Louis C.K. explains our need for the gospel, without knowing it

In this clip Louis C.K. explains our need for the gospel to Conan O'Brien, without knowing it. Here's the key part.

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.

Well, I assume he does not realize, or probably agree, that the emptiness he's talking about is our need for Jesus. But that's exactly what it is. There is always a glimpse of truth in the art of this world, sometimes we have to look really hard for it. In this case we don't, because its sitting right out in the open.

Of course, I don't agree with his conclusion, but how he frames the problem? Dead on.

Aspire to live quietly

I honestly wonder what the apostle Paul would think of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media world.

Now, I don't for one second think that Paul would condemn it outright. The power we have to reach people, strike up conversations, and connect people around the world is amazing, and I think Paul would grasp that. I think an apostle and evangelist of his record would immediately understand how it could be use to reach millions with the gospel.

But it is not that simple. The average Christian does not use social media for this purpose or scale. The average use is far more personal, and potentially problematic. I will be the first to admit it, this topic calls for real self-examination on my part, and this post is the direct result of meditations on the topic. So, dear reader, we are all in the same boat— and I might be the captain.

Over the weekend I was reading 1 Thessalonians, and I came across this passage, which struck me in a new way:

But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

1 Thessalonians 4:10-12

There is a lot here to think about, but I want to zero in on one question. What does Paul mean when he says, "aspire to live quietly"?

A perusal of the available commentaries reveals a consensus around the meaning of "live quietly". Paul indicates that living peaceably, "without noise", minding their own affairs. He ties this to working hard in the area the Lord has called us to. John Calvin put it best when he summed this idea up in his commentary.

This, therefore, is the best means of a tranquil life, when every one, intent upon the duties of his own calling, discharges those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord, and devotes himself to these things.

A quiet life, with focus and devotion on the work the Lord has called us to, is Paul's command to the Thessalonians— and us.

When I read this passage I immediately thought about social media. Our online social existence is anything but quiet. Every hour a couple hundred new tweets fill my feed, all begging to be read. I have a continuous stream of email and text messages. And I have hundreds (no, really, literally hundreds) of articles from blogs and periodicals all lined up for my consumption. In fact, one of my most popular posts is all about how I manage this firehose of information. And, as if all of this is not enough, I am trying to grow my presence online.

I do not have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. I don't even have a thousand. My wife's and my marriage project blog had a good number of readers every day, but it's not like there was a book deal. By all measures of internet fame, I rank pretty dang low. So I'm good right? Sounds like a quiet life online, one might say.

But my heart knows differently.

Often, dare I say the majority of the time, my goal for writing here is to be gospel-affirming and to encourage and exhort others. Yet, I often find my self watching my number of RTs or visitors to the site in Google Analytics. I find myself wanting to be heard, to be admired, and to be approved of. In all of these things I seek the approval of my fellow man, and ignore the approval already found in my Savior. Like all created things, social media is not, in and of itself, bad. It is good. It is a gift of a loving and creative God. But, as with all created things, fallen men and women will take this good thing and place it above the Creator

I wonder how unique this realization is. My suspicion is that online narcissism is so common in our day and time it is not even thought to be remarkable. That it often does not even merit mentioning.

I pray that the Lord grants me repentance. I pray that I come to see my thinking and writing more often as gifts to lay before my King instead of piling them up for my own earthly glory. I pray that I aspire to live quietly and focus on the ministry the Lord has placed in front of me.  And if this post resonates with you on that account, I am praying for you too.

Story Team Weekly

storyteam_logo.1.1The Austin Stone is changing up the way we do bulletins on Sundays, and for Story Team this brings a big change. For 3 years we published our stories on the back of the bulletin for our church body, with a longer edit on the web a few days later. Now, we will not publish the shorter version in the bulletin anymore, but instead we will focus on publishing digitally.

For our church body to continue receiving these powerful stories of redemption, we added an email list to our process. You can sign up here to receive the latest story from our team every Sunday. I hope you do.

I'm excited for this change. It will definitely change the way our church engages with our work, but it also opens up our stories to the wider world. It also frees us up to explore interesting new ways of telling and publishing stories. This change I know that this has prompted a wave of new ideas and approaches that we are exploring. I hope to write about our transition more on this blog.

If you have never seen our work, check it out here. If you like our stories, sign up for Story Team Weekly. We love what we do, and what to share it with you.

At the intersection of plot and the gospel

This blog post is an adaptation of a training talk I gave last week for The Austin Stone Story Team.

As our mission statement for the Austin Stone Story Team says, we “use creative storytelling to glorify the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, encourage the saints, and compel all people to gospel action.” We do this by telling the stories of how the gospel changes lives, but I also believe there is a deeper meaning to the idea of “gospel stories”. Ideally, our stories should not just describe how the gospel changes lives, they should reflect the gospel storyline.

Before we get there though, we should explore the artist’s place in God’s grand redemption narrative. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand how writers and editors fit into the church, and the lives of our fellow believers.

If I talk about literature enough, maybe 5 minutes or so-- I will get around to referencing J.R.R Tolkien. In his essay On Faerie Stories (which I highly recommend if you like fantasy fiction, but even more highly recommend if you think you don’t) Tolkien, a devout Catholic, used the word ‘sub-creator’ to describe the artist who creates another world in their work.

