My friend Greg and I have been talking quite a bit about what it means to follow Jesus. Greg would not consider himself as somebody who takes Jesus seriously, but he admits to having questions. I didn’t have a formula for him to understand how a Christian conversion works, but I told him that many years ago, when I was a child, I had heard about Jesus and found the idea of Him compelling, then much later, while reading the Gospels, came to believe I wanted to follow Him. This changed things in my life, I said, because it involved giving up everything and choosing to go into a relationship with Him.
Greg told me he had seen a pamphlet with four or five ideas on it, ideas such as man was a sinner, sin separated man from God, and Christ died to absolve the separation. He asked me if this was what I believed, and I told him, essentially, that it was. “Those would be the facts of the story,” I said, “but that isn’t the story.”
“Those are the ideas, but it isn’t the narrative,” Greg stated rhetorically.
“Yes,” I told him.
Earlier that same year I had a conversation with my friend Omar, who is a student at a local college. For his humanities class, Omar was assigned to read the majority of the Bible. He asked to meet with me for coffee, and when we sat down he put a Bible on the table as well as a pamphlet containing the same five or six ideas Greg had mentioned. He opened the pamphlet, read the ideas and asked if these concepts were important to the central message of Christianity. I told Omar they were critical; that, basically, this was the gospel of Jesus, the backbone of Christian faith. Omar then opened his Bible and asked, “If these ideas are so important, why aren’t they in this book?”
“But the Scripture references are right here,” I said curiously, showing Omar that the verses were printed next to each idea.
“I see that,” he said. “But in the Bible they aren’t concise like they are in this pamphlet. They are spread out all over the book.”
“But this pamphlet is a summation of the ideas,” I clarified.
“Right,” Omar continued, “but it seems like, if these ideas are that critical, God would have taken the time to make bullet points out of them. Instead, He put some of them here and some of them there. And half the time, when Jesus is talking, He is speaking entirely in parables. It is hard to believe that whatever it is He is talking about can be summed up this simply.”
Omar’s point is well taken. And while the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how nonrelationally, how propositionally. I don’t mean any of this to fault the pamphlets at all. Tracts such as the ones Omar and Greg encountered have been powerful tools in helping people understand the beauty of the message of Christ. Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the Gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last 50 years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the Gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the Gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.
It makes me wonder if, because of this reduced version of the claims of Christ, we believe the Gospel is easy to understand, a simple mental exercise, not the least bit mysterious. And if you think about it, a person has a more difficult time explaining romantic love, for instance, or beauty, or the Trinity, than the gospel of Jesus. John would open his gospel by presenting the idea that God is the Word and Jesus is the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not exactly bullet points for easy consumption. Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something.
Biblically, you are hard-pressed to find theological ideas divorced from their relational context. There are, essentially, three dominant metaphors describing our relationship with God: sheep to a shepherd, child to a father, and bride to a bridegroom. The idea of Christ’s disciples being His mother and father and brothers and sisters is also presented. In fact, few places in Scripture speak to the Christian conversion experience through any method other than relational metaphor.
To a culture that believes they “go to heaven” based on whether or not they are morally pure, or whether they understand some theological ideas, or they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. At best, He is an afterthought, a technicality by which we become morally pure, or a subject of which we know, or a founding father of our woo-woo spirituality.
In a culture that worships science, relational propositions will always be left out of arguments attempting to surface truth. We believe, quite simply, that unless we can chart something, it doesn’t exist. And you can’t chart relationships. Furthermore, in our attempts to make relational propositions look like chartable realities, all beauty and mystery is lost. And so when times get hard, when reality knocks us on our butts, mathematical propositions are unable to comfort our failing hearts. How many people have walked away from faith because their systematic theology proved unable to answer the deep longings and questions of the soul? What we need here, truly, is faith in a Being, not a list of ideas.
And one should not think our current method of interpreting Scripture has an ancient legacy. The modern view of Scripture originated in an age of industrial revolution when corporations were becoming more important than family (the husband, for the first time, left the home and joined Corporate America, building cars instead of families), and productivity was more important than relationships. “How can God help me get what I want?” was the idea, not, “Who is God, and how can I know Him?”
Imagine a pamphlet explaining the gospel of Jesus that said something like this:
You are the bride to the Bridegroom, and the Bridegroom is Jesus Christ. You must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood to know Him, and your union with Him will make you one, and your oneness with Him will allow you to be identified with Him, His purity allowing God to interact with you, and because of this you will be with Him in eternity, sitting at His side and enjoying His companionship, which will be more fulfilling than an earthly husband or an earthly bride. All you must do to engage God is be willing to leave everything behind, be willing to walk away from your identity, and embrace joyfully the trials and tribulations, the torture and perhaps martyrdom that will come upon you for being a child of God in a broken world working out its own redemption in empty pursuits.
Though it sounds absurd, this is a much more accurate summation of the gospel of Jesus than the bullet points we like to consider when we think about Christ’s message to humanity.
Donald Miller says the message of God is more than a 3-step program.
This article is adapted from the newly revised Searching for God Knows What (Thomas Nelson, 2010).