This post is for Christians, primarily, but my other friends from non-faith or other-faith backgrounds are welcome to read it. It is targeted in its intent, so please read it in that light.
It is also incomplete (and sometimes poorly written), and we are gathering our ideas for a full treatment of the topic. For that reasons, please see the following more as my personal “notes,” rather than as my “resolves.” We welcome helpful commentary.
This article is, at best, quickly written and incomplete. Editing and expansion will occur in the next few weeks. I welcome grace as you read.
One Story, Two Streams
The New Creation Story of the faith, the story of the human experience as told by Jesus, has two powerful, interlaced, mutually indwelling themes running through it. There is a Creational Story emphasis, and a Redemptive Story emphasis.
Pin today’s postmodernist world, two sides of the passionately believing Church are orbiting around one of these two stories, and a middle group is emerging that is seeking to integrate what seems to be two stories into their natural, single Story of humankind.
These terms may not be the best choices for the streams of which we’ll speak, but they may help us tease apart some ideas on the following topics for a time.
These two streams, or “stories,” are two ways of seeing One Story, what I will call the New Creation Story of Jesus.
The New Creation Story is both explicit and implicit in Jesus’ teaching and life (expressed in the coupled vision of the Old and New Testaments, as freshly articulated by many of our gifted biblical and theological scholars today).
This is the Redemptive view – how God has specifically acted in history.
The New Creation Story is also explicit and implicit in daily human experience and the manifest systems of the created order. The New Creation Story is a story of what was, what is, and what will be – for all humanity.
This is the Creational view – a more general vision of what it means to be human.
For more on this than I will offer in this short article, read N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection And The Mission Of The Church, cover to cover. The link is provided at the end of this article. In my estimation, any leader who calls themselves a Christian leader, from either the liberal or conservative ends of the theological spectrum, in the worlds of the arts, the church, the marketplace or the home, should read this book.
The Creational Story
The Creational Story is part of the New Creation Story, but for this application, represents only a particular stream within it.
The Creational Story encompasses the full spectrum of human experience and our intimate contact with the created order. It amplifies the themes of Justice, Love of Neighbor, Goodness, Beauty, Friendship, Protection Of The Innocent, Creation Care, Ethics, Romance, Forgiveness, Aesthetics, Physicality, Laughter, Lament, Spirituality, the Taste Of Good Food and so on.
All elements of the Creational Story we share these in common understanding with much of humanity. In other words, we can talk about these issues, and even make them causes, and people know what we’re doing. They may even join us.
They are not explicitly, or rather solely connected with a faith or worldview – they are human experiences that amplify ideas that arise when we interact together or with the universe.
As Christians, we can even look at other religions, world views, films and media and see that others who have not explicitly chosen to follow Jesus care about these Creational themes as well.
Who Resonates With The Creational Story?
Buddhists connect deeply with creational themes. Atheists do too. Christians do as well. Audio Engineers do, Gourmet cooks do, and even the guy who hunts gators in the swamp understands these themes to some degree. In other words, anyone who’s half-way emotionally healthy “gets” the Creational Story on some level. It’s familiar.
It feels human and humane.
Stand on any street corner today and tell this story well, and you will not only be interviewed by the nightly news – you may even get a show akin to Oprah.
The Creational Story is packed with meaning, and narrates the world.
It is our shared Human Story.
It is integral to the New Creation Story.
The Redemptive Story
The Redemptive Story is part of the New Creation Story as well, but for this application, represents only a particular stream within it. (I trust you have started to figure out that, in reality, there is only one story that exists, and we are simply exploring two sides of the coin.)
Our Redemptive Story emphasizes the full spectrum of our direct relationship with a covenantal God and our intimate experience of personal spirituality and divine activity (contextualized and propelled by the biblical narrative). It amplifies the Person of Jesus, What It Means to be Human, Self-Emptying (the Kenotic Ethic), the Suffering God, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Afterlife, the Meaning of the Present Life, Transformation by the Holy Spirit, Empowering by the Holy Spirit, Sin, Restoration, the Body of Christ in community, Healing, Hope, Judgement, the Righting of the World, and the mysterious New Creation toward which all history is flowing.
