I have often written that we need to live a better story, or live the Bible’s stories as though they were our stories. I think this is one of the solutions to a host of our contemporary problems, though I’d get it if you thought it was too small or too flimsy a thing to help.
It only sounds flimsy, mind you, because our appreciation for story—especially for myth, story you can live—is diminishing. This isn’t a comment on the triumph of pop culture over high culture. While I understand why some have concerns here, but it has ever been thus. I love a good bit of nonsense pop culture, but it does distress when that pop culture forgets first what stories are for and then second what a good story looks like.
You can tell a lot about a person by whether they think Frozen or Frozen 2 is a better story (not a better film). If you’re unsure, it’s Frozen 2 by a country mile, it manages to know who its protagonists are for a start.
I can say all this stuff about the solutions to some of our cultural malaise resting in telling better stories and living them, and resting in the welcome received when gathering at a table. In preaching and communion if we’re thinking symbolically. I can say all that, but it sounds pretty flimsy to most of us.
I recently pitched an idea for an essay about a particular societal issue to a journal where I proposed that the solution was hospitality and reframing stories. If you’ve been reading my writing that won’t be a huge surprise. The editor came back with some kind comments, they liked my analysis of the problem and it was the sort of thing that they published, but they felt my proposed solution didn’t meet with the size and scale of the problem.
I get it. I think they’re right (though I did eventually publish it elsewhere). But I also think if we don’t start in the small ways, in the church, with stories and tables, then the big solutions won’t be solutions at all by the time anyone comes up with them—they’ll have been retold through enough lenses that they turn out to be the problem but just recycled. It wouldn’t be the first time.
So these flimsy sounding words: live the Bible’s stories, gather round a table—they don’t accomplish anything because they don’t sound like the things that we require. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, they don’t sound concrete, and secondly, they don’t sound strong enough.
While the second is the bigger criticism I’d like to think about the first for a few paragraphs. Getting around a table is concrete enough for most of us, even if it seems impotent or unrealistic. But living the Bible’s stories? What does that even mean?
Paul Vander-Klay speaks of the Christian’s need to LARP the Bible. For the uninitiated that’s live action roleplay, a sort of cross between tabletop roleplaying games where everything happens in your imagination and historical re-enactments where you dress up as a Saxon to hit some Vikings.
What does it mean to LARP the Bible? Firstly, to assume that its stories have controlling power over your own story. Secondly, to then live as though you were in them—not as though you should hurl rocks at every tall guy you see imagining yourself David, instead we learn the contours of what following Jesus looks like by seeing how a host of characters succeed and fail.
Isn’t this What Would Jesus Do for a new generation? I’m not suggesting anyone gets a snazzy bracelet, so hopefully not, but the underlying principle is the same. If my life and imagination is formed by the Bible’s stories then when I approach a decision, or am tempted or face The Test that the Lord puts before me, then I can choose to act like them instead.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit we can say that Daniel would have refused to take part in this activity but in a way that honours the authorities over him—but what does that look like for me today? If I have failed in a way that echoes David, or Peter, what would repentance look like for me in this situation? I’m struggling like Elijah or Jeremiah, how can I carry on?
But beyond that, because we face a host of questions and challenges that are not obviously the same as those we read about in the Bible, when our imaginations are formed by their stories we start to see the patterns and contours of them, and we think and feel in the way the text would encourage. This is the beginning of wisdom.
Ultimately, we find ourselves trying to live in Jesus’ pattern. To give up our rights and our privileges to serve others, to wash another’s feet, to die to ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
Here’s the important bit. We need to live like this, urgently. And if we’re realistic and honest with ourselves we won’t manage this. We will do a little better than before if we increase our effort perhaps, but we won’t achieve the paths and goals that we are called to.
This might sound depressing. It’s not. It’s freeing.
Why? Because here’s your instruction for life, Christian. Here’s how to live a good life:
That’s it. Know you can’t achieve the task and do it anyway. That’s what heroes do. But in this case not through herculean determination and superhuman fortitude. Not because we achieve the task. We won’t get there. We won’t manage to live in the way of Jesus every moment of this day, let alone our lives.
But as we follow him, fail well.
Which means, expect your failures. Keep going anyway. Live in the knowledge that we’re loved completely by God before we do anything, so there’s no pressure, and then do the best you can. When you fail to live like Jesus, laugh. Repent. Get up and go again. And again. And again.
It would sound exhausting if it weren’t for the glorious truth that God in Christ loves us, is for us, and wants us. He has committed himself to this goal wholeheartedly, and he will not fail. So we can.
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