Telling His Story
We live in a "Christ-haunted" and "Christ-forgetting" culture. So wrote Walker Percy over thirty years ago at the beginning of his novel Love in the Ruins:
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting and Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines [italics added].
The passage strikes a more ominous tone than I intend, but its description of our culture rings true. Even as we forget Jesus in many ways, we remain fascinated by him.
The last few years have witnessed several epiphanies of our fascination. In 2004, Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ was a major cultural event. Its graphic portrayal of the torture and execution of Jesus generated front-page stories in hundreds of newspapers across the nation, cover features by the three major weekly news magazines, and prime-time specials on several television networks.
That year's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code (still on the New York Times best-seller list) also has Jesus at its center. Its attention-getting hook is the possible discovery of evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child together. The novel spawned magazine stories and television shows about what we can know or guess about Mary of Magdala, the most important of Jesus's women followers. It also created strong interest in early Christian writings that did not make it into the New Testament.
The sales record of a very different genre of fiction, the Left Behind novels, provides another illustration of an abiding fascination with Jesus. Set in the near future and claiming to be based on biblical prophecy, these novels tell the story of events leading up to the second coming of Jesus. All twelve have been on the New York Times best-selling list (fiction). By 2004, the series had sold over sixty-five million copies.1
A year earlier, in 2003, two books about Jesus in the history of the United States were published, Jesus in America and American Jesus. Each chronicles the remarkable resilience of Jesus in American culture as well as the diverse ways in which he has been seen, from the beginning of European settlement to the present.2
All of this should strike us as extraordinary: almost two thousand years after his death, Jesus continues to be front-page news in the United States. It is not so in other countries of the historically Christian world. Colleagues in Britain and Europe are amazed by our preoccupation with Jesus. We are indeed "Christ-haunted."
The primary reason, of course, is the high percentage of Americans who affirm Christianity, higher than in any other country.
According to a recent poll, over 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, well over two hundred million people. According to another poll, 84 percent agree with the statement "Jesus is the Son of God."3
These numbers are remarkable. They also seem too high, for they are significantly greater than the number of people who participate in the life of a church. Only about half as many do, but even this lower figure amounts to over a hundred million. Jesus matters to a whole lot of people.
Yet Christians in the United States today are deeply divided about what it means to follow him:
Many followers of Jesus oppose evolution and defend the literal-factual truth of the Bible's stories of creation. Yet followers of Jesus were the first to reconcile evolution with the Bible by understanding the Genesis stories symbolically and not literally.
Followers of Jesus are among the strongest supporters of our nation's invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq. Followers of Jesus are among its strongest critics.
Followers of Jesus are among the strongest opponents of gay marriage. Followers of Jesus are among its strongest advocates.
Followers of Jesus are among the strongest supporters of an economic and tax policy that benefits especially the wealthy and powerful. Followers of Jesus are among its most vocal critics on the biblical grounds that such a policy betrays God's passion for economic justice for the poor.
Examples could be multiplied, but these illustrate sharp disagreement among American Christians about what it means to take Jesus seriously. Our culture wars are to a considerable extent Jesus wars.
Telling the story of Jesus
I have a memory from childhood of singing hymns about telling the story of Jesus:
Tell me the story of Jesus, Write on my heart every word; Tell me the story most precious, Sweetest that ever was heard.
Another one is even more familiar:
I love to tell the story Of unseen things above; Of Jesus and his glory, Of Jesus and his love.
What I sang, I believed. For me as a child, the story of Jesus was the most important story in the world. The conviction has remained with me. But as I have grown older, I have realized there is an equally important issue: how we tell the story of Jesus. There are many ways of telling his story, and how we tell it matters crucially.
To say the obvious, this is because of Jesus's extraordinary significance for Christians. In the testimony of his early followers in the New Testament, he is spoken of in the most exalted terms imaginable: as the Son of God, Messiah, and Lord; as the Word Made Flesh, the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the Way and the Truth and the Life, the Great High Priest and Sacrifice; the Son of Man who will come again to gather the elect and judge the world. The fourth-century Nicene Creed, the most universal of the Christian creeds, affirms:
One Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
In fourth and fifth-century Christian trinitarian language, he is the second person of the Trinity and one with God.