One of my favorite anticipations of any new year is the first book I will read. Often the first book of a new year is a reread from years past, such as Augustine’s Confessions or Frederick Buechner’s Godric or C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. But 2015 has started well with a new book from the aging (though apparently not much slowing down) historian Mark Noll.
His latest book, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014) is typical of Mark Noll when he is asked to speak about himself: it everywhere tells the story of others. The agenda for the book, in the series Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity edited by Joel Carpenter, is personal memoir. The outcome is an engaging narrative highlighting key elements of Noll’s faith journey and academic career. Yet the main character of the book is Christ’s church universal, which despite foibles and follies manages to survive and even thrive right up to the present day.
[Warning: severe Interstellar spoilers ahead]
On the first day of this new year, the day before I finished Noll’s page turner, I took my sixteen-year-old daughter to see Interstellar. Yes, there were a few plot holes, some scientific hyperbole, and foreshadowing that stretched for miles (or I should say, hours). But the story was compelling. Two fathers, both asking their children to have faith in them as they try to save humanity. One father, Professor Brand, is visible. His ideas are tangible. By his human wisdom and effort he evokes hope that humanity can save itself. But he is a liar. The father of lies. And his most impressive disciple, Dr. Mann, is, well, a man after his own heart. Through cowardice, selfishness, pride, and attempted murder, Mann nearly destroys humanity. The other father, Joseph Cooper, leaves earth and remains invisible to the humans whose salvation he tries to affect from afar. But eventually he finds a way to communicate with his child. How he does this is a mystery, but the power of sacrificial love plays a big role. His revelation to his daughter is mediated through books. Humanity is saved. When Cooper comes back from his journey (“back from the dead” as film puts it), thanks to Einstein’s theory of relativity he returns not so much as the father but as the son. His aged daughter tells his still-young self that his work there is finished and sends him away to prepare a place for humanity, a colony on a habitable planet. The name Joseph means “God will increase.”
As much as I can trust the Internet for facts, it seems Christopher Nolan who wrote and directed Interstellar is not a Christian. Yet, he most definitely is familiar with the story of Christianity. He has turned it into spectacular science-fiction. Whenever I encounter a fictional book or movie like Interstellar my imagination is suckered hook, line, and sinker. I told my daughter on the way home from the theatre, “If a wormhole opens up next to Saturn, I’m out of here.” Who could resist such an adventure?
Well, apparently hundreds of millions of Christians, today mostly not living in the West, cannot resist. Though the skeptics who make stories like Interstellar possible would surely deny it, Noll’s story of Christianity around the globe is no tale of science fiction. Someone really did reach across the unknown and communicate a message of salvation through a book. Someone really did die and come back to life. Someone really did leave to prepare a place for humanity. And, just like in the movies, earth really is not where we ultimately belong. A lot of people in our world are living this otherworldly Gospel adventure.
The incomprehensible truth of the matter is this is the story all humanity is living. The marvel of the western world is that through the most impressive learning in the history of humanity, it has turned the story of the Gospel into one of the coolest science fiction movies of all time.
I confess (truly confess) I am at times more comfortable with the movie version, even though I do not believe it will ever come about and even though I do believe the Gospel version already has come about. Perhaps that is why of all Noll’s insights, one that came late in the book hit me hardest:
A religion anchored in the murder of God incarnate is a religion that takes the sinful proclivities of believers as seriously as the entire world’s need for redemption. If taking up the cross and following Christ is the pattern of holiness for individuals and communities, it is no less the pattern for the church universal.
For what it is worth, if you have not already seen Interstellar, you should. The spoilers I have provided here will not ruin it for you. (And I suspect there are a handful of Rabbit Roomers who do not even think my spoilers are spoilers.) But after the credits roll and you have spent a restless night pondering theoretical physics, do yourself a favor and pick up Mark Noll’s latest book. Read about how our world is really being really saved. Adventure awaits.
P.S. I forgot to mention I watched The Giver tonight with my other daughters . . .