These are all elements of the Redemptive Story, and Christians share this common knowledge and awareness with both other Christians and those human beings who are aware of these ideas (or have been impacted by their reality).
Who Resonates With The Redemptive Story?
Primarily however, they only share understanding of these ideas with others from a Christian cultural context, or those who embrace that Jesus is Who he said he was – the very Son of God. We live in the gifts of this story, breathe in its hope, and see people transformed by its reality.
Authors such as Thomas Cahill will even suggest this story drives most of what is defined as Western cultural philanthropic work today.
Stand on any street corner today and even tell this story moderately well, and you will not only NOT be interviewed by the nightly news – you will also become the object of knee-jerk derision by at least 50% of Christ followers.
Why? It is not a shared story among all human beings (or among Christians, it is a shared story with different interpretations) as the Creational Story is – and stories of which we don’t share a common understanding can divide us. In a postmodern world, strong differences of perspective are sometimes considered great evils and enemies of all that is good when set agains the Mighty Plumbline Of Tolerance. But our differences can be beautiful gifts, not only bringing us into conversation, but also unearthing a reality that may be shocking to many postmoderns – not all stories are qualitatively the same.
The Redemptive Story is packed with meaning, and narrates the world.
It is our shared Human Story.
It is integral to the New Creation Story.
Now, on to today.
The Struggle Of Two Streams
Father Raneiro Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household of Pope John Paul II, spoke to a group of us a number of years ago in Rome. He said that in his many ecumenical gatherings, as long as he was talking about God in general, and about “creational themes” such as those listed above under the Creational Story, all was well. But as soon as he mentioned Jesus, as soon as he raised what theologians call “the scandal of particularity,” and resonated with overtones of the Redemptive Story, he would feel temperatures rise all over the room.
“The battle,” this little monk said, “is always around The King.”
If given a choice, would you want everyone in a room to like you and agree with you, or challenge you and possibly not like you because you see the world differently? Most of us would prefer the former, and may even suggest it is the better way. It may be the better, or it may not, but let’s take our time here to talk about how we handle our perceived “enemies.”
Bono of U2 sang in one of his songs “Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you.” He goes on to suggest that when we fear a “monster,” we become a similar monster on the other side of any debate to conquer the monster we fear. We believe we are being original in so many ways – we name our beast and become it’s antithesis. The “other’s” language set, full of helpful phrases through overused, we can barely bring ourselves to use lest we be identified with the monster in our mind.
So, we choose the other side. We become the other side. We become the good guy to the “others” bad guy. We eschew nuance in our language, and entrench. It’s only right; the monster needs a hero to face it – even is the hero is another monster.
A Beautiful Struggle
The battle, however, is not outside in a world distinct from the Church. It brews within the ranks of believers, and that struggle is beautifully, so unrelentingly, unearthing a new way of envisioning Christianity that may present it to postmoderns as truly the most compelling Story ever told.
Let me define that battle, again, in more polar terms. (There is indeed nuance that will be left unspoken here.)
One stream that we will call the Creational Story stream, loves the unity they are experiencing with the fellow human beings. There is finally connection, walls are falling down, and in many ways they believe they are becoming more whole as they become less “explicitly” Christian. They don’t want to be aligned with their “other,” so they eschew any language, idea or attitude they believe originates from or characterizes their “other.”
One stream that we will call the Redemptive Story stream, loves the richness they are experiencing living in expressed, explicit faith (and believe it’s for the world). They believe they are doing the world a great service affirming Christian beliefs and embodying those beliefs in communities that can truly bring healing to the world. They don’t want to be aligned with their “other,” so they eschew any language, idea or attitude they believe originates from or characterizes their “other.”
