Nearly everyone probably agrees that our country has too much conflict right now, and I believe the church-while not to blame- is not only not helping, we are exacerbating the problem. I think I may know a root cause, and this one isn’t political, racial, economic or sexual. It’s theological.
I’m a self admitted kind of nerd-freak about story telling. Whenever I watch a movie or read a book, I like to pick out its main themes. “What was it mainly communicating to us? (Even if it’s, like, Pixar- the insatnces of which has perfected my wife’s skill at eye rolling over the years.) Right after watching it, I immediately begin to ask: What devices were used? What was the main plot? Subplots? How did the director/ author distract me to create that moment of surprise?” My favorite genre to this day is the spy/ espionage thriller. These will often use romance or violence (like the unexpected death of a main character) to distract or stun us/ slow our cognitive awareness to slip an important detail past our minds.
The diamond earrings casually mentioned in the passionate encounter are, in fact, part of the jewels stolen from the embassy/ The love interests latino brother isn’t actually latino- but Moroccan- and the one responsible for his own sister’s death. “Drat!- I should have recognized the knife he was using to clean fish when we first met him was notched- just like the murder weapon!”
Like the greatest magician’s acts, the best ones have multiple plot twists that distract several times in various ways- but not so much you become confused. And, though many choose not to reflect on it, overarching (and sometimes surprisingly deep) thematic elements are often a main device of distraction even in “action” films. For example, in last year’s hit, “The Accountant,” it could be argued it’s statements (and plots) about overcoming autism are used to distract us from the identities of both the main character’s brother and his seemingly ‘virtual’ assistant. (Sorry- hope I shouldn’t have needed a spoiler alert for that.) The point is the very exercises I used to obligatorily engage in (with significant annoyance) in high school literature class I now do for entertainment. Life is full of surprises. (And devices…and distractions.)
One of the things I most appreciate about the bible is its multiple themes and subplots. Its twists and turns are many- its themes countless. But the absolute greatest miracle, in my eyes, is how it is so completely And neatly tied together as a work of literature. Despite its having been written by a minimum of 55 people over a few thousand years, it has one main theme- Jesus and the story of His dedication to the glory of God. He truly is the “alpha and the omega, the begining and the end”- and most of the middle, too.
This isn’t just my opinion. It is a principle of doctrine that has been accepted in most theological teaching since the third century and has stood the test of time, being reaffirmed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy just 39 years ago. The story of God as has been given to us in the bible from Genesis to Revelation stands both literally- and literarily– as the story of the Son, Jesus Christ. The bible tells of His continuous acts of love since the very beginning-not merely the act of dying on the cross as the church has sometimes made it out to be. Throughout every book and letter, God is like the ultimate “spy” character, the master of disguises, redircetions, dazzle, and surprise.
But- just like happy go lucky audiences ont their way out of the theater who are thinking more about the indigestion caused by the milk duds and popcorn they just ate than the movie they just saw, I think often people who go to church might be missing the main theme and “point” of the bible as well as their experience as a part of the body of Christ. For instance, I think we enjoy reflecting on the passion story of Jesus and His act of granting us salvation, but we tend to misplace the “climax” of the story- which is really the climax of the entire bible (again from both a spiritual and even literary point of view.). We tend to think of the highest point as the moment Jesus yells, “It is finished!.” But- as far as literaure and theology is concerned- this isn’t really the case. The ultimate culmaination of the story and the knitting moment of all of our doctrine is in the resurrection- the utlimate display of the power of God with dominion over all things- and for His own glory.
As Jesus said to the samaritan woman, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” He didn’t say, “I am the death…” it was the resurrection that is the ultimate moment of salvation. But wait! There’s even a twist and a subplot here! Because ‘salvation’ isn’t the ultimate point either- God’s glory is! God’s ultimate dedication is to Himself, not to us. He didn’t “create us because He was lonely” or had any need outside of Himself whatsoever! He did everything for the purpose of the permanent establishment of His glory- and His love for us is only a big part of that. That’s it. Woah- I know- ‘That’s really heavy, dude.’
