A Few Recommendations about Learning Our Story
This past Sunday we looked at the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers on a travelling mission (Luke 10:1-12, 16). One of the observations we made was that Jesus expects his followers to speak words—make a proclamation—wherever we meet people. He told that first group of missionaries that they were to tell people, “The kingdom of God has come near.” Whether people warmly accepted them or coolly sent them on their way, the messaging was consistent: “The kingdom of God has come near.”
The rationale? God has done and is doing something, and people need to know what’s going on. Frederick Buechner once wrote that Christians weren’t necessarily nicer people than others, “just better informed.” We’ve come to hear and accept the true story of the world: that God is the Creator of everything and that he has acted in his Son Jesus Christ to reclaim and restore his world that has fallen into disarray.
The world needs to know this true story, and one of our duties and privileges is telling people. We are carriers of the good news about God’s boundless love for the world he made.
One of our big challenges, though, is to know and understand the story well enough to tell it. Who is Jesus really and what was going on in his life, death, and resurrection? (Here I recall the words of New Testament scholar Richard Hays, who warned about the danger of not knowing the story of Jesus well: “Be careful that ‘Jesus’ isn’t just the name you give to the idol you worship.”)
In earlier generations, the church understood that one of its main jobs was what is often called “catechesis”: teaching the basics of the faith to believers from a very young age. But we’ve let this go somewhat, and as a result there are many unformed—and uninformed—people in the seats of churches. This may be why that saying about “preaching the gospel wherever you go, and if necessary, using words” is so popular. Perhaps the reason we hope we can avoid words is that we aren’t sure we have the right words to say. We aren’t sure exactly how our story goes.
I suspect many Christians feel that their understanding of their own faith—and the world’s true story—is somewhat inadequate. But there are helpful resources out there that can invite us deeper into the biblical story and send us out with more confidence into the world. Here are a few suggestions:
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006)
There are a few reading experiences in my life that stand out as completely immersive, times when I dove into a book and lived there until I came out the other side. In the middle of 2007 this happened with Simply Christian. I read it in a day, and found it supremely helpful. It was marketed as a sort of 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but Wright’s book aims in a different direction. For the purpose of this little recommended reading list, the heart of the book is its second part, “Staring at the Sun,” in which over the course of six chapters and a little less than a hundred pages Wright recounts the story of the Bible. The chapter titles are simple: “God,” “Israel,” “Jesus and the Coming of God’s Kingdom,” “Jesus: Rescue and Renewal,” “God’s Breath of Life,” and “Living by the Spirit.” The whole book is worth your time (Part One is about the way the gospel relates to our current culture and Part Three is about the various practices we undertake in living the Christian life), but that middle section will go a long way in strengthening your grasp of the biblical story and the gospel of Jesus Christ as a unified whole.
Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, The True Story of the Whole World (Brazos, 2020)
Goheen and Bartholomew are well known for an earlier and bigger book, The Drama of Scripture, in which they outline the Bible story in a “six act” structure that they actually adapted from some of N.T. Wright’s earlier work. It’s sort of a bigger and more detailed account of the story as a whole, and it includes the marks of scholarly work: an endnote section filled with references. In The True Story of the Whole World, they’ve made their work more accessible and have shortened it by about a third, cut out the notes and added discussion questions.
Matthew W. Bates, Gospel Allegiance (Brazos, 2019)
Bates is a New Testament professor who wants to challenge evangelicals’ understanding of the ideas of “gospel” and “faith.” His basic arguments are that we need to pay attention to how the New Testament writers describe the gospel, and that we need to deepen our grasp of what “faith” means. He believes that the “gospel” is centred on the proclamation that Jesus is the king of the world (Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel moves in a similar direction). This brings our work today closer to that of those 72 disciples that Jesus sent out to proclaim that God’s kingdom was coming near. When it comes to “faith,” Bates prefers the word “allegiance,” thinking that it captures the whole life commitment that New Testament faith suggests, since “faith” can be cheapened into certain beliefs that we accept in our head but which might not make much difference in our lives. Challenging stuff.
What all of these books have in common is a tendency to pull together the whole narrative of Scripture and a desire to show us the big picture. Revisiting the basics and seeing the big picture more clearly is one of the most helpful things we can all do.
I want to end this post with my favourite one-paragraph summary of the Bible story. It’s dense and requires lots of unpacking, but to me it doesn’t get much better than this:
“The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted (astoundingly) to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world.” – Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperOne, 1996), p. 193.