I’ve heard it said that movies are modern day parables. Parables are all over the Bible and are short and simple stories that illustrate a much deeper and more significant point. I found a clip from Ellen today that beautifully illustrates that very point.
One of the significant, but often underappreciated characteristics of Jesus’ ministry is the frequency with which he told a parable to answer a question. That decision flies in the face of many of the loudest voices in modern Christianity – belief statements, analytic reasoning, and biblical literalism are employed (especially in conservative evangelical circles, but elsewhere too) in order to clearly and definitively spell out what it means to follow Jesus. There are at least two problems with abandoning the way in which Jesus actually made so many of his points:
1) Human minds are story tellers and don’t change based on logical reason. Our minds are changed by hearing the stories of others that tear down our mental walls and create new filters through which we experience the world. Neurological research in emotional intelligence actually shows how our brains process the world through our emotional centers first, and only then through our rational side.
First is the reflexive part of the brain. If someone smiles at you, your brain and body actually start to smile back before your conscious brain even registers the smiling face. Second, the shape of your memories pushes you toward action. If you see a raised hand, for instance, you might start to raise your hand for a high five or you might shudder in fear if it triggers a memory of abuse. Finally, your conscious brain kicks in and can offer thoughts like “I know who this is and that they are friend or foe and here is how I should respond.”
That process is why it is so easy to read about ‘terrorism’ and think it reasonable to support radical measures of war and discrimination – but read about a ‘lone wolf shooter’ and simply lament the problems with kids these days. By the time logic and reason kick in, we’ve already shaded the evidence in such a way that whatever conclusions we draw are infinitely more likely to reflect the impulse underneath our thoughts rather than the statistical evidence or the response most likely to have the desired long term effects.
The fact that we are so deeply wired to react to buzzwords or certain types of people is why racism is so insidious and why things like structural racism are so easy to ignore if you’re not on the wrong side of it. But, that kind of biased processing of the world is not a bug to be overcome, it is the deepest sense in which we are wired to experience the world. What we need is not ‘fact based reporting’ or ‘unbiased sources’ – we need compelling stories that begin to challenge the shape of our emotional expectations and expand our views beyond the simplistic boxes into which we place each other.
The deepest problem I find in conservative Christian culture is that it lacks the imagination to see how God is challenging our little boxes, even when reading the biblical stories in which those walls are torn down again and again and again and again and again. The conservative push is for all to be an eye, an ear, or a foot; but to reject that we need each other and we need to embrace the gifts that each child of God brings to the table.
The deepest problem I find in the liberal Christian culture is the implication that we can be pushed enough to overcome our bias by the flaccid call to ‘be nice.’ It takes a far more radical call to self sacrifice and a far deeper challenge to our individualistic priorities to not only embrace that we need each part of the body, but also that in the one body of Christ we lose the autonomy of self determination.
The greater story of the call of Christ is that the church is God’s chosen ones; the elect of the world whose sole purpose in being on the inside is to live, work, and die for the sake of the whole world, and especially those who have not experienced the greater love of God. I don’t see any other way to change the world than to embrace and embody the larger story of God’s mission to love and transform the world in which we are invited to participate.
2) To assume that we can meaningfully present who Jesus is apart from the story in which his life takes part is to fundamentally misrepresent the narrative character of human existence and understanding. Who we are is not a static and fixed thing. The kind of arguments for the supremacy and the authority of God that were made by John Calvin, for instance, make an entirely different kind of sense today than they did when the men at the head of the church ran the world. Luther’s arguments for being able to read scripture and talk directly to God made an entirely different sense in a world where the church controlled every aspect of the faith as opposed to our world in which the only assumption is that my reality and faith are mine alone.
In many ways, every argument we make is an acceptance or a rejection of the present world that has been passed on to us by previous generations. We are the product and producer of the context in which anyone can try to talk about God. To think that there could ever be a static or everlasting list of the characteristics of God that could be objectively presented without comment or bias is to deny every aspect of the process whereby God is revealed throughout scripture and church history, and to reject the fact that we can never know or follow God without the active grace of God helping us to see more clearly and follow more closely. To think of God without story is to reject God’s active presence in our lives.
Even the early church creeds were not so much a list of attributes about God as they were a set of bullet points that helped draw out the most important cliff notes of the stories about God. The extent to which that is a true statement certainly varies over time, but it is quite clear that the main strands of the historical church have consistently and ruthlessly defended the fact that we cannot abandon the stories of God in which our understanding of God is grounded and without which our words mean something else entirely. That’s why we don’t cut out the Old Testament, why there are 4 gospels that don’t say precisely the same thing, and why churches keep arguing about the bible even when we don’t agree on what it says.
Jesus doesn’t fit into a box of words. And life is far too dynamic for our words to keep meaning the same thing even if Jesus did fit. We need modern parables and stories that bring Jesus to life rather than just repeat the same old words.
Movies have a powerful way of capturing the imagination and reshaping our expectations and experiences of the world long before we even realize what they are doing. I would much rather the world be exposed to a story that radically challenges us to empathize with someone who doesn’t look and think and act like me but makes no mention of the name Jesus; rather than watch a movie all about Jesus that never challenges us to think outside our predefined and limited boxes. We need more compelling stories and a much greater reliance on the parable if the church is ever going to offer a more compelling alternative than the hateful and vitriolic ‘isms’ that so readily dominate the news right now.
The church needs to embrace, rather than reject, the art of storytelling as a means of bringing the Word of God to life once again. I’m more and more convinced that preaching, to the extent that it is a thing worth continuing to do, is the art of making God’s word alive in the moment – whether that takes the form of a monologue, a skit, a movie, a poem, or anything else that can bring to life the Word of God. Now is the time to explore new ways of embodying the call to preach the compelling story of Jesus Christ. There is no more fundamental threat to our ability to be the hands and feet of Christ than a world more entranced by the story of fear and terror than God’s story of love and hope.