originally posted at The Gadfly
When preparing to teach a short story course a few summers ago, I came across an important question, a question most Christian literary critics and theorists come across when they ask the right questions: “What kinds of stories should Christians tell?” The answer, in short, is that Christians should tell and write the kinds of stories God told and wrote, and the kinds he is telling and writing. This means, among other things, that it is okay for a Christian poet to place dark moments, cantankerous villains, or perhaps blood, death, and sin in a narrative, so long as the presence and proportion of darkness in one’s story is dealt with as God dealt with it in his story: the darkness must first exist and mature to an experienced grotesqueness, only to have its head eventually smashed ad nihilo. Narratives after the likeness of Thomas Kincaid are hardly the kind that God most enjoys telling. And He certainly would never tell a story after the likeness of a Kandinsky or a Kooning, that is unless Jackson Pollock was himself more a work of art than anything he ever made. We know this by God’s Word and his world.
Asking this kind of question about Christians and narratives led me to a host of other questions: How should Christians speak? How should Christians live? How should Christians dress? How should Christians tell jokes? How should Christians read? Study? Play? Eat? Dance? Drive? This really could go on for pages. It has certainly gone on for ages. And mainstream Christianity’s answers to these questions are perhaps more numerous and confusing than the myriad of spinoffs into other questions. The popular answers I often find amidst my Christian brothers and sisters are either far too simple—slapping some kind of cross, ichthus, or puppy-dog bible verse on the thing—or far too external—compiling lists of forbidden words or dance moves, which tells us more about the person who made the list than it tells us about God. This is so, especially when compared to how Scripture answers these questions. One of the questions I asked as I tossed the others to and fro hits a little closer to home for those of us who would raise our hand when asked by a College Professor, who may be easily mistaken for an ax-grinder, “Who among you is an evangelical?”, which brings me to the point: how should Christians share the gospel?
Oddly enough, as I merged my answer about the kinds of stories Christians should tell and my question about the method by which Christians should tell the ultimate story, the gospel, I experienced something akin to the magic of electricity running through a copper coil. So, how should Christians share the gospel? In short, Christians should share the gospel in all the ways God has, and in all the ways he has commanded us as his people to share the gospel. And since I do believe with Jonathan Edwards via John Piper that ‘God is the gospel’, we must ask, “How has God shared himself?”
For God, sharing the gospel, sharing Himself, never was a five-step pathway with a crafty acronym or a Thursday night gathering where the goal was to get into some ambiguous dialogue known as a ‘spiritual conversation’. [I have often wondered that if spiritual conversations were about ‘spiritual things’, does that mean material conversations are merely carnal? Does this then mean that a conversation about food is somehow less spiritual and therefore less meaningful in God’s economy? I think not, which is why I have come to repel the notion of ‘spiritual conversation’ altogether.] Since God defines and thus ‘shares the gospel’ incarnationally, it is always best we do the same, which leaves the whole endeavor pretty wide open, given how creative our God is with the material world and how creative He has called us to be with that same world. This also means that we have a lot of thinking to do about how creative we can get with ‘sharing the gospel’. Even still, here are five places to start. Warning: these five ways are less ‘efficient’ than what one would find on most gospel tracts or ministry methods, and they all involve a lot more humanity than we are usually comfortable with:
Sing the gospel. If, as William Wilberforce did in the cinematic rendition Amazing Grace, you have ever stood up in chaos to sing of the Lord’s grace, you quickly find singing to be a magical wand. Invisible and lacking any kind of odor, singing makes its way quite mysteriously to the recesses of our souls, especially when we sing of those types and figures which point us most clearly to Christ. Though great tomes have expanded its necessity and goodness, singing needs no defense. Our grandmothers know that instinctively. I once saw a man standing outside of Café du Monde in New Orleans, singing “Amazing Grace” as he wiped bits of Mississippi River dew from his brow. Though everyone in New Orleans is accustom to such street performances by now, the café stopped and listened. The bustling street came to a halt. Everyone watched. The man neither asked for money nor solicited their attention. He simply strolled about the sidewalk, performing what was to be one of the most memorable musical moments in my life. I stood across a busy four-lane road, able to hear every word clearly. He wasn’t a street-preacher, for that would have been too obvious. He wasn’t a street-performer, for that would have been too blasphemous. He was merely a man with a song. And this song, even for a short while, stopped the corporate world and American tourism enough for true silence to occur. When he finished, the patrons of the café stood and clapped. He wiped his head with a dirty dish towel and walked away. This man sang the gospel, free and without any compensation but the joy which comes from obedience. The Lord beckons we do the same.
