The New Testament’s Crooked Narrative Arc: In Part I last week, I began by noting that the New Testament is not entirely straightforward when it comes to the subject of faith, vocation and culture. Revelation says that in a certain era — the era in which actual Christians lived — there was a situation where Christians could not buy or sell. In Acts, when Christians impacted culture and economics, it often turned out badly. To this we may add Jesus’s life, which was not exactly “normal,” even by first century standards of a stable society. If his life was merely “normal,” why did he get crucified? And this same Jesus, in his final recorded sermon, gives an incredibly “apocalyptic” message to his followers about what to expect. The narrative arc moving into the New Testament is not quite as straightforward as we might expect.
What can we say about all this? One way that we can helpfully understand everything, make sense of it, is to think of it in terms of the nature of stories.
Consider. Anyone studying stories knows that a compelling story almost always has an “all hope is lost” moment, usually near the end. This is the moment right before the final outcome when the good you anticipated turns bad. Think of a story where the hero or heroine has just beaten the bad guys. They are standing there, striking a pose, with a bunch of beleaguered bystanders looking on—those who have gotten caught up in the mess but have ultimately been rescued. But then comes the horrible moment. We (the audience) see that the chief bad guy is still alive in the background, unseen by our triumphant hero or heroine, and that of course he wants one last chance at revenge—a chance to finally kill the hero. At this moment, we are inclined not to think any longer about the pleasant outcome we were all hoping for—happily ever after. Now, in horror, all we can think about is survival, survival of the hero or heroine, and thus survival of those dependent.
This, it might be imagined by apocalyptic readers of the New Testament, is the story of the New Testament—the horrible final moment of twist, when the story goes completely bad, and all we can think about is survival. I agree with this. But the difference to be noted—the all-important difference to be seen—is that the hero or heroine can only be a hero or heroine if they have first been part of creating a story that has reached this point. Indeed, the hero or heroine would not be in this situation in the first place if they just decided to stay in bed. Noticing this changes everything.
The Hero, the Heroine, and Romans 8: A favorite passage when it comes to faith, vocation and culture, is Romans 8, and rightly so. This is the passage where Old Testament teachers land the plane, where we note that Christians are already part of the new creation:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
It is the last part of this that is so hopeful, so exciting. The whole of creation wants to be what it was meant to be. The whole creation wants to be restored. And even as it longs for this, its next move is to look at Christians and to want to be like them! Why? Christians, through partaking of Jesus’s Spirit, Paul says, are already in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, i.e. becoming the new creation. The creation wants this. The creation wants what Christians already have. Some of this can be hard to get our head around. But we need to get our head around it because it’s fantastic. Christians are in an enviable position. Indeed, we read here that the creation envies us. We get to live out the new creation order here and now, for the good of world as it currently is and in hope.
But if we read this passage in terms of this simplified narrative arc, we miss a feature prevalent throughout it. There is a part of creation that doesn’t want to be transformed—i.e.: current human society. And because it doesn’t want to be transformed, it will persecute those who are part of trying to see transformation take place.
Think back to our hero and heroine. Why are they targets of the one last act of payback from the still-alive-bad-guy? It is because they have (in the eyes of the bad guy) caused an enormous mess! Why not just leave things alone? Why not just leave the ghetto teeming with drugs and prostitution and finish with us cashing in? Why disrupt the natural order of things? In the bad guy’s counter narrative it is the hero who is a menace to “society,” a destabilizer of the (broken) system that currently exists. So from one angle the “all hope is lost” moment of our narrative trajectory is actually the moment of “hope restored;” it’s back to “public order” from the perspective of the bad guy. Here is the enormous irony of competing narratives.
So I will say it again. The apocalyptic moment, i.e. the “all hope is lost” moment, only comes because the hero has been doing what he or she has supposed to be doing in bringing about cultural transformation. If they just stayed in bed no one would be worried. They have been disrupting the narrative of evil, and now they must pay for it! In this regard there are, in fact, an extraordinary few verses right before our passage in Romans 8, right before the passage quoted above, which we are now positioned to understand:
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Who is glorified with Jesus, according to this passage? Those who are fellow sons of God, heirs of the world to come, join heirs with Christ! But who are they? They are the heroes who suffer with him, in order that they may be glorified with him! Being a Christian means getting out of bed. It means getting caught up in the narrative of redemption, so that we might enter into the “all hope is lost” moment. If we don’t, we miss the glory that follows.
