One of the best-selling and most influential Christian books of the past decade, Blue Like Jazz, is a book that is ultimately about the power of story. The work’s author, Donald Miller, while himself not a proponent of the emergent church in America, is recognized by the emergent church as a revolutionary thinker and visionary leader. Works like his are a big part of the reason that much of the sermonizing that goes on on Sunday mornings in America has become one story after another after another – a string of stories that essentially make a point (i.e. present a universal, doctrinal truth) without ever coming out and overtly stating the point. The idea is that in a postmodern world where most don’t like the idea of universal truth, when you wrap the truth in one of these engaging stories, it’s culturally much easier for the modern majority to embrace than merely saying, “Thus Sayeth the Lord.”
If you read Donald Miller, you’ll undoubtedly see his distinct style immediately. He writes in sort of a punctuated and insightful, stream-of-consciousness fashion. He uses the experiences of his life to communicate general biblical messages without really referencing the Bible. This is an approach that, while there might be some natural and legitimate reservations, probably has some merit in the 21st century. It’s essentially the difference between sharing the story of Jesus’ love, mercy, and forgiveness with someone through tangible illustration rather than shouting John 3:16 in their face. And it’s probably also important to remember that while Jesus frequently quoted the Old Testament, he also frequently taught spiritual truths by means of illustration that the Bible calls “parables,” so the method itself even has some biblical precedent.
While Donald Miller has undoubtedly received massive success in his heightening American Christianity’s awareness of “the power of story,” there’s one narrower point that he makes that has really changed the way I look at life and ministry. That point is the fact that my life, and your life, is also a story. Now that might seem either rather obvious or a bit overly romanticized, but it has profound implications when you dig deeper.
People love good stories. The movie Titanic, for instance, could have been just a 2 ½ hours of a screen displaying the words “Young love is powerful and passionate, will make you do crazy things, and is hard to let go of.” That’s the truth it spoke. However, no one would have paid their hard-earned money to see it. Instead, James Cameron spent several hundred million dollars on fast-paced, larger-than-life, beautiful imagery showing us this truth. You could say the same thing about much of what you see in Hollywood. And most people will opt for a good story over an ideological aphorism most of the time.
Christians are no different. The decisions we make are often subconscious expressions to improve our own personal story. As I look back at my own life, I think it’s probably true most of the time. As I mentioned last week, in my teen years I struggled with some anxiety and depression. Prior to that, I would have told you there was absolutely no chance I was ever going to be a pastor. My brother was a pastor. I attended a high school where the curriculum was designed for training pastors. I was expected to become a pastor. That seemed very, very boring to me – to follow in footsteps where I was intended to walk. However, after having gone through depression, I was on a feverish pursuit to better understand who I was, who God was, and what our relationship was supposed to be. I did a 180 and thought the best route for me to find those answers was to attend a pastoral school where I’d be pursuing spiritual truth non-stop. That’s a better story. I opted for it.
I could probably list a thousand decisions I’ve made in life, big and small, that were opting for the better story. Now I didn’t consciously think about seeing my life through a movie director’s lens at the time, but nonetheless, in retrospect, it was clearly what happened much of the time.
My guess is that most people’s lives are like this – trying to create a better story. In fact, when people’s lives are filled with the pursuits of meaningless, worldly things, they are often saddened and depressed by how boring their story is. If your life revolves around a nice house, a new car, a special title on your name badge, or the location of your next vacation…..sorry, but that’s a boring story. Now, it’s all fine and good to save up for your next Toyota. It’s a worthwhile and safe pursuit. However, no one would pay to see that. No one’s life is getting touched or re-routed as a result of that.
In all honesty, I think this is perhaps a reason why many Christian youth act out and rebel. Life is comfy and easy and boring. So what do they do? A good girl hooks herself up to a loser guy, because it’s exciting and maybe she can help change him. Staying out late partying on weekends is much more exciting than waking up for another opportunity to feel like a hypocrite at a boring old church service on Sunday. At least then I’ll have stories to tell and pictures to share on Facebook. Getting lost for hours on end in video games, online virtual reality, and pornography, is considerably more exciting than going to school, getting a career, having 2.3 kids with a white picket fence, and falling into the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ lifestyle pattern that many do. When your story is boring, unfulfilling, and lacking true meaning, you opt for something that at least seems more fun and more exciting.
But what would happen if Christians actually intentionally attached purposeful behavior to their lives that extended far beyond Sunday morning routine and monotone confessions of faith? What if your family gave one of its two incomes to help provide water or housing or education for kids in a third world country? What if you mentored a troubled youth who was headed for disaster and directed him/her to develop the skills that God poured into them? What if you regularly served the hurt, dying, hungry, lonely, lost, hopeless, and broken in such a Christ-like way and then introduced them to the person who is the motivating force behind the love that you show and the one who rescued you from boring, meaningless life and ultimately death to an eternally gratifying life – your Lord and Savior Jesus. That, my friends, is a story. Contrary to most pursuits today, it won’t make your life more comfortable. But it will make life more meaningful. It would be a mirroring of the selfless love that Christ radiated into the world. It’s a solid expression of a faith that says, “I know I’m a stranger here (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11) and heaven is my home (Philippians 3:20).” It’s a solid expression of the Christian truth that the life we live is no longer a life for ourselves, but a life for Jesus, who gave his life for us. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). It would be closer to what Christian life was designed to be rather than what we see most Christians’ lives as.
The conclusion I’ve stumbled upon…
Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Bar none. In a cutthroat world that claims “survival of the fittest,” he was the fittest who humbly descended to help the unfit survive. He’s a hero if there ever was one. Due to a love so great that it’s really not known, understood, or often even believed in this world, he comes not from outer space, but from outside time and space, and he enters his own creation. He comes as a lowly one and embraces the lowly and lays down his strength, comfort, praise, and finally his life all so that he could save both the oppressed and the oppressors. He faces conflict after conflict, negative turn after negative turn, and finally, in the most depressing darkness, at the climax of his story – an undeserved death on an instrument of torture – he saves the entire world. Beyond all logic and comprehension, he comes back to life, just as he promised, and his victory becomes celebration for all his people. That’s a best-selling page-turner and an edge-of-your-seat blockbuster. That’s as jaw-dropping of a story as it gets.
As Christian “little Christs,” we have a story that is best told when mirroring Jesus and pointing to Jesus. He brings a significance that adds purpose to a rat race. He brings vitality that excites bored lives. He brings a peace that calms troubled hearts. He brings love to a world that only ever seems to want to break our hearts. Not only is Jesus the greatest story, but he also is the Christian’s best story.
So, my advice for others…In Christ, Make Your Story a Great One
The easiest way to tell if a character is a great protagonist or not is to see how much “good” the world would lose out on if that individual was lost. In the past, I rarely thought about how much of Christ’s light or love I was shining into the world. I think much more about it now. Yeah, it’s true that it’s the “right thing” to do, but it also attaches meaning to my story, and that’s a much better way to understand the purpose of life on earth, i.e. significance in Christ.
As a Christian, you are a protagonist in a story with the most joyous of endings. Heaven is the original “happily ever after.” Like a Disney classic, you know where this thing is going – a glorious, breath-taking resolution. With the words, “It is finished,” Jesus has already written the final scene. However, from here to eternity, your story’s still being written. It’s your call how meaningful and exciting you want it to be. But I can assure you, if Jesus is at the heart of it, it will be a wonderful and worthwhile adventure.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)