God's Grand Story
by James Wakefield, PhD

Telling God's Grand Story


Shepherd
You are invited. Please join me in a conversation. We didn’t start it. It has been going on for many thousands of years. It circles around some big ideas, posed here as questions: Is there any good news? What is it? How do we gospel people faithfully? Let’s focus this: How do we tell God’s Grand Story to our families, friends, neighbors, and even to those who care nothing for us at all or for God?
 
One goal of this website is to further this conversation. Let’s be respectful. But let’s also keep it real. A second goal is to ask for help. I’m moving forward in keeping my promise to write a book about telling God’s Grand Story. How can you help? I don’t want to do something this awesome alone. I need company, friends and critics who can speak the truth in love. Help me make this useful. Keep me from too many errors and idiosyncrasies. Join me in sharing good news with our world.





Returning to Story (Part 6)

I have really enjoyed getting your comments and critique on Chapter Two. I hope to have a second draft posted by March 2. Allow me to return to my story about telling the story?

The political and economic realities closing in around Augustine changed the way he heard and told the story. He still told the story, and he believed telling the grand story was the best way to encourage new believers. (Google his Catechising of the Uninstructed, from 406). But with his new focus on individuals, and in a restricted political and economic context, he came to believe that only a small proportion of humanity would be saved. According to his new way of seeing things, Jesus died only for a few elect or chosen ones. The rest of humanity was justly condemned to Hell before they were even born. Could it be that their torment in an eternal Hell showed God’s justice, holiness, and glory?

Augustine’s (mis)reading has had a profound impact on almost all subsequent teachers, including Thomas Aquinas, the most influential teacher of the Middle Ages, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Sometimes the debate about predestination became about when God condemned the unchosen to Hell. At its worst, they discussed when God chose the mass of fallen humanity to go to Hell as a demonstration of God’s justice. (You can find a useful summary of much of this discussion in Peter J. Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 14-43).

Can I make this very practical for you? John 3:16-18 tells us: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

Under Augustine’s reading, Jesus came to save only a few specially chosen ones. God gave them their belief in Jesus. And the rest? God didn’t chose them, didn’t give them faith, and so Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection only increased their condemnation. Ouch! Which Gospel are we preaching? What story are you telling? Who does God love?
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About Chapter Two

Sometimes God changes my plans. I can be so stubborn... Chapter Two is very different from what I announced in the first draft of the Introduction (Chapter One). Here’s the backstory.

This is the conversation I wish I had with a twenty-something man several weeks ago. We met in a diner. We talked about lots of stuff. As we talked, I realized how small his world was: almost no friends, no hunger for community, little education, less ambition, and he is just getting along working in a factory. I wanted to tell him some good news. But I froze when it came to talking about God’s Grand Story. Why?

This has haunted me for weeks. I think I finally understand why I froze. How do you share good news with someone who really doesn’t want community and who doesn’t know anything about Christianity or the Bible? I’m not judging him. He was very gracious to me. But he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know... I mean for him, what is there to know anyway? The last time he was in a church was before age 10. The little religion he has experienced has brought him only judgment and even violence. My heart is grieving for him.

Chapter Two, posted on the right side, is a very rough attempt to share good news with a young man who at least wants to have a conversation. Help me make it better?
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Returning to Story (Part 5)

Have you ever had whiplash? Isn’t it a kind of violence done to the spine from too sudden a start, stop, or change of direction? Nothing feels quite right and the headaches last forever. The early church experienced a sort of whiplash about the year 410.

The official persecution of Christians stopped with the Edict of Milan in 313. It seemed the doors were finally open to evangelize the world. With help from Constantine’s troops, the bishops met and agreed on the Nicene Creed in 325. In a fairytale, we would see Christianity expand and flourish in a Christian Empire. It didn’t happen. The Roman Empire began to collapse. The great city of Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. By 430, even the Roman cities in North Africa had been burned and looted by the Vandals. The classical age of Western civilization was all but dead. What used to be called the “dark ages” had begun. The context for God’s Grand Story changed. And the story being told also changed.

Augustine (Saint Augustine to many of us!) witnessed the end of that age. In the process of his life and work, he changed the story. Those are fearsome words. Don’t hate me for writing them. I certainly don’t hate him. Allow me to explain?

