My daughter Sophia, 6 years old, has become a big fan of the Avengers. Her favorite, she says, is Thor. So after watching The Avengers film together recently, I thought we’d watch Thor together as well. I had not seen it previously.
A few minutes in, you get a good look at Asgard. It’s a beautiful, golden city. Sophie was astonished: “What? Come on! Asgard is all gold? I wish our world was like that!”
This past summer, I had myself an adventure. It’s the first part of a two-parter, mostly because when you’re a grownup, you can get started on an adventure but not have time to finish it.
There’s an 80-foot waterfall in my hometown. It’s on private land, but the owners have never cared much about people hiking up to it. I hadn’t been there in about 10 years, and I decided it was time for a hike. My usual walk involves a well-worn path through woods up to a set of railroad tracks. From there, it’s a steep scramble down to the top of the falls. I learned recently, however, that you can get to the bottom of the falls by walking the creek. So I decided to start there.
I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years without really knowing how. I’ve written songs—lots of them. I’ve played in bands. I’ve just started a new one, actually. But I’ve mostly just hammered away on an acoustic six-string with bad thin picks for 20 years.
It all started with a very cheap acoustic guitar and a Bob Dylan songbook. I learned to read the big chord diagrams over the music, and I just started strumming songs I already knew. Then I wrote about 30 teenage-angst songs strumming those same simple chords, a bad recording of which has mercifully been lost. Then I wrote some decent songs in my early 20s, but the band I played them with doesn’t exist anymore. (Though I can still dig up copies of our 4-song record, I wouldn’t want to do that on purpose.) I was the unofficial “leader” of that band, calling most of the musical shots and being the key “presence” on the stage.
Twenty years after picking up a guitar, I’m finally learning how to play for real. I decided to take lessons, unlearn bad habits, and do it right. It’s an incredibly frustrating process. Up until now, I could pick up a guitar and play hundreds of songs, make it sound pretty good, and my kids could dance around the living room. I could lead music at church or play along with other musicians. Now my instructor is assigning me a bunch of songs to learn and critiquing what I do, and I’m sitting and embarrassingly plunking through the notes like it’s my first time touching the instrument.
I like scary stories, in case you couldn’t already tell. I believe George MacDonald was correct that we are to “make righteous use of the element of horror.” I recently had the honor and privilege of fleshing out these ideas a bit in a new book called Light Shining in a Dark Place: Discovering Theology in Film. This was a fun book to contribute to, because I got to write about one of my all-time favorite films: Poltergeist. The last two years at Hutchmoot, I’ve tried to sneak a reference to the spiritual metaphors in Poltergeist into my talks, and haven’t had the time for it. (I’m talking with Andrew about “Tales of the Fall” this year, so perhaps third time’s the charm.)
There’s a lot of N. T. Wright talk around here right now, so it seems an appropriate time to continue the series on Christian Storytelling. In the past couple of installments we began looking at Wright’s view of the Bible as an “unfinished drama.” We continue now with an understanding of ourselves as actors in the fifth act.
The Christian story gives new meaning to the old Shakespearian line, “All the world’s a stage.” The world is the stage upon which the drama of redemption takes place. And you and I are players. But we are not merely players. We are the faithful improvisors of the tragic and glorious fifth act of history, trying with all our might to remain faithful to the first four acts, as well as the few scenes of the fifth act, that preceded us.
In Part III, I proposed N.T. Wright’s view of the Scriptures as the first four acts of an unfinished drama as a potentially profitable alternative hermeneutic to the normal ways evangelicals handle the biblical texts. Since I only included a brief paragraph from Wright’s thought on this method, I’ll take some time today to put some skin and muscle on the skeleton. I’ll note some of his own remarks and push them a bit further myself. Wright quotes will come from his lecture, How Can the Bible be Authoritative? (or PDF, if you’d like).
First, let’s allow Wright himself to explain a bit more:
In our journey through the Christian story and Christian storytelling, we have to take a look at the Bible. Since we’re all big fans of Sally Lloyd-Jones here, I don’t think I’ll have to do much convincing when it comes to talking about the Bible as a story. But whenever the subject of interpreting Scripture comes up, lots of very strongly-held opinions clash. I want to say that at the outset, because I think we can have a very gracious and charitable discussion about how to approach the Bible.
What we think of the Scriptures will dictate how we interpret them. I want to propose some ideas (mostly not my own) about how to approach the Bible as a story, but first, I’ll start with two often-held views of the Scriptures and their interpretation.
Every year I hope for this season to be full of life-transforming meaning, and every year, I feel like I barely grasp hold of some fleeting thoughts about the season before we’re suddenly unwrapping presents, shouting Happy New Year, and back to work.
What I’m hoping for, what I feel like I miss year after year, is an Advent and Christmas season which is “eye-opening.” St. John said Jesus’ coming into the world “enlightens everyone.” Jesus himself said that our eye is the lamp of the body; a good eye results in a body filled with light.
I have always loved systematic theology. I own four (Grudem, Oden, Hodge, and Reymond). Ironically enough, I am going to continue my discussion of Christian Theology as Storytelling by quoting from a systematic theology, because Thomas Oden gets it right, I believe. I’m going to let Oden do a lot of the talking here, but stick with it: It’s good stuff. (Quotes are taken from The Living God: Systematic Theology, Volume One).
The value of Oden’s already great “systematic” theology is increased by the fact that it realizes its own limitations. Oden writes:
The vitality of the biblical history of God’s acts does not easily boil down to the clear, consistent formulations about God attempted by systematic theology. Try as we may, the biblical history resists systematization (p. 40).
There’s a scene near the beginning of the great film, Walk the Line, where a very young Johnny Cash is talking with his older brother Jack, who plans to become a preacher when he grows up. Johnny is lamenting that he doesn’t know the Scripture stories very well, but his brother points out that he knows their mother’s hymnal by heart. Johnny’s brother goes on:
Look, J.R., if I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the Bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.
Indeed. I recall very well a weekend, years ago, that I was able to spend with 70+ college students at a local IVCF’s annual chapter retreat. I was invited to be the speaker. It turned out that a young Muslim man, at student at the college, had been invited by one of his friends from IVCF, and by the middle of the second day, he wanted to talk to me about his search for God. After a bit of discussion, he laid it out for me. “I need some kind of proof,” he said.