See- His love for us that causes the acts and what he does isn’t enacted in order to establish us in heaven- that’s a by product of His dedication to His own glory. As Peter writes, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” It doesn’t read that “God called you to salvation.” We are saved and then restored on our way to being ‘called to His glory’ …It’s all about Jesus- Him- not us. We exalt the Father’s love and are eternally grateful for all this love has created. We depend upon the power and counsel of the Holy Spirit- but only as this enables us to live fully in ‘The Way’ Jesus showed which was completely and totally for God and not our personal vindication.
And this brings me to one of the main reasons I believe the church is embroiled in conflict rather than being the righteous, peacemaking force on earth it should become. We’ve begun to trust in all manner of worldly institutions to solve our problems (and are convinced our methods of what they should do are the absolute right way). We’ve lost sight of the facts that 1) There is no perfect way to solve problems here on earth and 2) The only and best hope even in these issues is the church, the bride of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit, and that’s it. Our misplacing of the ‘theme’ of what God’s ultimate purpose is has made us think it’s all about human beings whether they believe in God or not. This has caused the church to give away every influence in our culture because we figure it’s about the “good of humanity” and not realizing that the only issues meant to be ‘solved’ and methods to be used are those that ultimately lead to His glory, not a more comfortable or ‘correct’ society.
CS Lewis has a fantastic theme in his book, “The Silver Chair,” (one of my favorites) that demonstrates both this doctrine and its application perfectly. A girl named Jill, who is halfway through a perilous journey, was exhausted and getting very thirsty when she came upon a stream:
But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion…
She couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she couldn’t be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.
“If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink.” …it was the lion speaking… the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I‑‑could I‑‑would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling of the stream was driving her near frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
There’s only one salvation and only one stream…it is God, manifest as the person of Jesus. He is not just the lion but the stream as well. He’s it. There is no other hope- not just for salvation but for the quenching of any thirst and the only solution to any problem. It’s not the government, not the economy, not the education, entertainment, financial, legal, or media industry. Without the people involved in these realms realizing it, those things only rise and fall on the backs of the prayerful work of the church. If it were not for the love of Christ for His bride which remains as the platform for His glory on earth, those institutions would crumble and fall away quickly and cataclysmically. But when the church functions with knowledge of its place as the hands and feet of Jesus, all touched by the stream of His love will prosper- and not just those who like us or agree with us. Because-again- it is for His glory not ours.
Those outside of the church naturally keep turning to other streams- whether it be climate change, immigration, the rights of any group, economic policy, etc…this is to be expected. Amercians have almost certainly been invited to the stream at some point in their lives, but many are too afraid of the lion to come- seeing His appearance and sadly judging Him as unkind. They are unwilling to push through the discomfort and fear of repenting from sins or false paradigms to which they have grown accustomed or even dependent upon for a temporary sense of purpose. They would rather die of their thirst, unsatisfied by everything they try and any cause they take up, usually moving from one to another to another ceaselessly. As all of us, these people have immense value- but they can’t fully cash in on it as they pursue the cheap and temporary fix for the hole they cannot fill. The sadness of this reality- because we love them- serves as motivation to pray and continue to express this love to them in all ways we can even when they hate us for doing so.
This does not mean that the church does not speak out on issues. In fact, we should speak emphatically. But it should be with a knowledge of who we really are- as the voice of the Lion- strong and compassionate, but unwavering. And, we must be willing to sacrifice and work and do the things without compensation that others are simply unwilling to do. We must be willing to be mocked, dismissed, and harmed without becoming angry or vengeful. (I must admit, I have lost sight of this ‘theme’ many times.)
This is because we must understand the hope of God’s glory- not being correct on the issue- which makes the theme of the story only about us (even if at the time we’re claiming it’s about people with a certain skin color or sexual orientation or age). Ultimately, even if the government or the media or the entertainment industry did exactly what we want, it will not entirely solve anything, and it will not satisfy us.
Only the selfless work of the church on behalf of the One who conquered even death- for His own glory- will ever solve anything, and He remains the only complete and enduring satisfaction we can ever know.
We’re in the middle of the greatest spy thriller of all time, and we must remember in the midst of the danger and the thrill and the close-calls whose story it really is.