The Gospel in Stories
2 Timothy 1: 8-10; Revelation 21: 1-4
The Gospel in Stories
Once upon a time. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Oh my Goodness, you will never believe what happened to me the other day. In the beginning was the Word.
Stories begin with phrases, and all these phrases have begun stories. And they are stories you probably are able to recognize. Whether they are personal stories or fictional stories, we love a good story. Jesus recognized this. When he came to earth he taught us in story. When we go about our daily lives we recognize this fact. When we go out camping we love to hear the campfire stories, whether fictional or not. When we’re young we long for mom or dad to sit at our bed and read us a bedtime story. We love the story.
Never is this more understood that in the entertainment industry. The industry that might compete for the oldest industry in the world has understood from time immemorial that the story is what we want. And one of the things about stories in entertainment is that for a long time we have understood that there really are only a certain number of stories that are ever told. It’s the same stories; they just get new coats of paint, the characters get new names, new backgrounds, new futures. But it’s ultimately the same fate, it’s ultimately the same story. We disagree on the exact number of these stories, but we all agree it’s a low number. The same story over, and over, and over again. Some of these are the Cinderella story or sometimes called the rags to riches story. Overcoming a monster, such as David and Goliath, or 300, or any of these overcoming the fear stories. Going on a quest. A fantasy story, where the world is more than you know right under your feet. The comedy story that ends with jubilance, or the comedy story that ends with that serious moment. The tragedy story. And, of course, we would be remiss in church if we did not mention that there is common story that involves the Christ-figure that you could even say is the Christ-story; the story of our salvation being retold.
I began to ask why we were attracted to these types of stories. Why are we telling the same stories over and over again with new coat of paint? What is it about them that we want to hear again, and again, and again? And it is my belief that we want to hear the same stories because there is something that is hardcoded within our very souls that draws us to them; something in our beings is drawing us toward these kinds of stories. And I believe that’s the case because these are stories that parallel the real story of God’s saving work within this world. We who are made in the image of God are biased toward the story of God’s work in this world. And whether these authors know it, or much more often don’t know it, they are telling stories that tap into the very real work of God in this world. And I’ll get it this more next week, but I really do think that it’s important for us in this world today to be able to recognize the lessons of God in the mist of our entertainment, especially for those who are raising children. Rather than trying to seclude ourselves away from these things, we must be able to recognize the story of God in the world. In order to show you what I mean I am going to focus in on the easiest one to find God in: the story of the Christ figure or the Christ story in entertainment.
The first thing we must look at is defining what I am talking about when I talk about the Christ-story in literature. Dr. Jason Lisle managed to put in summation what the Christ story in entertainment looks like a better than I ever could and so I’m just going to quote his explanation here.
“The situation begins with everything good – paradise (either directly or by way of backstory). But an evil person (or several) enters the scene and acts wickedly. All the other people suffer as a result; paradise is lost. As suffering grows, a hero is born – a Christ figure. The hero is good and innocent, and he is full of compassion and feels sympathy for the suffering of the people. The hero grows in wisdom and strength, and eventually confronts the evil person despite seemingly overwhelming odds. The hero must endure great hardship. He suffers, but not for his own crimes. He experiences great pain on behalf of others. His suffering takes him to the point of death (either literally or symbolically). And just when all seems lost, He recovers, defeats the evil person, and rescues the people. Paradise is restored.”
This is the idea behind the Christ figure in entertainment. All the stories that I am lumping into this idea of a Christ story have at least some of these elements. They all have the central character offering him or herself as a willing sacrifice for somebody else in order to save somebody else. Most times the character actually makes the sacrifice, sometimes they don’t; but they always offer, they always are placed in a position where they are freely offering themselves as a willing, potential sacrifice for somebody else or maybe even for the world.
Usually the stories have some other element of the Christ story as well. Sometimes they’ll have a suffering before hand that mirrors the garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes they’ll have a birth narrative that mirrors Christmas. Dr. Lisle actually picked up the first superman movie as example of this, where the baby Superman was placed in swaddling clothes in a manger by a godly parents of a sort and sent to earth. Sometimes, but not always, they will have a resurrection where the character will come back to life, or they’ll be almost dead symbolically but be reborn in spirit and then they save the day.
Sometimes these stories are very thinly veiled. I think of the Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This is a Christ story, this is a retelling of the Gospel story, done in a fantasy world and in a way that would appeal to children. It is a very thin veil. I think that Mr. Lewis knew exactly what he was doing. Here a fallen enemy or a Devil character has taken over the world and has created a world where it is always winter and never Christmas. And then saviors come. One of them is tempted and falls to the devil character. The Christ figure, Aslan the Lion, approaches and when he is almost there, Christmas comes. At one point Aslan is forced to sacrifice himself in order to save Edmond, one of the future kings and queens of Narnia, who was slated for death. Aslan is tortured and killed by the devil character, only to be reborn in a way that that made it so no other character would ever suffer Edmond’s fate. And then together with the future kings and queens, he beats the devil character and brings an end to the eternal winter. You can see the many elements of the Christ story only very thinly hidden.
Sometimes the stories are much more hidden and much more difficult to see. The example here would be the Matrix movies. In all the Matrix movies you have a world that is wrong. All humans are enslaved to this otherworldly power. They have agents that are super-powered that keep people in their place. And one is born in the midst of it, literally The One, with all the power over the agents and over the system. It is in his power to remake it; to save all humankind. In all three Matrix movies, Neo is provided the opportunity to sacrifice himself, or to place himself in harms way, in order to save either a character of the crew or the entirety of the world. And in each one of the three he willingly does place himself in harms way. In two of the three he was killed. In one of those two he was resurrected. The Christ story; it is more veiled, but it’s there.
Why do these stories resonate with us? You can actually find them from before the time of Christ. I think we see a reason for that in our Timothy scripture today. Paul tells us here that the story of our salvation is present from the dawn of time; God‘s plan for our salvation has been present from the very beginning. It was merely revealed to us when Christ came to the world. That means that even before Christ came, that story was still within us; that story was still one that made us happy, because we recognize our own story within it.
This self-sacrifice story resonates with us. It creates a satisfying ending. One of the reasons authors like it so much is that people never walk out of the theater or close the book wanting more; they always are satisfied and feel that the story is completed, it’s finished. And that’s because it resonates with us. Because we know the real story, and we know somewhere within us that when the real story met that moment of self sacrifice God said “it is finished.” And we understand that that is true in the story as well.
The question most of these leave us with is what we do with it? We like this kind of story, but what does that mean for us today? What does it matter? Almost all of the stories ask this same question: what was the point? Where do I, as the character, go from here? And in almost all the stories they end the same way: with a new creation with a new world. In Narnia, spring dawns; the eternal winter is over and Christmas has come. The Kings and the Queens of Narnia are sitting on the thrones. What are they going to do with it? And we have an epilogue that shows they created a new world that was fair and just and good.
Perhaps this was never shown more then in the Matrix. Throughout the Matrix trilogy, whenever they are in the Matrix there is a green tint to the screen. It’s difficult to see if you don’t know it’s there, but it’s there. Every time they’re in the Matrix there is a green tint, which helps you to recognize something is off. Every single time. Except the last scene. In Matrix 3, after Neo has sacrificed himself and saved humankind, changing the equation forever, we go back into the Matrix and witness a conversation between the Architect and the Oracle. In someway, those two characters are playing the character of God in our story. And this time there’s no green over the screen. And what that does for us is it makes the world look wrong: the sky is too vibrant, the sun is too bright, the the grass is too light; it just looks wrong, but also good. It looks different; it looks new. It’s how I envision heaven looks.
In the Matrix, as in so many of the stories, the Architect asked the question: what now? What will happen in this new world that has been created? Are you going to make it a better world like the kings and the queens of Narnia did? Or is it just going to be a re-creation of the same thing?
That is the question that’s always asked: someone has sacrificed themselves for you, oh main character; what are you going to do now? How is that sacrifice going to change you? And guess what, the biblical story ends the same way. The Book of Revelation, chapter 21 ends with a new creation having come to Earth; a new heaven and a new Jerusalem where God lives among us, where there is no longer any pain, there is no longer any suffering, there is no longer any death for the Tree of Life is there within it. And implicitly it asks the same question: what would it be like to live in that world? And how are you going to make it a reality? How are you going to change because Christ has offered this world to us.
I’m leaving you today with that question. Someone has sacrificed himself for you. You are in the story. What difference is it going to make for you? What are you going to do now? And how are you going to making the new, better world a reality? Think about it. Amen.