The Goal Of Convergence
To say that we are now talking about liberals versus conservatives, or do’ers versus proclaimers would be to truncate our discussion to the size of our personal issues. It is not that simple of an issue to address, and two powerful themes in the same Story are giving meaning to two groups within the Body of Christ.
Our goal is convergence of faith with diversity of expression, but there are relational and devotional mountains to be climbed if we are ever to get there. It will take courage to overcome the ill – but first, let’s put the debate under the microscope.
What I See Happening
I see two sides on a nuanced faith battlefront of the mind and heart right now, largely because the two stories I have mentioned above will be separated no longer. We have built our own chrysalis – our tomb or womb, we know not which, and have entered into its death-to-life hold.
God is being good to us. He is being good to all of us, everyone, in His world. He is showing us that the Creational Story and The Redemptive Story are indeed the same story. You can celebrate the taste of a fine wine, and the end of slave trafficking, and also rejoice in the triumph of Easter and the healing mystery of repentance.
The following snapshots of the “two streams” I will now speak of in more polar extremes. I know many Christ-followers today who are living examples of New Creation Story, embodied in the world.
They are living Eucharisticly before our eyes. For the purposes of this reflection, however, we will focus on two sides of the horse on which I see many good friends falling off.
When The Creational Story Is Primarily Or Solely Emphasized
I have friends hungry to emphasize the Creational Story stream of the New Creation Story. They are deeply embarrassed by the way more vociferous Christians have presented the faith in society. In many cases, they define themselves over and against their ‘other’ – those who spend most of their time expressing the Redemptive Story without nuance or apology. They are also often driven by their new found connection with people of other world views, ethnic backgrounds, generations and religions.
They may still believe certain elements of the Redemptive Story, but they are tucking it back in their closet so as not to cause division. In some cases however, they may actually be losing their vision of the Redemptive Story. We’ll look at that idea in a bit.
The Creational Story Can Unify, The Redemptive Story Can Divide
The Creational Story can unify, and the Redemptive Story theme can divide.
Why? The Redemptive Story of a self-actualizing Buddhist is quite different than that of a Hindu whose worldview is shaped by the pending reality of reincarnation. A Muslim’s Redemptive Story involves God conquering all people in heart, mind and body, submitting them to “surrender” (what the term “Islam” means). Their vision of the afterlife and what pleases God drives many of their daily decisions, just as the Christian’s vision of what happens after death drives their own.
The Redemptive Story of an Atheist may sound like that of Stephen Hawking – the whole life ‘project’ is not actually going anywhere. Your brain will just shut off like a computer one day, so you may as well spend your days in discovery, enjoying life and bettering the human condition.
Now, the question of what makes a meaningful life arises – one says that rescuing others from endless cycles of their own broken state gives life meaning, and another says “don’t worry; be happy.”
The Redemptive Story Invests Meaning Into Creation
Those Redemptive Stories we carry utterly define not only the way we live, but why we live, how we live, and to what end. War is caused by conflicting visions of both Creational and Redemptive Stories. Redemptive Stories, because they are so different, are actually worth weighing rather than simply tolerating and smiling about – not simply because of the afterlife they may propose – but because of the Now Life they dictate to their believers.
I am watching many Christians, so excited about reconnecting with humanity through the Creational Story, and so burnt out on religion (which is radically different from faith) and the church organizational, devolve into a general Theism with primarily Creational emphases.
The Redemptive Story still may have merit for them, but it is somewhat diluted by their quest to connect with the wider spiritual quests of humanity (I would note that this area of study is very attractive to me personally, and I’ve not had the time, energy or calling to pursue it as much as I might like).
They are excited about their deep, beautiful and meaningful connections with all of humanity again, and are discovering the treasures the Church loses when it paints an us/them story of the world. They are touching other religions, other ethnicities, other world views, and are finding much common ground and great joy.
This is beautiful.
For these folks, ACTION is the meal; BELIEF is seasoning.
You May Not Need Jesus – Just His Teaching
There is only one problem with this way of doing Christianity. You may not need Jesus for it – just his teaching. Why? His Redemptive Story adds color and meaning to the Creational Story, and that color and meaning is not the same as that of others. So it creates a struggle.
