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The same old story, retold

A rare cinema outing last month reminded me that classic stories can be told again and again. The superman story, this time as Man of Steel, doesn't get old. Most retellings are imperfect and this one was a mess in places, but the key elements pull deeply on our hearts.

Much more must the Christian story be retold in each generation. Not so much with better effects and a few different philosophical murmerings (as with Man of Steel), perhaps more like Homer's Odyssey becoming O Brother Where Art Thou? Some hard work is needed because this is an eternal story for all cultures - the truest story, the true myth, that introduces the Triune God to his world, and opens our eyes to where we find ourselves.
“The core issue of contextualisation is the effective retelling of the story of God in our culture.” (David Capener)
There are lots of ways of doing this. Differences might be subtle rather than obvious - and the Christian knows that what they say still has to represent Christ truly.

I think Michael Ward is on to something big with his Planet Narnia thesis, that suggests the real deeper meaning in The Chronicles of Narnia is a weaving in of themes to do with the planets. Yes there may be Aslan allegory, but much more Lewis is painting a story of a meaning-drenched Universe. See that and we might yet begin to see the world as it really is...  A story of a sacrificial Saviour is great (and echoed in almost every great story) but we need renewed wonder too... and much more.

Don Carson writes on Contextualisation in his epic book The Gagging of God (chapter 12 especially). I'm writing this for myself as I ponder what it means to live and speak for Jesus where and when I am.

Sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the stories of their lives can only find a happy ending in Christ.” (Tim Keller)
Carson observes that we find ourselves asking "why don't people come to church?" and the answer we're like to receive is "why would you even think you should we would come?"

He continues, "if people are failing to invite friends to church for any reason other than the offence of the cross, then it's the pastors' fault" Is our Sunday experience inaccessible? Is the gathering of the outward-moving Triune God excluding those whom the gospel welcomes?

This isn't theoretical. I want my friends to know Jesus, and I wrestle over how to talk about my faith and over bringing them into a Sunday meeting. Church is more than Sunday but somewhere along the line you have to meet the family...

What if we struggle because we've been raised in the style and language and categories of another age, or just a generic (and failing) Christian culture?

Leaders set the tone and have to work to win their congregations away from serving their own preferences to existing for mission. The target market of the church isn't the few Christians in our city, we're here for everyone else aren't we? If a pastor says we don't need more church-plants in our city - and only a few percent of the city are Christians - isn't something wrong?

This isn't chiefly a style issue. It goes as deep as the hardware of the church. A church built on historic confessions of faith of whose Sunday's people say "I'm glad I didn't invite my friend" or "I could never bring a friend to church" isn't as healthy as it'd like to think it is.

Tim Keller says we have hardware (theology), middleware (philosophy of ministry - the implications of our theology) and software (what we do). Many today think that because they have the EA/UCCF/Westminster Confession as their hardware then all is well. But if the hardware isn't or can't translate through middleware to software then our confessions are detached from reality. Which, fwiw is  at least part of why Newfrontiers historically made the mistake of rejecting writing down its theology. The early leaders of this Baptist renewal movement knew churches who had the words on paper but saw that they weren't affecting what happened in practice...

A contextualised church has to be self-theologising. Not necessarily independently - few situations are utterly unique. And theological thinking should happen with interaction with the historical and global church.... nonetheless indigenous work is needed. Carson notes
Contextualisation is a slippery term with diverse connotations… at its best contextualisation simply takes the indigenous principle one step further: churches should become not only self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propogating, but also become self-theologising. Churches  should think through their theology in their own context. Calvin did not reprint Augustine, he did his own theological work.”  
I love Calvin's Institutes but that's a way to articulate the faith in the 16th Century when you're asking the King of France to defend Christians. And it's brilliant but there are reasons why I'm not posting a copy to David Cameron...

Are we doing our own theological work or just republishing the past and relying on how things have been said and done and thought about before? Christianity isn't just a static set of propositions, the gospel describes the move of the Triune God towards his creation... for all times and cultures and contexts. What is non-missional Christianity? How can we tell his story today?

NT Wright has some thoughts.

Interview with NT Wright (Part 2 - A relevant gospel) from Evangelical Alliance on Vimeo.

We need to consider how can we articulate Christ in our culture and show people that he is the goal of their stories. "How can we effectively tell the story of God today?" asks David Capener.
The Church of England requires:
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.”  (Article 34)
Which meant don't do your church meeting in Latin but the principle has to cut much much deeper than that.

Changing the words might sound like a departure from the faith, but it need not be. Every articulation of sound doctrine happens in a context. The Nicene creed is theology shaped by 4th Century debates over Trinity that fails to engage with 20th Century debates about the authority and integrity of Scripture. We honour our history not by photocopying it but by thinking long and hard about the answers and the questions of our forefathers. It's not faithfulness to not contextualise if we're just serving what suits us... faithfulness is when we're truly heralding Christ to people.

John Piper said after 9/11 that it was no longer enough to assume we all mean the same thing when we say "god". I'm not sure it ever was.

What would it look like to express and articulate the Christian faith where we are in a way that actually communicates?

Every time we speak we attempt to communicate, and we tend to kid ourselves that we're doing that more effectively than we are. And if we don't get through we blame the listener. My low-light of the excellent HTB conference was Steven Furtick's quip "I'm preaching better than you're listening." No one gets to get away with that. Sorry! If the listener isn't listening then the preacher needs to be more engaging. The gospel advances by the preaching of the gospel but preaching isn't magic incantations. We know that because we adopt indigenous language but if our words and categories can't be understood then we are failing to communicate... and perhaps failing to be Christ's body here.

How can we tell the story?
How can we build the categories people need to hear it?
How can we capture imagination?
How can we engage questions? And ask good questions...

My scribblings. Your thoughts?


  1. spot on. That chapter in TGOG was formative stuff for me. More recently, I've found Keller's Center Church volume helpful for internalising what needs to be fleshed out and embodied. Keep running down these paths mr bish. Helping to draw connections between the disease that's more than skin deep in Leviticus and the facebook profile generation. I'd say it's a question of understanding and wisdom to become as intuitive (humourneutics) with the book of nature as that of nature. If the human mind is to become by contemplation a third book on which the creative logos is written,

    1. Center Church was a breath of fresh air that got me picking Carson off the shelf again.



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