Peter Brown’s masterpiece — Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967, 2000) — begins with a description of the affluence of North African cities at the time of Augustine’s birth in 354. His family was wealthy enough. He received a fine education and became professor of rhetoric in the imperial court in Milan. He was a big success. Like many men in his time, he kept a mistress for many years and enjoyed her company. He sent her away (after 15 years!) to prepare for an advantageous marriage. His conversion to Christianity in 387 and ordination as a priest in 391 led him to abandon his engagement. Returning to Africa, he became bishop in Hippo in 396. He died in 430, just before the Vandals burned Hippo.

Prior to the year 391, Augustine believed humans had free choice. He taught that God foresaw our human desire to believe, and granted grace to enable that belief. Predestination to salvation was based on this foreknowledge.

He begins telling a different story in 395. As a pastor he began to see that humans are far more broken than he had imagined. They are indeed trapped by habits and sins they cannot just choose to lay aside. Searching the Apostle Paul’s letters, he comes to understand that humans cannot delight in God unless God gives them this delight. This is where it becomes difficult: God doesn’t give this delight to all humans. We are not told immediately why not. Eventually we learn that Augustine believed the limited number of souls who will be saved equals the number of angels who fell in the Satanic rebellion (Enchiridion 29). In some of his last books, he tells us God predestines only a few to salvation, and chooses the great masses for damnation. God gives the gift of perseverance to those He predestines to salvation. When thinking about passages like I Timothy 2:4, Augustine tells us that God wants some from all nations to be saved, but not all in all nations (On Rebuke and Grace 44).

But isn’t this a different story?

Many reasons might be offered to explain Augustine’s narrowed view of God’s intentions. One that must be considered is a reflection of the new economic reality. As the classical world was destroyed by invading hordes, Roman prosperity bled away. Those who survived found themselves in a sparse economy. Is it too much to think that this new economy changed the context in which God’s Grand Story could be told and heard?

And this brings us to some critical questions: Which economy are you living in? Is God’s grace super-abundant, or restricted to just a few? Which economy do you want to live in? As you tell God’s Grand Story, how is it heard? Do your hearers believe that God will save only a few? How's your whiplash?
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Returning to Story (Part 4)

One of the interesting challenges of blogging is keeping people on the same page. Based on how few people have tried to wade through my last post, I’m guessing this returning to story stuff isn’t all that gripping to you? Maybe a brief explanation will help?

 These posts will eventually be edited together to form Chapter 3 in the book. The history I’m sketching here is a way of helping us understand why we need to return to story. Of course a return means I think we have wandered off somewhere. I’m not the only one who thinks this, but I don’t think you want to wade through something as dense as Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (Yale, 1974). I’m arguing a little differently from Frei, because I think the drift away from the right story began much, much earlier. You’ll have to let me know if I succeed in convincing you. I’ll keep today’s post shorter.

We’re back in the late second century and thinking for a couple of minutes with Irenaeus again. When Irenaeus saw the possibility of getting the wrong story, he tried to give Christians a fatter version of the story in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Realizing that this was too long to be practical for most people, he also provided “rules of faith” that could be used (like a ruler) to measure other stories and sermons. Here is one of his shorter “rulers,” made all the more interesting by his claim that the Holy Spirit writes this story even in the hearts of barbarians, so that they — and hopefully we — are:

believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. (Against Heresies 3.4.2)

Here is what I want you to see: As compressed as this is, there is still a story-structure to it. There is a beginning, a middle that develops the plot line, and a promised ending. Over the next several decades, these rules of faith took a more recognizable form in the Apostolic Creed. So look at the creed and you will see a beginning, middle and an end. Yes, it is compressed. But it tells a story that allows us to measure the other stories competing for our attention. Are we listening? And again, what story are we living?

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Returning to Story (Part 3)

Marcion wasn’t the only character in the second century offering a revised version of Christianity and a radically different script for your life story. Hang in there with me as I describe this, because one of these second century groups anticipated what we encounter as “new age” spiritualties in our own twenty-first century.

 Experts on the second century recognize a loosely organized movement called “Gnosticism.” Here are some of the more common Gnostic doctrines. Let me keep this in the present tense? Gnostics believe that physical matter is evil. Salvation, understood as an escape from suffering physical matter, comes by way of secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek, hence the name “Gnostics”). This knowledge is brought by a teacher who has already escaped — or was never really part of — the physical world. Knowledge IS power. Some people are just dirt clods and incapable of this knowledge or way of knowing. The dirt clod folk aren’t worth much and have no possible happy future in a realm of elevated, refined, immaterial existence. Their suffering isn’t important. Your suffering doesn’t matter either if you are one of the chosen ones. If you can understand this secret teaching, then you are one of lucky, powerful, chosen ones. For $19.95 (plus shipping) you can have the next key to enlightenment...

