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By Brian Keepers
To say that Donald Trump has been busy during his first 10 days in office is a gross understatement. As to whether he’s been busying himself with the right things is another matter. More tirades on twitter. More defensiveness about his legitimacy as President and the “dishonest” media. And then a flurry of executive orders—many which are deeply troubling and should cause us all concern.
I’ve been wrestling as a pastor and preacher with how to respond to all of this. How do I best equip my congregation for faithful Christian witness at this moment in history?
Bishop Tom Wright, one of the plenary speakers at this year’s Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts, reminded me of the urgent task of preachers to help the church discern ways to engage the world with wisdom and imagination instead of retreating from it. Wise engagement with culture, Wright insists, is like athletics and music. In order to do it well, you have to commit to rigorous training over time and develop the necessary skills and aptitudes.
Central to this kind of training (or formation) is learning to inhabit “the strange new world of the Bible,” as Karl Barth famously put it. Instead of treating the Bible as a smorgasbord with nuggets of inspiration and moral advice, we draw people into the sweeping narrative of Genesis to Revelation, from creation to new creation.
Wright urges us to not just look at a single Bible text but, like a child pressing her nose against a window, to look through it and take in the broader landscape of the larger biblical narrative. The task of preaching is to help our hearers immerse themselves in the whole story, which is not a story primarily about going to heaven when you die but about heaven invading this world here and now in the Crucified and Risen Lord.
All of this resonates with me as a pastor and preacher. We’re narrative creatures and stories shape who we are and the way we live. Wright’s not the first one to suggest reading the Bible this way, nor would he claim as much. We can trace this approach all the way back to the early church (and even further to the Hebrew people).
For example, Augustine envisioned the “real world” as not the world in which we presently live but the world of the Bible. The goal for the Christian community is to be so immersed in the world of Scripture “that we find in them not confirmation of ourselves, but the very constitution of a new self.” Augustine goes on: “We do not place the actions of God within the horizon of our stories; rather, we place our stories within the action of God.”
This is good stuff. And it’s 1500 years before Barth’s commentary on Romans and the “bombshell that dropped on the playground of theologians.”
The person who has most influenced my approach to reading Scripture is the 20th century missionary Lesslie Newbigin. In his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin argues that the Scriptures can only challenge the competing world views of the age when we learn to “indwell” them, allowing them to provide us with an alternative “plausibility structure” (or frame of reference) that changes the way we see the world and make sense of reality.
Newbigin would push Wright’s analogy of a child pressed up against a window “looking in” further. It’s not enough to be on the outside looking in; we need to look through the Bible from inside the story. Only then can we “carry the story forward.” Here’s one of my favorite Newbigin quotes (it’s a bit lengthy but worth it):
As we face new opportunities and new dangers, we are the people who know what it is to cross the Red Sea on dry land, to be fed with manna in the wilderness, to return with singing from Babylon, to stand before the cross, and to meet the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. This is our story, and it defines who we are. Just as character can only truly be rendered in narrative form, so the answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ can only be given if we ask, ‘What is my story?’ and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, ‘What is the whole story of which my story is a part?’ To indwell the Bible is to live with an answer to those questions, to know who I am and who is the One to whom I am finally accountable.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.99)
I’m not sure what we’re in for over the next several months (and years) with a Trump presidency. It seems to me that this is the calling of the church in every age: to keep immersing ourselves in the biblical story, to soak in it until it gets deep into the marrow of our bones. This task falls not just on the shoulders of preachers but the whole church. We need each other—clergy and laity together—in order to inhabit the biblical story faithfully and well.
Only then can we expose and confront the tsunami of false narratives that rage around us and engage the world with wisdom by bearing witness to a better and truer story—the story of the triune God who is making all things new.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.