impact of the story. A salvation that whisks people away from the earth prevents them from embodying their humanity. Taking the previous structure, let’s plug in a new formula.
Sender (God) Agent (humanity) Task (love justly) Recipient (everyone) Obstacle (Sin) Helper (Jesus)
Slightly changing the elements without changing the placeholders presents a vastly different picture, but one that I would argue is more faithful and closer in alignment with the Bible’s intention. God made a beautiful world, charged glory and wonder. He made humanity on the 6th day and enlisted us as powerful agents and stewards of his love, justice and mercy. The goal (telos) was to bless the earth with more families, bringing God’s glory, via the vehicle of the imago dei, to the four corners of the earth.
But Adam and Eve rebelled, ushering in the parasite of sin, which attached itself to every good entity. This severed perfect shalom between creature and Creator, thereby delegating us to subhuman living and impairing our ability to carry out our original intention. This infected all creation. If the prognosis is universal, how the prescription be anything but? Jesus removes the parasite, begins repair upon humans and creation, with the objective of once again bringing God’s glory to all the earth and blessing to all creatures. That is a big Gospel. God’s salvation is committed to restoring matter, not escaping it. (No, I don’t think God will destroy the earth through fire. But that is another article.) Otherwise we find ourselves talking about grace in a way that cuts against the grain of the created order. This simply won’t do. Grace aims to restore nature, always. This makes the good news very good indeed. How have we missed this?
This new structure upholds the scope of salvation accomplished by the Son as described in the Bible. All creation was made in and through him. (John 1:3) he shares with us the imago dei.. (Col. 1:15) He perfectly fulfilled the custodial task of upholding justice and mercy. (John 17:4) His death removes the power and domination of sin over people, enabling them to fulfill their first calling. (Eph. 2:8-10) Finally, through him all nations and creatures will be blessed. (Gal. 3:29) The first formula reduces the role of salvation to what Jesus accomplished in his death, nullifying the implications of his birth, life and resurrection. Having become fully human, he stands in solidarity with the goodness of all creatures.
Seeing the larger storyline allows us to step into our story, own it, live with gravitas and make our stamp on the world. We find confirmation of what we knew intuitively that we are filled with both glory and shame, that our home is inherently good, but broken and in need of renovation. We find that our purpose is not limited to “spiritual” activity but that all human activity is spiritual. Starting with original blessing frees us to love outsiders, to flex compassion to those different than us. This type of story may enlist us to deeper care for the environment, to greater pursuit of excellence in our craft and to a hope tethered to the truth that every good endeavor will be enjoyed in the new eschaton. (Rev. 21:26) To reference Percy, this makes me think the Bible is more of a ‘good’ book than a ‘bad’ one. Isn’t it about time this story gets told?