Okay, I couldn’t resist the last line. How often does religion tell you the physical world is evil, so send us your money? And notice how a Gnostic view of things minimizes the importance of your body and your own suffering? How does this feel? You know, in your gut?

Can things get worse? Oh yes! If salvation is about knowing the right ideas, then arguing and proving that you are right becomes one of the most important things you can do. Or maybe you dismiss anyone who can’t agree with you as a dirt clod?

But consider this question: Does telling the story get lost? And do you forget to listen to the basic storylines — theirs and yours — in the heat of your argument?

Irenaeus of Lyon was a gift to the Christian community in the late second century. He learned his lessons from a man named Polycarp. Polycarp learned his lessons from the Apostle John. John learned his lessons from Jesus. It was hard to get better credentials than this in the second century! Irenaeus believed that our suffering matters and that people were worth arguing with. He wrote five books arguing with folks like Marcion and the Gnostics. But he didn’t just argue with people. He also told the story. His telling can be found in a remarkable little book called the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. (Translated by Joseph P. Smith, Ancient Christian Writers Series, 16. New York: Paulist/Newman, 1952).

Writing sometime between 178-202, Irenaeus offers this little book to help instruct Marcianas in the Christian faith, and to help him instruct others also. I want to make only thee points about this work: Irenaeus sets the story in the context of the Trinity and the Rule of Faith (paragraphs 1-10). He tells the story beginning with the Garden and moving through the effects of the death and resurrection of Jesus (paragraphs 11-42). He proves this is the correct reading of things by examining the Old Testament narratives and prophecies (paragraphs 42-100). There is a conscious shift in paragraphs 41-42 where Irenaeus tells us in effect, “this is how the apostles instructed others in the Christian faith.”

There you go. Irenaeus want to make sure people got the right story. He wanted it set in the right context. And he wanted his readers to know it was right because it was based in the Holy Scriptures. And he wanted them to be able to honestly walk it out, day by day.

Whom do you trust to give you the right story? Can you trust their sources? Can you live the story? This will become one of the most important questions we will face. Can we live this, be absolutely real with this, or do I have to lie to myself and others as I pretend this works for me? Ouch. Let’s get real.
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Returning to Story (Part 2)

So I’m wondering if you thought about the story you were given. We might ask lots of questions here: How is that working for you? Who gave it to you? How soon did you get it? Do you know how it ends? Is it bent?

 If you read the “Introduction” to the book (you can find it to the right of this blog on at www.godsgrandstory.com), you will understand this last question. “Bent” is C.S. Lewis’ word to describe what happened when the first humans disobeyed God. Our very natures —all that we are— were somehow “bent.” And we cannot straighten ourselves out. This really shows itself in the second century.
 People started using the story of Jesus for their own purposes. They wrote or edited their own version of the story and used these false gospels to control and manipulate other people. I’m not saying all of them were malicious, but many of them were. Marcion — a wealthy ship owner in Rome serves as an interesting example of this. Before the year 140, he trashed the gospels written by Matthew, Mark, and John. He revised the Gospel of Luke and many of Paul’s letters. How? He tried to strip any Jewish influence out of the story of Jesus. Why? He hated the god of the Old Testament. Again, why? Because this god wasn’t afraid to be involved in material substance. Yikes! What’s up with Marcion? 

 The prevailing worldview of sophisticated people in the early second was dominated by the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato’s ideas had been modified in the more than 400 years since his death into a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world, sometimes called “Middle Stoicism.” Part of the story told by Plato was that the material world is evil. He believed that “the body is the prison of the soul” (Phaedo 62b). It seems that Marcion grabbed hold of some of these ideas and reasoned that if physical matter, and the body are evil, then any god who created them must also be evil. 

 I won’t go into detail about how this twisted the whole storyline, but ask these questions with me: If the god of the Old Testament is evil, where did Jesus come from? And if matter is evil, could Jesus have had a body? If Jesus didn’t have a body, then how could he help those of us who do? And why would he even want to? 

 I’ll say a little about how folks responded to Marcion and his bent version of the story in my next blog. But can I ask this question again: Did you get the right story?
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More housekeeping details

Hurray, the website is up! (www.godsgrandstory.com) If you're reading this on the website, that's odd news. If you stumbled on to this blog at www.blogger.com, then it might be useful to go and see where this has a fuller life. 

