Truth That Sings: Intro

A few weeks ago, I devoured a book called “Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth” by an Oxford professor named Alister McGrath. It was the kind of book I naturally gravitate towards: ancient history, archaic cultures, colorful characters and fierce theological battles. Most importantly, a burning passion for preserving the uniqueness of the impact left on the world by a wild young Galilean rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. After a profoundly framed survey on the history of orthodoxy and heresy in the history of the Church, McGrath ends by calling for a return to the “romance of orthodoxy” a la G.K. Chesterton. It’s one thing to defend the faith against the forces of mediocrity and status quo on all sides, but that isn’t enough. We also need to grasp and communicate the awesome majesty and beauty of the truth we hold to.

McGrath concludes:

“The real challenge is for the churches to demonstrate that orthodoxy is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating. We await this development with eager anticipation.”

In the first year of my seminary training, it has been made abundantly clear to me how important it is to draw out from the Biblical text what it actually says and not what I want it to say. This is much more difficult than it sounds, because we all approach the text of scripture with our own set of expectations and presuppositions. We are used to easy answers in sound-bite format. We are conditioned to receive our truth from slick, smiling faces on TV. We have been culturally wired to respond to messages aimed at the lowest common denominator. The message of the Bible isn’t slick or pre-packaged for our consumption. It isn’t a product to be sold. What we find in scripture is the rawness of real life and the agony, glory and wonder of that real life interacting with a fierce, loving, holy God.

So I had this dream last night.

I can’t remember if I was reading the book or watching the movie, but it involved the literary masterpiece “The Lord Of The Rings.” In the dream, I was either re-re-watching the movies or re-re-re-re-re-re-reading the books. I had come to the end of the story and was shocked as it came to an unfamiliar turn of events. In this version, the main character Aragorn, who bravely fought through the entire epic as the rightful king of Gondor, came to a hideous end. In this version, he fought gallantly, helped win the War of the Ring and years later fell under the influence of an evil wizard who deceived him and enslaved his mind. He turned slowly into a pitiable creature and died a pathetic death. This part of the story was told as a post-script and it disturbed me. I remember telling a companion that I never noticed this detail in the story and it made the entire story dark. My friend argued with me, saying that for most of the story, Aragorn fought bravely. It was only at the end that he fell away from goodness and truth. Therefore, I should enjoy the majority of the tale and not worry so much about this tiny detail.

But this detail made the entire story disturbing. In the strange way that happens in dreams, I completely believed that this was the way “The Lord Of The Rings” ended. I re-read the book (this was a very bizarre dream, I know) and this time, every step of the way, my heart became darker and heavier. The glorious battles won were no longer glorious; they were cause for deep grief. To win such a glorious battle and yet fall so far – what could be sadder? In this re-reading, the story itself changed. It became an ode to a meaningless existence. Every beautiful speech, every moment of sheer delight; overshadowed by a bitter end. I no longer enjoyed the book, and it became tedious to me. Then, as it happens in the strange realm of dreams, reality began to bleed through. Aragorn didn’t fall under the spell of a devious wizard at the end! He reigned boldly and righteously as King Elessar; he lived and died honorably! The story has a beautiful ending! The darkness was a passing illusion. Every part of the story took on a new, glorious meaning.

I woke up and remembered the dream. Then I thought about my life. However I see the end of my life and the end of the Great Story definitely colors how I experience things, here and now. However, I see ultimate things; God’s nature, etc. defines how I make choices and what I do with every moment given to me. If the story ends darkly, nothing I do matters. Actually, the more good I do, the more depressing it all becomes; the less I can even define “good.” Every glorious victory is a cause for deep grief. Every stroke of luck becomes a cruel mockery. If we simply end our lives by dying and ceasing to exist, nothing means anything. Every special moment shared with another person is doomed to be forgotten when both parties cease to exist. Every meaningful interaction is laced with unbearable tragedy. What you believe about the ultimate end of all things perpetually alters the story you live in right now.

But the wonderful thing about “The Lord Of The Rings” is the way it ends. Against overwhelming darkness, good wins out. Those who stuck with the good, beautiful and true are validated and glorified. And those who treacherously fell away become unspeakable horrors. The reason “Lord Of The Rings” is so potent is because Tolkien purposefully reflects the Great Story God is telling. Times are dark now; hope is faint. Beauty is profaned. Death seems to have the last word. And if death has the last word, the entire story is dark from beginning to end. Yet into this deep despair comes an authoritative utterance:

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

This is PREACHING at the highest level. Preaching should never be just an interesting talk or a tantalizing lecture in which the speaker (or writer) merely displays his own cleverness. Preaching is speaking the authoritative Word into the middle of the story. It is bringing the ultimate into the immediate. Paul authoritatively proclaims the splendor of the story’s end into it’s middle. And he expects our entire outlook to change. Knowing that death will be defeated, we are to be steadfast, immovable, and abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing our labor is not in vain. If death is NOT defeated, our labor IS in vain. Everything would be vain if death is the last word on anything. Yet here Paul proclaims the light of reality into our dark illusion. Truth bleeds over, like the true ending of LOTR into my confused dream. This is why the Word is a double-edged sword. One edge reveals the despair if things are as they appear. The other edge proclaims hope into despair; light into darkness. It thrills the soul, heals the heart and captivates the spirit with joy and wonder.

This why orthodoxy is so wonderful. It sells itself, because it is both too good to be true and yet somehow, against all odds, manages to be true. In the words of the Presbyterian pastor Bruce Larson, “The ultimate heresy is to make the gospel boring.” Even the most meticulously-kept orthodoxy becomes gross heresy if it is sapped of its vigor. This is one of the ongoing projects of this blog; to proclaim the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, in an orthodox, authoritative way. Also, to retain it in a way that ignites the imagination, engages our emotionality, enhances our lives aesthetically while liberating us from dullness and shallowness. This will not be hard, because the historic Christian faith is the best news ever. Yes, we Christians over the years have dampened its potency with our own hang-ups and baggage. Yet the light continues to shine, despite our best attempts to extinguish it with our tedious retellings. As a preacher and minister of the glorious gospel, I would aspire to preach it in a way that rattles the bones and gives life to the heart. Not because of my own pretentious self-imagined cleverness, but because the gospel really is that GOOD.

I want to end this installment with a passage from Larry Crabb’s newest offering: “66 Love Letters.” It has to do with how we approach the narrative of scripture:

“Well, do you want to learn facts you can organize into a system of truth that will let you feel smug in the belief that you’re right? Or do you want to discover truth that sings?”

I, for one, want to discover truth that sings. Feel free to listen along.

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~ by shardsofeternity on July 27, 2010.

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