I fear sometimes that becoming Christians of faith, vocation and culture means for many of us becoming Christians of efficiency in systems change. But this is not the way in God’s economy. God would actually have us be inefficient. He would have us live with and pray for and share the gospel with our neighbors over the long haul. All this is part of the genuine transformation he wants to bring in real time in real people—through the glorious good news of Jesus.
The New Testament’s Crooked Narrative Arc
In Part I last week, I began by noting that the New Testament is not entirely straightforward when it comes to the subject of faith, vocation and culture. Revelation says that in a certain era — the era in which actual Christians lived — there was a situation where Christians could not buy or sell. In Acts, when Christians impacted culture and economics, it often turned out badly. To this we may add Jesus’s life, which was not exactly “normal,” even by first century standards of a stable society. If his life was merely “normal,” why did he get crucified? And this same Jesus, in his final recorded sermon, gives an incredibly “apocalyptic” message to his followers about what to expect. The narrative arc moving into the New Testament is not quite as straightforward as we might expect.
What can we say about all this? One way that we can helpfully understand everything, make sense of it, is to think of it in terms of the nature of stories.
Consider. Anyone studying stories knows that a compelling story almost always has an “all hope is lost” moment, usually near the end. This is the moment right before the final outcome when the good you anticipated turns bad. Think of a story where the hero or heroine has just beaten the bad guys. They are standing there, striking a pose, with a bunch of beleaguered bystanders looking on—those who have gotten caught up in the mess but have ultimately been rescued. But then comes the horrible moment. We (the audience) see that the chief bad guy is still alive in the background, unseen by our triumphant hero or heroine, and that of course he wants one last chance at revenge—a chance to finally kill the hero. At this moment, we are inclined not to think any longer about the pleasant outcome we were all hoping for—happily ever after. Now, in horror, all we can think about is survival, survival of the hero or heroine, and thus survival of those dependent.
This, it might be imagined by apocalyptic readers of the New Testament, is the story of the New Testament—the horrible final moment of twist, when the story goes completely bad, and all we can think about is survival. I agree with this. But the difference to be noted—the all-important difference to be seen—is that the hero or heroine can only be a hero or heroine if they have first been part of creating a story that has reached this point. Indeed, the hero or heroine would not be in this situation in the first place if they just decided to stay in bed. Noticing this changes everything.
The Hero, the Heroine, and Romans 8
A favorite passage when it comes to faith, vocation and culture, is Romans 8, and rightly so. This is the passage where Old Testament teachers land the plane, where we note that Christians are already part of the new creation:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
It is the last part of this that is so hopeful, so exciting. The whole of creation wants to be what it was meant to be. The whole creation wants to be restored. And even as it longs for this, its next move is to look at Christians and to want to be like them! Why? Christians, through partaking of Jesus’s Spirit, Paul says, are already in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, i.e. becoming the new creation. The creation wants this. The creation wants what Christians already have. Some of this can be hard to get our head around. But we need to get our head around it because it’s fantastic. Christians are in an enviable position. Indeed, we read here that the creation envies us. We get to live out the new creation order here and now, for the good of world as it currently is and in hope.
But if we read this passage in terms of this simplified narrative arc, we miss a feature prevalent throughout it. There is a part of creation that doesn’t want to be transformed—i.e.: current human society. And because it doesn’t want to be transformed, it will persecute those who are part of trying to see transformation take place.
Think back to our hero and heroine. Why are they targets of the one last act of payback from the still-alive-bad-guy? It is because they have (in the eyes of the bad guy) caused an enormous mess! Why not just leave things alone? Why not just leave the ghetto teeming with drugs and prostitution and finish with us cashing in? Why disrupt the natural order of things? In the bad guy’s counter narrative it is the hero who is a menace to “society,” a destabilizer of the (broken) system that currently exists. So from one angle the “all hope is lost” moment of our narrative trajectory is actually the moment of “hope restored;” it’s back to “public order” from the perspective of the bad guy. Here is the enormous irony of competing narratives.
So I will say it again. The apocalyptic moment, i.e. the “all hope is lost” moment, only comes because the hero has been doing what he or she has supposed to be doing in bringing about cultural transformation. If they just stayed in bed no one would be worried. They have been disrupting the narrative of evil, and now they must pay for it! In this regard there are, in fact, an extraordinary few verses right before our passage in Romans 8, right before the passage quoted above, which we are now positioned to understand:
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Who is glorified with Jesus, according to this passage? Those who are fellow sons of God, heirs of the world to come, join heirs with Christ! But who are they? They are the heroes who suffer with him, in order that they may be glorified with him! Being a Christian means getting out of bed. It means getting caught up in the narrative of redemption, so that we might enter into the “all hope is lost” moment. If we don’t, we miss the glory that follows.