 Thank you to all those who Facebooked me or sent an email asking, “How do I respond to this stuff?”
 We will try to make things clearer. “We” includes Jeff S who is donating his time to help make the website happen. Thanks, Jeff! 

 In the short term, I think you can click on the comments button under each blog entry to comment on the blog. We (mostly Jeff!) will find a way to allow comments on the chapters as they are posted. 

 Thanks to Tom B who gave me a link for an interesting article on “Grand Narrative.”



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Returning to Story (Part 1)

Jesus told a lot of stories:  “The kingdom of God is like…”  Some of his stories were intentionally cryptic. It seems like his first disciples were especially dense—dumb as stumps?  They had to keep asking,  “Okay, what did that mean?”  After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem,  Jesus’ stories changed.  He had less than a week left, and he got right to the point.  He was speaking their language, their idiom, and he was current on their daily doings.  (You might want to pause reading this blog, and read the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verses 1-12).  The religious authorities understood, and arranged a judicial murder.

 After his resurrection, and ascension, Jesus’ disciples continued to tell stories.  They traveled all over the ancient Mediterranean world telling his stories, and even more stories about him.  Peter traveled as far as Rome. A man named John-Mark served as his translator and assistant.  The church remembers John-Mark by his second name, Mark. He wrote down the stories Peter told, and edited the whole collection into what became known as the “Gospel of Mark.”  Mark was more than a secretary.  He was an expert storyteller! His Gospel is brilliant first century storytelling!  It is best read out loud, and this takes about 90 minutes in English.  It ends with chapter 16, verse 8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

 Now imagine yourself, sitting in Rome in the first century.  You’ve just listened to a paid scribe read this to you, and it ends this way… What are you thinking?

 I think the whole Gospel of Mark functions as an extended parable, a mystery, or a puzzle.  The original ending makes you find someone who knows what happened next.  This was brilliant, because you had to find someone connected to Jesus’ own community.  You heard the good news.  You were “gospelled.” (Gospel = good news).

 Unfortunately, people started adding other endings to Mark’s original story.  Not unfortunately, other disciples (Matthew, Luke, and John) wrote their own versions to tell the story to their own communities.  Very unfortunately, other folk wrote false gospels and twisted Jesus’ words to say all kinds of crazy and stupid things.  Within a hundred years, the whole art of gospelling people became very complicated because you had to make sure you were working with the right story!

 I’ll say more about what happened next in my next blog.  But pause with me for a moment, and ask: Did you get the right story?  Which one are you telling?  And which one are you living?  Hmmmm.  I dare you to think about it!

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Just a bit more... and some rules!

This blog invites you to a conversation about God’s GrandStory.  If you found the blog without the website, you may find the website abetter place to check-in with things.  The website is Godsgrandstory.com.  The website invites your contributions, but it also seeks your help as I fulfill a promise to write a broader version of God’s Grand Story than I was able to give in my classes.

 I am posting parts of the book in .pdf files. I expect to have a first draft of the introductory chapter, and an initial bibliography posted by the time you get your first look there.

Can we talk about some rules for our conversation?
1).  Let’s practice radical hospitality as we listen to each other and as we express our opinions.  I want our conversation to be real, but I also want to protect other readers if someone gets crude or abusive.  So, I reserve the right to edit your comments and will delete them if you give mecause to. I will be charitable in this, because I want to hear you out.
2).  Help me understand.  But also try to be concise?
3).  If you respond, please let me know if you want your comment to be public or private.
4).  And please be patient if it takes a few days to see your comments or get a response.  I am actually trying to have a life away from my laptop. Thanks!
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Here is your final assignment

Here is your final assignment: Write a five-page letter to the Apostle John that summarizes your understanding of God’s Grand Story. Shape it for the community you want to serve. Be faithful to Scripture, and ask for his advice about the things you aren’t sure of. 

 I gave that assignment at Salt Lake Theological Seminary to first year students for many years. I gave it in the Fall in my introductory lecture and promised to tutor them all year so that they could actually enjoy writing it. And they did. 

 A few of them would have amused looks on their face and tease “That’s impossible.” I would tease them back: “Didn’t you ever walk into a history final to face one sentence written on the blackboard? ‘Write the history of the world.’ The assignment I am giving is bigger than this! I want your telling to include what happens before creation as we know it. And you need to address what happens after the consummation of all things.” 

 I expect a few former students to chime in, comment on this blog, and testify that this is what really happened. Of course if you are reading this without having paid tuition, you are also most welcome to join us. Let’s have a conversation about God’s Grand Story.
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