"Our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (Curtis Chang)When Curtis Chang wrote, in 2000, about postmodernism his focus was, prophetically, on the stories of a Post-Christian Society and Religious Pluralism.
I'm not sure postmodernism is quite the terminology today, but the two areas he focusses on are very relevant. He also uses the language of metanarrative which might be disputed. Chris Oldfield shares from Westphal (1982) noting that "Christianity is not a metanarrative."
Chang's Engaging Unbelief (IVP, 2000), invited the church to engage others by "entering the challenger's story... retelling the story... capturing that retold tale within the gospel metanarrative..." This "requires operating within the challengers worldview" as "fellow indwellers in the shared story" carefully reworking it to expose the "tragic flaw", a weakness that causes the downfall of the other's story.
I picked Engaging Unbelief up from my shelf again recently, and am reminded both how influential it has been upon me, but also how much I still have to learn. Chang observed, engaging postmodernism 15 years ago, that we need "storytellers who have lived the postmodern story from the inside... our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (p172) The same would for engaging any different worldview.
The empathy and insight he calls for are easily absent - surrounded by voices of agreement it's sadly true that "For nonbelievers especially, the sort of sermon commonly preached in church tends to assume what it actually needs to establish... " (p156) How easy to preach to the choir. I'm thankful for much of my ministry education so far being in frontline student ministry where common ground could rarely be assumed. Can it ever? Whether among students, graduates, middle class or working class... little can be assumed in a post-Christian or religiously pluralistic culture...
Academic analysis, like Chang's, is interesting but his call isn't just for smarts, but also to empathy. Compassion. Shared life. When I speak I speak as one human being to my fellow human beings, let me never forget that. For 18 years I didn't see the world through the lense of Christ - and much of that worked for me, but there were flaws and problems there too. We breathe the same air. We walk the same roads, celebrate together, weep together...
The gospel is Christ, but this exceedingly good news can and must be told in many ways. "The gospel metanarrative is too rich and too alive to be boiled down to a timeless formula that can be repeated verbatim from one generation to the next..." (p163) But this is not a call to accomodate to people, rather "we seek to let the biblical Story ultimately define what is relevant." (p165) Enter into others stories, sympathetically drawing out the consequences of their stories, some of them painful, and persuade of a new story from within.
Evangelism is an offensive idea but we're always being proselytised, stories are always competing with one another, in conversation, in advertising, in culture, in church... "establishing a story's superior explanatory power is crucial in determining whether it can capture all other challengers. A metanarrative must not only explain an external reality better than other stories; it must also explain the other stories themselves... a metanarrative must provide a metaexplanation: why it explains correctly while the other story fails." (p84)
Chang's book takes works by Augustine and Aquinas as it's worked examples of entering into the worlds of Rome and Greece - one toward a post-Christian society, one toward religious pluralism. From there, to retell the gospel in a way that restates the Christian story, more engagingly and more persuasively. Rather than, "Christian rhetoric towards nonbelievers [which] sounds polemical and incomprehensible, something along the lines of 'Believe me when I claim the Bible is true because the Bible and I say so.'" (P114)
CONTEXTUALISING OR COMPROMISING?
There's little substitute for spending time with people to get where they're coming from. But, led by Chang, I'm keen to read more and learn more too. I've read plenty about Aquinas being compromised by dependence on Aristotle, but Chang argues he's entering into and reinterpreting Aristotle to win Aristotelians, especially Muslims, to Christ, which, if successful is rather different...
Experiencing others stories from the inside inevitably brings accusations of compromise in pursuit of faithfulness. Missteps are entirely possible (see my previous post on Arius)... but perhaps unavoidable, and failing to enter into others stories is far from faithfulness too. Is Luther right to say that Aquinas compromised the gospel by dependence upon Aristotle, or is Chang right to say Aquinas engaged Aristotle to retell the gospel to Aristotelians? One, the other, or a bit of both...? I'm not sure yet!
Faithfully communicating about what you believe with those who see the world differently isn't easy, it calls for thoughtfulness and heartfulness and humility. Being true to Christ means meeting people where they are, as they are, and looking at the world the way they do...
Chang notes, for our age, a welcome "into the family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit [completing] the... unresolved story. This family is where doubters are reassured and the marginalised are welcomed. It is the experience of God's love... the first generation to experience widespread breakdown of the family long for this experience. Their personal stories often are filled with the doubt and pain caused by divorce, abuse and other family dysfunction... yearning for true family must be addressed by our rendition of the gospel." (p168) "An unimaginable final feast with the Father awaits us, but we must travel by faith on this journey home." (p133)