church · pop culture

more stories less statements

Imagine this. Pick up a fictional book, preferably one you haven’t read yet. Flip through to any random page, preferably somewhere in the middle. Read that chapter. Close the book. Now write a book review.

This is probably how some of us got through Comp 101 in college, but that’s not my point. My point is that you cannot possibly give an accurate or meaningful report by one chapter, and though you may have suspicions of the plot and characters, it is highly unlikely that you will have gleaned enough of the author’s work to fully understand what was happening and why. You glimpsed one episode or so of the story, probably discovered only a fraction of the plot, and definitely surpassed dozens of characters and places that would round out, and, more importantly, inform the scope of the story.

This is, sadly, how many of us go through life. Except in life, the characters are real, the plot is thickening, and the story is epic. The story is cosmic. The story is God’s.

Quick note: this post isn’t about Christian fiction, partly because I haven’t read enough of it to have an opinion, and partly because I really don’t care either way. This post is about people who come to someone’s story midway – someone they meet in church for instance, or, more to the point, maybe someone they never will meet in person at all. And like trying to write a book report on a book you haven’t read, too often we are prejudiced about the way the story went and where it’s going. Too often, we already had our doubts, judging by the cover of course, and we rolled our eyes at the names of people who endorsed them. Maybe we saw what categories they placed themselves in. Maybe we don’t really like sci-fi and it’s a sci-fi book. Maybe we think vampires are so 1994. And we group “them” into “thems” – keeping them at arm’s length, not engaging in their stories, or writing book reviews on an entire genre with one fell statement… er, swoop.

Part of our collective societal problem is we spend a lot of time looking at “characters” from one fixed moment in their story, taking that one moment, that one chapter, that one incident, and defining everything else about them. We don’t spend a lot of time understanding their arc, learning about their backstory, reading their prequels (what about waiting ten years for the next book?). We are impatient. We want to have “it” figured out and what we don’t know won’t kill us.

Or will it? We don’t know what we don’t know. And I’m begging us all to admit we don’t know enough. We’ve seen a lot. We’ve experienced a lot. We know a lot. We still don’t know enough. Not enough to hurt others. Not enough to sever ties of open communication between willing, though hesitant, parties. Not enough to Curse those who curse you. Not enough to cast judgment with fire and brimstone. Not enough to burn bridges. Not enough to ignore the love neighbor part.

Maybe picture it this way. God is writing the story of someone’s life and there you are frantically hitting the backspace/delete key. You’re editing their life so it fits your sensibilities better. Or you deem yourself their editor in the first place. Fix this up. Flesh that out. Throw that sentence away altogether.

What I do know is that the story is God’s. Do you know that? Sometimes I picture certain people trying to take the pen, or the keyboard today, away from God, like looking over His shoulder and saying, “What? Wait. That can’t be right. Give it here. I’ll write this part.” It’s so arrogant.

It’s hard to admit to doing that. I had to admit to doing that. I had to admit that I was trying to write my own life and that God just couldn’t possibly know what He was doing – at least He wasn’t making it clear to me that He knew. Dear God, forgive my arrogance and vanity!

I love a story with a good plot twist. I know I’m not alone in this because there are many examples of this in pop culture and if you pay any attention at all, you have noticed that some of the bestselling stories ever – in print, film, etc. – have some kind of twist. Take Star Wars. Should I say spoiler at this point? “I am your father” ring a bell? Or maybe the phrase “I see dead people.” How about this one, “and the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah?” The best stories surprise us, take us off guard a bit. The best stories have incredible odds to overcome. The best stories have characters that are flawed and troublesome but turn a corner, or several corners, and become the most endearing. We love the twists.

Praise God, He twisted my story. Praise God, He twisted yours. But some people don’t see that much of a twist in their own story – something like an older brother. Woe to them. Woe to those who refuse to see the twists in the younger brother as something to hope for, long for, work for, and rejoice over.

Praise God, He is still twisting away all over the world. Like He did last summer. The story of redemption is a statement of redemption made flesh. The story is flesh and blood, a heart pulsing blood through veins, arms, legs, hands, feet, moving and growing and dancing. Statements are like bones. Some are old, brittle and breaking. They can give us structure and equip us for action, but they aren’t the action. Statements are a pile of bones without the story. The story gives them action. Calling out to dry bones and giving them life. The story of redemption enlivens dry bones and replaces hearts of stone.

We need storytellers. We need dreamers of dreams. We need life givers. We need people who creatively see the potential of characters and plots and turn them into wonders. What we need is little Christs. Is that a surprise? We need Little Jesuses who reach out and touch the characters in their story, giving them a part of the dialogue, fleshing out the difference between talking and doing.

But many of us know how hard it is to write a good story. It’s so easy to write a statement. A skosh easier than writing a blog really. A lot of blogging is just a bunch of statements. What’s hard is telling a story. Engaging people. Making people interested, wanting more – to understand more, to hear more, to know how the story ends, to be a part of the changing tide.

I believe, as I have said before, the American Church is at a pivotal point in its history. We have a crossroads before us not like anything we’ve seen before. I believe it is quickly coming down to, in admittedly simplistic terms, choosing between Story and Statement. I should say Story and Statement Only, because when you choose Story you get Statement. We’ve been so busy making Statement Only choices instead of engaging in people’s stories, diving in, reserving judgment and editing, pursuing characters, and actively developing plots. Good stories make statements. But they weave them into the context of real life, the old “show don’t tell” snippet of writing advice. So much more effective. So much more poignant. So much more gracious.

Isn’t that Jesus? Isn’t that his story? He could have made a statement and been done. Instead, He lived out a story. He breathed. He engaged. He touched. He felt. He embraced. Yes, he taught and instructed. Yes he admonished and rebuked. But in the midst of story. In the middle of story telling. He got down into the trenches of the culture war and instead of talking about it, he told stories that made us understand it. He showed how to go to war. How to love fiercely. How to take up the cross, so very literally.

Are we telling that story? Please, tell us a story. The next great American novel. Please, dear Lord, let it be your Bride in action … pains-takingly sowing and reaping the harvest, binding the wounded, healing the brokenhearted, turning destruction and disaster into glory with beauty and grace … until the very last chapter – no spoilers here… when Jesus wins, and we tell the story over and over forever and ever amen!

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