Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Last week I wrote a column about the York Mystery Plays, which are performed at the magnificent York Cathedral in England. These mystery plays tell the grand narrative of the Bible with a heavy emphasis on a supposed rebellion of the angels before Creation (which is not actually found in Scripture), in which Lucifer or Satan becomes a constant antagonist to God and humans. There is an uncomfortable focus on Jewish high priests conspiring to get Jesus killed. It dwells on the details of his brutal suffering on the Cross for the redemption of sinners, and the story ends with a final apocalyptic judgment in which the damned and the saved are separated for all time in either bliss or torment.
I asked whether this is still the Big Story which Christians believe and tell. Are there alternative versions of the grand Christian Story that are equally (or more) defensible based on biblical sources?
This is still the biblical story which the media tells, fueled by conservative Christian pundits. They claim that it’s the only way to tell the story, and anyone who disagrees with them are wrong, and will likely be part of that huge group which ends up in hell. They also claim that as long as you believe that Jesus came to save you, you’ll be eternally okay.
I think there’s a different way to tell the story. Recent years have seen the (re)emergence of a different way of telling the story of the Bible which centers on the reign (or kingdom) of God. This image was at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching, and the reign of God is marked by qualities such as justice, healing, and peace.
This way of telling the Christian story is found across the whole spectrum of believers. It is a feature of much progressive thought, but it also shows up among more moderate evangelical believers as well. Noted Baptist ethicist David Gushee, for example, co–authored one of the most widely used text books for evangelical seminaries entitled “Kingdom Ethics”.
I was recently perusing a book by Lisa Sharon Harper, “The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right”, which tells the Christian story from this kingdom perspective. Harper is a leading progressive evangelical activist, organizer, writer, and speaker. She has been called “a rising star, a portent of a better future for American evangelicalism.”
Her book is a winsome re–telling of the story. She starts with the Hebrew concept of “shalom” — a word we usually translate as “peace”, but which is more about wholeness and justice. It is a relational peace which promotes reconciliation not only within individuals, but among groups and nations.
Harper draws deeply from this theme of shalom, which is particularly strong in the Hebrew prophets, but which runs through the whole Bible. She tells the story of a God who acts from the very beginning to bring shalom, holistic peace and justice, to every part of creation. God wants shalom between men and women, shalom for the poor and abused, shalom in family life. God wants shalom across racial lines, between nations, in creation itself. God wants shalom within the tormented human heart, and between humans and God.
She tells a story in which God is a God of life. God brings life out of death. God gives dignity to life. God’s intention is that all creatures flourish within creation. God is for shalom in all its fullness.
Harper writes that “Shalom is what the Kingdom of God smells like…At its heart, the biblical concept of shalom is about God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships.”
How does this compare or contrast with the story told by the York Mystery Plays?
The story told at York is an updated version of a medieval Catholic vision of a personal salvation Gospel. It focuses on human beings rebelling against God and the threatened punishment of eternal damnation. Jesus comes to save individuals from that eternal punishment, and his death on the Cross is the decisive act in salvation. Creation is the place where this drama of human salvation is played out, but it is not itself redeemed. Humans supposedly leave earth behind for a heavenly residence. Angels and demons play a mysterious and important role. Human choice or divine will determine how the story ends, and where one ends up after death is the main issue in human existence.
Harper’s way of telling the story focuses on all aspects of brokenness in the good world God made. The entirety of salvation history, including God’s covenant with the Jewish people as well as the mission of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, reflects God’s intent to renew creation, including but not limited to human beings. Jesus’ teachings matter, and not just his death, because his teachings, in continuity with the Law and the Prophets, teach the way of shalom, which is the content of God’s reign. The main point of the Christian Story is not to get individuals saved from eternal damnation, but to get God’s creation restored to the goodness God originally intended. Ethical concerns, such as justice and peace, are not secondary to the Gospel, but are part of the very content of the Gospel message.
I know which version of the Christian Story makes the most sense to me. What about you?
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook