Too often in the church we dull the horror of people’s stories by our need to appropriate these stories as necessary content for witnessing and blessing toward others. In doing so, we effectively skip to the end of the story without having to experience any of the real horror and truth with these people in the moment(s) of their suffering.
I believe the same can be said about the Gospel narrative, as well. More so than not, Christians attempt to boil the Gospel down to one act: Jesus’ death on the cross. This is apparent in the majority of famous hymns, such as the “Old Rugged Cross” (hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are equally as guilty, just in their contraction of the Gospel into the singular focus of heaven), and countless sermons directed to the cross of Jesus and its salvific operation for the “damned.”
A fancy name for what happens in these instances is called “metanarrative,” which simply means a grand narrative that simplifies and focuses smaller narrative into one main point or idea, roughly speaking. For example, if you asked me what the Harry Potter books were about, I would say that the metanarrative is that a young boy grows up through several hardships and magical encounters with the infamous Voldemort. In this definition, I have funneled the meaning of the narrative into one big, simplified idea. But, as you Harry Potter lovers will duly point out, there is much more going on in the books than that. This why, and I have personal experience with this, people will often tell you that the best way to sum up Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, is to read it!
We see this very thing at work in the churches popular notion of witnessing. Churches go out and approach people with a three-sentence catch phrase of the Christian Drama, which often goes something like this: “Excuse me, can I share the Gospel with you? Are you a sinner? If so, (you know you are) Jesus died on a cross for you so you would not have to. Accept Jesus, believe he was raised from the dead, confess your sins, and you will be saved.” (This sentence comes from my personal experience from various churches, and, as paraphrased as it might be, it is a very real and common trend in the church.) The difficulty of this witnessing paragraph is the beginning sentence, that is, the notion that anyone could sum up the Gospel in five minutes on an isle of Walmart, or, more commonly, in one week at a African village. On a side note, I want to argue that this is the reason our churches are dying and that we are not making concrete relationship anymore in the church. Namely, people are looking for something deeper than a sermon trying to save people every Sunday, or a hymn about going to heaven. But that is another post for another day.
For the purpose of what I have said above about people’s personal stories and the way the Gospels are often read, I want to reject metanarratives and suggest a more intimate encounter with people’s stories and a more involved notion of reading the Bible. By denying metanarratives, we resists conflating the Gospel story into one moment, however definitive it maybe. There is so much to experience and lament and cry and laugh about in the Gospels, apart from Jesus’ death. The Gospel is not simply the sum of its parts, or paradigmatic of its climax; rather, the Gospel is meant to be read with painstaking attendance to the minor details. Admittedly, one could argue that these minor details are unintelligible without the cross; I am not denying that. But the same can be said of the reverse – the cross is most definitely unintelligible without attention to the details leading up to Calvary in their own respect.
Likewise, listening and interacting with people’s personal stories, especially Christian people, should be experienced along the way with the person; every horror, every happiness should be dealt with on their own accord and not as a means to an end, especially if that end is witnessing to others. So, like the Harry Potter books, the only way to actually know a person’s story is to experience it with them in the moment, to actually read their story with patience and loyalty, and without simplifying it into a sentence or two.