However, you do need Jesus’ teaching, as everyone knows that if anyone in history embodied a life incarnating the actions of love, it was that of Christ. He is honored by all for this.
Without a continuing emphasis and embrace of the Redemptive Story (see the elements noted above), and even a continuing remembering of the Redemptive Story through the Eucharist, gathered fellowship and resonant worship, this newfound joy in the Creational Story can devolve into a faith that is actually simply a Christ-seasoned Theism. It is not a Christo-centric Theism.
As biblical faith is clearly a Christo-centric faith, something alters in the spiritual DNA of a person hoping Jesus will stay in the corner at the party rather than come to the center of the room and begin making demands on our lives.
This devolved faith is come by honestly, however, as the contemporary Church of the 20th century West has felt it’s primary calling has been to explicitly express the Redemptive Story and its themes, often guarding it against Creational Story themes confusing or misguiding the faithful. We get hurt by those loud Redemptive Storytellers, and don’t want to identity with it any longer.
We become the “other.”
As Miroslav Volf suggested in his great work Exclusion And Embrace, we re-define ourselves against our “other,” our monster, the bad guy who hurt us (or who we perceived hurt others), and exclude one another from entrance into our heart.
Is There A Problem?
Is there a problem? There can be. If I live only in the Creational Story, I actually have nothing to offer others other than my love, my presence, a full belly, and some humanitarian words about showing love to others in your limited lifetime.
This ultimately won’t heal their marriage from the inside out, avert (or deeply unsettle) systemic evil, solve intractable social and psychological issues or enable a strong man to fall to his knees in a baptism of humility, heart-rending and new found hope, only to get up and ask his wife to forgive him for years of dishonoring her.
The most loving thing to do may not be “tolerance,” but rather “acceptance.” All stories are not the same. Some chain us. Some stories are good, but they way they are interpreted is toxic. There may actually be good stories, and bad stories, and better stories, and weaker stories, and a best story of all. Tolerance is never enough in the mending of family relationships – sometimes, a better story of Acceptance is needed for us all to live in. A particular Redemptive Story may actually rise above them all, misunderstood as it is, or may be for so many reasons.
The telling of that Redemptive Story in tandem with loving action may be more a truly Creational act than loving all and accepting all stories in which people live as having equal merit because then there will be no tension.
A Decapitated Faith
Only emphasizing the Creational Story, we can live in a decapitated faith, without a head, or a sense of spiritual direction aside from “oneness” we seek with all. Enter any worldview you like; it’s iPod spirituality, and we’re all on a shared spiritual journey. Your stories are as good as mine – believe what you will (I would note here that all stories have validity because they exist; that does not mean they all yield the same quality of life).
You can give a cup of cold water, a smile, a hug, a lifetime of humanitarian care and tolerance – but if my Redemptive Story is confusing my values, corrupting my relationships, aiming me toward a good deed based afterlife, perpetuating a dark view of God, keeping me from the inner peace I hunger for in life, distorting my meaning and purpose, you’ll never address my ill if you assume my Redemptive Story is fine.
In fact, this kind of approach keeps “you” at the center of “my” development – it doesn’t allow for (or intentionally invite) the indwelling presence of God to be at work, changing me. That inner transformation is part of the Redemptive Story. It involves words like sin, hope, repentance, overcoming fear and stultifying transformation.
This group (of Christians) sees the Bible as less important to their blossoming vision of the world, but their study of culture as ultimately more important.
This would also be a fine way to do faith if particular world views, religious ideas and ideologies didn’t end up shunning people, murdering people, and shattering families (I do not exclude some of the ideas we as Christians come up from that list, mind you). Here’s the reality – they do. We all need some healing, some rescue, something to give our brokenness and beauty a name.