Being Countercultural: You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs (so the saying goes). In a similar way, you can’t transform culture without affecting culture, which will mean someone won’t like you. It is not as if this is your goal, i.e. to disturb people. This is where some Christians get it wrong. They are rabble-rousers. They are those who love to stir trouble and then play the martyr. No! What we mean instead is going out and being all we should be in this world, transformative—the best plumber, the best lawyer, the best scientist, the best political advisor we can be. What we mean is bringing the new creation to bear at each moment of our lives. In other words, being the hero or heroine. Getting out of bed! This is exciting—I hope you’ll agree. But what must be the outcome. People won’t love you. People won’t love it when you and I try to do things right, at least not when it disadvantages them. But rather than this coming as a complete shock, it should make perfect sense. They hated Jesus first.
What does all this mean practically? It means not just running away and hiding, only to come out now and then to be obnoxious—a certain (false) reading of the apocalyptic perspective. What it means instead is being eminently hopeful that we will bring about change but then also being realistic that when we do bring change persecution will follow. As sure as night follows day this must be. Because this really is the fullness of the narrative arc!
What I love about this picture is that it really does place us within the narrative arc we have been talking about. But it does so in a way that fits with a real story. Real stories are not fairytales. They are real. And the reality is that as you and I really live in the story—suffering like Christ—we will also get to see his glory.
But this brings us to another point—what about evangelism, which those focused on cultural transformation often forget? Evangelism sadly has not been the question on everyone’s lips when it comes to faith, vocation and culture. But it must be part of the story, part of the fullness of the story where Jesus is the ultimate hero. How does one change the world? There is a trite story often told about a person walking on a beach where a bunch of shellfish have washed up after a storm. They see someone throwing as many creatures as they can back into the sea. “What are you doing?” comes the question. “There are so many. What does it matter that you throw one or two back?” The person answers, “It matters to this one.”
I think that sometimes we are so used to being efficient, to being productive, that we cannot imagine wasting our time on anything that takes too much energy for apparently so little benefit—like helping an individual understand and see that Jesus Christ is someone extraordinary. He was not just some pathetic peasant living in the Middle East, two thousand years ago. Rather, Jesus was God’s hole-punch; He pressed a hole into the fabric of human existence which in turn created a tear, a tear allowing for everything to be stitched back together again, brand new. This is the fullness of the narrative trajectory of the hero-story—which from the bad guy’s angle is only a disruption. But from the side of goodness this is how the story must be.
Let’s go back to the question of efficiency. Jesus was not very efficient. He did not sway the masses. Yes, of course, he did gather big groups at times. But according to the middle chapters of John’s gospel this was because he was a one-man-walking-hamburger-stand. They were only there for the food. In terms of efficiency, Jesus influenced a few, who would influence a few more, who would ultimately change the world. But the great thing is that the history of the world for the last two thousand years has not just been about a changed world, it has been about changed people, people who have become children of God: “it matters to this one.” This is the part of the story that must not get lost in the fog of ambitions for cultural transformation.
Back to History: Don’t Forget Personal Faith. In Part I I mentioned in passing the missionary movement of the 19th century. What essentially happened was that people like Albrecht Ritschl brought about a kind of nationalist Christianity in the form of Liberalism, and what this did was turn missionary work into colonialism. Now missions became about social transformation—introducing Western Christian culture into the uncivilized world. And this of course did not end well! It ended in Nazism in Germany and a host of other colonialist problems worldwide.
There is a lesson here in terms of what really matters when it comes to change. Faith, vocation and culture matter and are part of how Christians must always be thinking. Christianity impacts all of life, as it must do, and in wonderfully radical ways. But if we think that the change itself is the only goal, we are quite mistaken. God has always had a personal love for people, and he is interested not just in you affecting those around you to become more “Christian” in their ways. He is actually interested in seeing them become part of the new creation—living as transformed and transforming agents themselves. God is interested in multiplication. How does this happen? It happens through the very messy one-at-a-time process of a person becoming a Christian.
I fear sometimes that becoming Christians of faith, vocation and culture means for many of us becoming Christians of efficiency in systems change. But this is not the way in God’s economy. God would actually have us be inefficient. He would have us live with and pray for and share the gospel with our neighbors over the long haul. All this is part of the genuine transformation he wants to bring in real time in real people—through the glorious good news of Jesus.
In this two-part article I have sought to map what I think is both the challenge and yet wonderful opportunity of reading the New Testament in terms of faith, vocation and culture. It is not quite as smooth a path as is sometimes imagined. But it is a real path, because it is a real story. There are dangerous things along the way, dangers of nationalism and dangers too of withdrawal. Beware! But this is all part of the wonderful challenge of the life the Lord has given us. More than anything, as we have seen in this last part, there is the joy of seeing someone become a new creation. And what could be better than that!