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Christian Storytelling, Part I: The Right Stories

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.

Proof? Oh, well I can give that; I’ve got “evidence that demands a verdict”! But as I began to talk about the reliability of the New Testament documents, I watched his eyes begin to glaze over. This young man was hurting badly. If he received Jesus, he’d be an outcast from his family. He needed to know Jesus was the real deal. He most certainly did not need an intellectual, systematic defense of the Christian faith. We chatted for a few more moments, I can’t even remember what about, and then we parted.

I prayed. I had no idea what to say to this young, conflicted man. Finally, Sunday morning, as we were packing our cars to leave, I found him one last time. I said: “Listen, I understand that you are searching for God. I wanted to share something with you quickly before we leave. It’s something my dad said at his baptism. My dad spent a long time searching all sorts of religions, looking for God. At his baptism, he said this: ‘I spent a lot of time looking for God. But when it came right down to it, I didn’t find God; He found me.’”

His eyes widened. “That means a lot. Thank you for that.” He was genuine and appreciative. It was just a story, but it was exactly what he needed to hear at the time. I told him about a God who does not simply wait to be found, but actively seeks.

As much as I disagree with Brian McLaren on many things, he is spot on when it comes to this matter:

If you ask me about the gospel, I’ll tell you, as well as I can, the story of Jesus, the story leading up to Jesus, the story of what Jesus said and did, the story of what happened as a result, of what has been happening more recently, today even.[“The Method, the Message, and the Ongoing Story”, in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives ed. By Leonard Sweet (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003) 214]

This is what makes Walk the Line such a great movie. It tells a brutally honest story of a terribly weak man whose only redemption was to be found in Christ. There was no doubt about it: Johnny Cash was a sinner, no hiding it. We are sinners as well, but we hide it better. And too often we hide behind our clever theology.

If we’ve got our doctrine of sin and salvation down, but we can’t genuinely connect those truths to our own very real, very complicated stories, we might just be using theology as a hiding place. So I’m going to explore “Christian Storytelling” over a series of coming posts. We’ll be looking at how we understand the story of God and humanity, and how our personal stories are part of the greater story.

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