When The Redemptive Story Is Primarily or Solely Emphasized
On the other end, I am watching many other Christians, so excited about furthering the Redemptive Story that has healed them, altered them, transformed them and others, re-entrenching themselves in declaring their Redemptive Story with greater fervor than ever. Who cares if it divides and is distinct? Jesus said it would be, and that means I can also act as distinct, culturally isolated, and sub-culturally immersed as I like.
The Redemptive Story Can Unify, The Creational Story Can Divide
Of course, the created world and its diverse inhabitants can divide as well as any redemptive story. We don’t grow up in the same cultures, we don’t grow up hearing the same stories of meaning and purpose filling our ears and hearts. Our meals are different, our ways of seeing the world are even shaped by genetic, cellular memories that cause us to flinch, fear and fight at different moments.
For my parents and grandparents, the world coming to their doorstep was a very strange thing. For our generation, I have five to six different world views and religions bouncing around my neighborhood.
The cosmos is, if anything, complex. The diversity and complexity of that universe, even the stories about that universe, are to be expected and embraced. But we expect and embrace diversity not with a blind eye to all failures, so we can tolerate everything that comes down the pipe, but so that we can see it for what it is, find beauty and majesty everywhere, and affirm God’s kindness in every culture, religion, field of study and person.
However, to clarify our stance in all of this complexity, we focus on belief, and meet in gatherings to re-affirm that belief, and sing about that belief and pass on that belief to others.
This is beautiful.
For these folks, BELIEF is the meal; ACTION is seasoning.
You May Not Need The Rest Of Humanity – Just It’s Cuisine
There is only one problem with this way of doing Christianity. I may not need the rest of humanity (or at least not non-Christians) or even creation, to live my Christian life. I have Jesus, and the church, and the rest of culture is just a problem to be fixed.
I also had better become blind to anyone of any other social, religious or ideological stripe other than the one with which you’re familiar.
Why? I won’t be able to have a conversation with anyone or anything I’ve demeaned in the name of my devoted, but devolved faith. Without the Creational Story, the New Creation has very little meaning. In fact, I can’t actually listen to other human beings well – my mission is to change their belief before I listen to their stories. That rarely creates a listener, but rather, a teller.
Is There A Problem?
Is there a problem? There can be. You actually have nothing to offer others other than your belief system, which you may or may not have learned to embody over a lifetime manifest in the kind of love, compassion and humanitarian action they need. This ultimately won’t fill their belly, start the kind of lasting relationships with “others” that heal across decades, address true cultural viruses, or stimulate reasoned and loving discussion among people who actually might say “I want to be like you.”
Part of why we have lost many seats at the roundtable of cultural discussion as a Christian community is precisely because we have set belief as central (and sameness as mandatory). This utterly marginalizes those who are different for so many innocent reasons.
Spirituality is confusing enough without adding our “I’m willing to interact with you if you give my worldview a turn about the room first.” parameters to it. If we stay in our Redemptive Story enclaves, and imagine we are influencing the world, we are deceiving ourselves.
We must convince ourselves we’re doing something important leading with our beliefs – because we spent so much money on that last program, or outreach, we have to justify it with a celebration over how little of a societal, global, cultural impact we are having. My opinion is showing now.
Also, if I really don’t like to be with “people who aren’t like me,” I will miss out on God speaking through those people – and a range of cultures, joys, experiences and encounters that could utterly change my life.
A Disembodied Faith
Only emphasizing the Redemptive Story, we live in a disembodied faith, without a body, or a sense of spiritual direction aside from “shared belief” by all. My belief is my monolithic cathedral, and I hide within it’s walls, throwing my evangelism-bombs at the world.
This group sees the culture as less important to its growing worldview, and the Bible as more important.
So, we have churches who still disconnect the Creational Story themes of justice, acceptance of their human family from other religious or ideological traditions, beauty, creation care, and social ethics from their Redemptive Story.
Many pastors still know very little about who the primary cultural movers are, or are working to get behind leaders who can impact culture beyond the church proper in areas of business, social reform, politics, entertainment, film, education, and more. We think because we “believe in doing creational things,” we’re doing them. No; we may just be believing in doing them.
