I was in class a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing the narrative behind the Psalms. One of my classmates (We'll call him Christian Cliche Man, or "CCM" for short) always seems to say the most ignorant things and this particular day was no exception. CCM raised his hand, and when the professor acknowledged him, he said with a very serious look on his face: "One of the things that we've lost in America is the ability to truly tell stories. We can't understand a lot of the Old Testament because we don't understand stories." Now, I'm not totally adverse to some good old-fashioned America bashing. But I've observed that any time a Christian wants to make a point or a cultural statement, the easiest platform on which to stand is, "In America, we've lost ____________" (I'll let you fill in the blank. Go ahead. It'll be fun!). Of course, these statements aren't always inaccurate. This is certainly not a nation without some major blind spots in its ideology. If someone in my class had said that Americans are over-consumers or that we are an unusually hostile nation, I would had trouble offering any vocal disagreement. However, I think that to claim that American society doesn't produce good storytellers reveals one's lack of understanding of American culture. Allow me to offer a short list of American storytellers from various mediums, and you can tell me how egregiously we have lost the ability to understand story:
Diablo Cody (the woman who wrote "Juno")
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman)
Bruce Springsteen (Don't laugh. Just go listen to the albums Born In The U.S.A., Born To Run, and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. You'll see. The Boss can weave a tale)
Obviously, I could keep going, but I think I've made my point. However, I might point out that there is one type of person missing from the list above. Look closely. Closer. Keep looking. What group of people do you not see on this list? Give up? I'll tell you. Christians (not that none of these people could possibly be followers of Jesus. They just aren't known for being nominal "Christians."). Now just settle down for a minute. I'm not saying that Christians are incapable of producing good art or telling great stories. On the contrary, I think Christians should be leading the way in producing great art. However, I think my misguided classmate, CCM, is almost right--there is a group of people who have lost the art of story, but it's not Americans. It's the church.
I don't think I've ever heard a compelling sermon about the Bible. I'm not saying that I've never heard a compelling sermon that uses the Bible. I'm saying that when a preacher stands up and says, "Today, I'm going to preach about why we should love the Bible and how we should use it," I instantly get bored. For one thing, for someone to say that they are preaching about the Bible on one particular Sunday might imply that they neglect to do so on all other Sundays (another topic for another post). For another, almost any sermon I've heard about the Bible tends to fall into one of two categories: 1) "Let me prove to you with archaeological evidence that the Bible is accurate." This inevitably descends into mechanics and charts. Not that this isn't useful information, but it's certainly not inspiring. And 2) "Here are some charts and graphs that should help you categorize the Scriptures and become a better student of the Bible." Again, this could be somewhat helpful, but it lacks any sort of inspiration. In both cases, I'm asleep before the speaker can say, "Turn with me to Zephaniah chapter 1." (Let me acknowledge that there is so much more to say about both of these types of sermons, and I am only scratching the surface. I'm sure I will return to both of these at a later time.)
I think the reason that so many sermons about the power of the Bible fall flat is that they are devoid of the element of story. We try to make the Scriptures something that they never claim to be, and we drain them of any life or beauty. One of my favorite theologians and communicators, Rob Bell, says it like this in his book Velvet Elvis:
“The Bible is not pieces of information about God and Jesus and whatever else we take and apply to situations as we would a cookbook or an instruction manual…We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God" (page 63).
What if we began to interact with the Scriptures as though they were a beautiful story? As I pointed out in the second post on this blog, there is a single metanarrative flowing through the pages of the Bible, and to reduce these beautiful words and passages to something smaller than they are, we've done something tragic.
I don't think Americans in general have lost the ability to tell and hear stories. I think the church is the truly guilty party here. I also think it's time to reclaim the story within which we have been placed. What would it look like if Christians began to interact with the world around us as though we were living within the pages of a beautiful story that God is in the midst of telling?
I only ask because we already are.