In his book Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs takes this idea of Tolkien’s and expands it to cover all artists. He explains, “We never create ex nihilo (out of nothing) like God, for we are always working with some aspect of what he has already made.”

The realization that our acts of creation are subordinate to God’s first creation should lead us to a place of humility, found in the recognition that all we can ever do with our art is hold up a mirror to the world that God created, and show people how we see it.

C.S. Lewis lights the way for us in thinking about the act of sub-creation when he says that, “an author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”

God shows us what sub-creation looks like, and how much he values it in the life of his people, in Exodus 31:1-6, through an artist named Bezalel (bezʹuh-leel):

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.’”

These were part of God’s instructions to Moses to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the Israelites’ traveling temple while they wandered in the desert. It housed the presence of the Lord, and served as the location where the priests could offer their sacrifices. It also pointed to a time when Jesus would be present with us here on earth, and make the final sacrifice for his adopted ones. By equipping Bezalel and the other artists and craftsmen with intelligence, ability, knowledge, craftsmanship and the very Spirit of God, the Lord clearly set him apart for this service. Bezalel was not creating from scratch, God gave him the materials, inspiration, and mission. His creation was subordinate to God’s creation.

Of course, we won’t have our names recorded in the Bible for what we do, but God equips artists with gifts and talents, like he did with Bezalel, to serve him, and build up the church today.

If we properly understand the subordinate nature of being an artist we can approach our work humbly. If we truly see ourselves as sub-creators, then we know that God first conceived of the very mediums we work in. The nature and mechanisms of art were created by God, and given to us as gifts. He is not only the creator of story, but he is also the master storyteller. Which, finally, brings us to the intersection of gospel storytelling and plot.

I don’t know if you all remember this diagram from your middle school English class or not, but this is the standard plot structure that we all know and love, even if you don’t consciously think about it.

[caption id="attachment_61" align="aligncenter" width="1020"]The traditional, three-act plot structure The traditional, three-act plot structure[/caption]

 I have great respect for screenwriters. If you read a book like Story by Robert McKee, or Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, you will quickly realize that they have storytelling down to a science. If you look at most movies, except for maybe Terrence Malik films and other art house fare, you will find this structure.

Screenwriters refer to this as the three-act structure. Act One is the setup, where we are introduced to the characters and setting. Act Two is the confrontation, where conflict is established in what is called “the inciting incident” and obstacles are set up. The stakes are raised as the action rises and tension builds, leading up to the climax. The action of the climax launches us into the final Act, where we find resolution.

The gospel itself has a three-act structure.

[caption id="attachment_60" align="aligncenter" width="1008"]The storyline of the gospel matches up to a traditional plot structure. The gospel storyline[/caption]

In Act One, God creates Adam and Eve, setting them up in Paradise, giving them dominion over the earth. Act Two begins when Adam and Eve sin. They rebel against God’s only command, setting up the conflict between a holy God and mankind’s sin. For generations, Israel persists in a cycle of sin and repentance, demonstrating that man cannot defeat sin within his own power.

Then, Jesus shows up on the scene. He brings the sin of Israel into sharp contrast with his own perfect, holy life. Each conversation and confrontation with the leaders of the day raises the stakes until they have had enough. In one weekend, we have the climax of redemptive history. On Friday the Innocent One is found guilty. On Saturday he is in the grave. But on Sunday, history changes. God redeems his people in the most dramatic way.

From that point on, the victory has been won. Sin is already defeated. But, we live in a world where the final redemption of all creation has not yet come. Theologians call this reality “the already, but not yet.” Finally, we have the New Creation, promised to us in the Word. God will resolve the story with all glory and honor resting on him.

This overarching storyline is called the Biblical meta-narrative. It is the full story of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin, and display his glory in the person of Jesus. It is the storyline of the gospel.

I believe the three-act structure is present in the gospel storyline not because it is a structure we all relate to. Instead, I believe that we all understand and relate to the three-act structure because that is how God gave us the gospel.

Let me put that another way. The gospel is the original plot structure, and we tell stories in this way because they resonate with humans who were created to receive the gospel story.

I think there are profound questions for writers and editors to wrestle with in these truths. But today, our focus is on how we tell the stories in a way that reflects the gospel.

Every believer has a gospel storyline in our lives. We all have a creation, fall, redemption, and we will someday have a new creation in our stories.

But we also have them in our smaller stories and events. In an adoption story, isn’t the loss of a parent for an orphan a type of Fall? In a story of healing, isn’t a believer living in the ‘already but not yet’? After all, their body will still die someday, and their new body is coming one day.  Finally, the Incarnation is the heart and soul of a 100 people story. The goer is emulating exactly what Christ did for humanity.

Here is my proposal: for a story to truly reflect the gospel we cannot pick and choose what parts we show. We cannot just show creation and conflict, because we leave out redemption. We cannot just show redemption either, because a picture of redemption without a background of sin makes no sense. We only need redemption because of our sin.

When we seek to tell stories of redemption and gospel change, I suggest that at a minimum, we must show conflict and redemption. If we can show more of the story, great. But if we cannot, the gospel story must have at least two things: our sin, and God’s grace.