Eat the gospel. This not only means that the Lord’s Supper should be an important part of our weekly rhythms, but that every meal and snack should be a reflection of that Supper and God’s eternal providence of his own Son. It should also remind us of our mortality and that “man should not live on bread alone, but on every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Eating should likewise provide an occasion to share our table with others, and thus fellowship amidst the materiality of God’s momentary providence in homemade beer-bread and cooked cow muscle. A snack with a co-worker in the break room has always been more than just ‘taking a load off,’ whether we realize it or not.
Read the gospel. As people of the Book, we should have the most defined and clear literary theory and criticism of all people. It should also be the most grounded, effectually the most consistent in its historical and immediate applications. Thus, we should read the stories of Scripture so often that we cannot help but frame our own world and stories by them. We should likewise have the most freedom and fear in reading extra-biblical texts, knowing art cannot corrupt, while simultaneously knowing we are idol crafters of the highest rank. This means we should not be so quick to rid our homes and schools of literature about witches, magic, dragons, magic dragons, and skulls, knowing that the good news of Christ first means the bad news of man, and that the creation of the world included a death-stinched dragon before the fall. So, order good literature and read it, whether or not you can find it in a Christian bookstore or homeschool magazine.
Art the gospel. This really just means ‘play the gospel’ while simultaneously making some kind of cultural artifact. ‘Leisure the gospel’ onto a sheet of vellum. Run it through a printing press, several times until the ink lies down just right. Script the gospel. Film the gospel. Score the gospel. Edit the gospel. Publish the gospel. Take a scalpel and incise the gospel on a patient’s abdomen. Weld the gospel and then throw a five-hundred horse-power engine in the thing. Tree-house the gospel. Boil the gospel, al dente, and then pour some home-made red sauce over it. Another scoop, please. Put the gospel in a frame, nail it to your living room wall, and then explain how much it resembles Dutch Renaissance paintings. Grow the gospel, harvest it, smash out its juice, and let it ferment. Bottle it and serve it in a see-through goblet. Place the gospel on a machine and run some thread through it. Fit it to your body, add some décor, and wear it proudly. And then teach your children and children’s children to do the same.
Live the gospel. In God’s economy, there is not one thing which does not shout gospel, because, as Blaise Pascal once said, there is not one square inch of the earth where Jesus does not say ‘mine’. And all those things which we perhaps see as gospel-deflectors (evil, sin, hate, et cetera) are not really ‘things,’ but descriptive adjectives implying the absence of the presence of God. So, to get this right, we must live the gospel. We ought not wait for Jesus to be King just at our death. He is risen, risen indeed. And this means there should be a distinctly robust Christian culture filling up our homes, churches, theaters, book shelves, local business, Universities, and public squares in this life. If the Incarnation did anything, it claimed all of life for all of Christ. And if Christmas is to do anything worthwhile, it should announce to our heart, soul, mind, strength, neighborhood, family, and city this deep and abiding truth. Chesterton did well to remind us that ordinary church time is hardly ordinary, and the existence of noses does not make much sense. So, let this festal time be that much more exceptional.
If we do these things, as pastors, theologians, parents, business men, teachers, and bus drivers, we will truly have a local theology. We will study God in the tremendous trifles, amidst those He has placed around us, in fellowship communion. And that’s truly what we should call it: local theology, the gospel in a cupcake.
I sat in church once and listened to the pastor explain to a congregation full of evangelicals that sometimes a Sunday lunch with nonbelieving friends can really just be a Sunday lunch with nonbelieving friends, where there is no ‘deal to seal.’ And this means that a ‘come to Jesus talk’ may look more like a husband cleaning the dishes than a circuit preacher making his seasonal rounds. Perhaps we could, along with Matt Whitling, call these kinds of things ‘love in trifles,’ though we will find these kinds of things are not so trifley after all. Enjoy your cupcake. As we look back on Christmastide, I pray for every Christian this season brought a gospel that tastes a lot like cheeseballs and eggnog, sounds a lot like the festal songs of dead men, and looks a lot like Uncle Jimmy’s cheap Christmas sweater; for His loving-kindness is everlasting.