The New Creation Story
The New Creation Story that Jesus told embraced both of these streams, these vivid themes of God’s intimate interchange with humanity. To criminalize, de-emphasize (permanently), or marginalize the other stream of the New Creation Story through our words (or lack thereof), actions or attitudes is to become a monster on one side or the other.
While there is not the time or the energy to unpack the rich Old and New Testament heritage of this vision of the cosmos, suffice it to say that the kind of followership that Jesus seemed to call his disciples to encompassed ALL of the these two streams.
The New Creation Story Jesus embodied, incarnated, taught and delivered to us through the Scriptures breathes with “creationality and humanity.” The New Creation Story breathes with “redemption and restoration.” It is whole, it is holistic, is a whole vision of what was, is and will be.
Jesus’ Story, the New Creation Story, cares for all of Creation. It provides for Redemption.
Jesus’ Story, the New Creation Story, lasts forever. It permeates this world. It seasons, shapes and forms human beings into the fullness of their meaning and potential when they say yes to it’s claim on their lives.
Jesus’ Story, the New Creation Story, is imperfectly carried in vessels of clay, both within the ranks of Christian faith and outside of the ranks of Christian faith.
Jesus’ Story, the New Creation Story, centers on a God who incarnates, becomes present, and invests His world with magic, meaning and mystery. It focuses on a God who steps in, loves to the point of both death and resurrection, and heals individuals and society in which we live.
This story happens through people, it is lived out by people, it invests the world with loving creativity and loving redemption through people. This story is filled with Blood, animated by Spirit, and rejuvenated in Community.
The New Creation Story as Creational – Justice, Love of Neighbor, Goodness, Beauty, Friendship, Protection Of The Innocent, Creation Care, Ethics (even Kenotic ethics), Romance, Aesthetics, Physicality, Forgiveness, Laughter, Lament, Spirituality, the Taste Of Good Food and more.
The New Creation Story as Redemptive – Jesus, What It Means to be Human, Self-Emptying (the Kenotic Ethic), the Suffering God, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Afterlife, the Meaning of the Present Life, Transformation by the Holy Spirit, Empowering by the Holy Spirit, Sin and Repentance, the Body of Christ in community, Healing, Hope, Judgement, the Righting Of The World, the New Creation To Come.
The New Creation Story as The Human Story – Jesus, Justice, What It Means to be Human, Love of Neighbor, Self-Emptying (the Kenotic Ethic), Goodness, the Suffering God, Beauty, Friendship, the Cross, Protection Of The Innocent, the Resurrection, Creation Care, the Afterlife, Ethics (even Kenotic ethics), the Meaning Of The Present Life, Romance, Transformation by the Holy Spirit, Aesthetics, Empowering by the Holy Spirit, Physicality, Sin and Repentance, Forgiveness, the Body of Christ in Community, Laughter, Healing, Lament, Hope, Sin, Spirituality, Repentance, Forgiveness, Judgement, the Taste Of Good Food, the Righting of the World – the New Creation To Come.
One Story is the Human Story
The Story of New Creation is the Human Story. We find its elements, and rejoice in them, everywhere we go. This Story is enfleshed in the stories of Jesus’ life, rides on the great and inconsistently faithful, ancient history of a tribe of humanity, the Jews, and is expressed in the words and stories of the New Testament. It does not delete all other stories or demean those with their own majesty and merit – it amplifies them and clarifies their meaning and conclusion.
I shall now go back and read the New Testament, with the cultures of the world, their stories, and their views of humanity in mind, with creation and its micro and macro designs in mind, and rediscover their story all once again in the Person of the most truly human being of all, Jesus.
For more on this topic, read Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection And The Mission Of The Church by N.T. Wright.
On other notes, the topic of Sacred, Creational, and Secular vs. Sacred & Secular, and the topic Why Academia Skews Creational and Why The Church Skews Redemptive will be other topics of writing in the next while.