Which story, the cultural or the biblical one, really engages me?
Our way-of-life (ethics, morality) is story-formed. It is rooted in a story that is told about the world and the god[s] or lack of god[s] that are involved with it. Far more than simply story-telling, this is about living as characters in an on-going story. The story cannot be reduced to principles or timeless truths that claim to make up the whole story. As Christians, we ‘follow’ the story by participating in it. We read the gospels and identify Jesus as the messiah and Lord of the world and we identify disciples as our ‘surrogates’ [from Wayne Meeks, Christ Is The Question] in the story.
In other words, we are part of the on-going action of the continued story. We are no longer a part of the band of 12 disciples in Palestine. Instead, we are living in places all over media-saturated North America, but we believe that the same Jesus from the story of the gospels and the same Jesus spoken by Paul in his letters is the same Jesus alive and active in our community today. We are obsessed with ‘the new in Christ,’ living in a new era, a new world, a whole new order (II Cor 5:17) in the midst of the old. This story that we live out, we are convinced, is a true story, not a fairy tale or fable or virtual reality. Instead, we believe that this story is true reality, that the new era in Christ is what is real—-as opposed to the counterfeit life of the old age.
Christian communities living faithfully in the United States are in the midst of a ‘contest of stories.’ As we seek to live under the authority and power of the Great Story (‘the gospel story’) about a God who created the world and is determined to redeem the world, we also are inundated with other stories that vie for our allegiance. The American master story [the American Dream] is quite different than the gospel story of a ‘eschatological people’ who seek to live out the ‘master picture’ of the Lamb who was slain’—-to live out God’s will to be a servant and suffering and humble people. The American master story, instead, sells a ‘be all you can be’ achievement gospel. Through various medias, including movies, music, advertising, TV shows and MySpace pages, the American master story pitches a dreamy, romantic form of love, sexually charged and loaded with material possessions (diamond rings, large house with white picket fence, flat-screen TV in living room full of ‘stuff’). Lastly, the American master story is wrought with ‘the myth of redemptive violence,’ the idea that violence and punishment is the way to get back at terrorists, murderers, or thieves—anyone and anything threatening our way of life.
There is a choice between the two master stories, but, in reality, most Christians in the United States are infused with both stories. This is a confusing situation called ‘fragmentation.’ Theologian Jonathan Wilson, drawing on the work of Alisdair MacIntyre, explains: ‘our lives are lived piecemeal, not whole… We do not live in a world filled with competing outlooks; we live in a world that has fallen apart’ [Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, 27]. Christians live out these competing narratives, switching back and forth without even knowing it. We spend so much time living out the American master story that we’re not sure where it intersects with the gospel story.
As Reformed Bible scholar N.T. Wright explains, "Christians, like everybody else, are often muddled, mistaken, foolish and wayward, and are probably trying to ride at least one other horse at the same time" [New Testament and the People of God, 134]. Riding two horses at the same time can obviously be extremely counterproductive and time-consuming. The goal is for communities living out the ‘baptist vision’ to discover, understand and transform their convictions in light of the Great Story. And in the process, they can intentionally be a witness to a society of competing stories. Only by living more faithfully in the gospel story can we be on mission.
The community of ‘the baptist vision’ is a witness of the ‘new in Christ’ to the world. Every community is a community of mission as they engage with the ‘powerful practices’ of culture, in religion, art, philosophy, science, as well as many forms of popular culture (TV, movies, music, internet, etc). Communities that live as characters in the on-going Great Story form an alterative culture to that which surrounds them with other ‘master stories.’
McClendon offers a ‘theology of culture’ (or missiology) that has three distinct ‘trajectories’ coming from three legendary theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich, who searched through wider culture looking for meaning [HOPE]; Julian Hartt, who sought to expose the lies and illusions of wider culture that counterfeit our lives [WARNING]; and John Howard Yoder, who called upon communities to pledge allegiance to the lordship of Christ in often times counterculture ways [DEMAND]. All three of these emphases are needed for an effective witness.
This engagment with the world allows followers of Jesus [individuals and communities] to look for ways that different aspects of culture reflect the gospel. This rejects a simplistic either-or dualism that has everything as either black or white. It allows McClendon to point to Navajo religion as a representative of ‘the new in Christ’ in some areas—-where the gospel story intersects with their own story, where the gospel story unveils truth. As McClendon puts it [Witness, 72-73],
Its business is to affirm them where they are true, to correct them where they are harmfully wrong, and to complete them by showing the relation between these stories and an inclusive story of all the earth…to repeat, the gospel is not a simple no or yes to Navajo ‘religion’ but declares a simultaneous yes and no.
And, after a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Navajo religion it can point out where the gospel story can and should speak to them more clearly—to bring healing and liberation to a hurting and enslaved people. When the gospel story is hope, warning and demand, it can place Navajo religion under gospel light and ‘exclaim with an amen to the Navajo sense of wholeness of life and the beauty it evinces.’ It can also give great news to the Navajo people who tell the story of witches and ghosts that haunt them throughout life. And most humbly, the gospel story itself can critique some of the efforts of the earliest Christian missionaries to the Navajos, as well as current gospel-sharing. The first missionaries from Europe had a strong attachment to the cult of saints and a far-too-narrow practice of communion and the current strategy of witness needs to have more of a social and economic focus [instead of the obsession with the individual] dealing with unique Navajo challenges like coal mining, power plants, hand crafts and agriculture.
And humbly, when the baptist vision dialogues with the worldview of the Navajo, we can also benefit greatly from their practices, attitudes and ways of life that critique aspects of our lifestyle that compromise or counterfeit what God desires for our us.
The witness of the gospel story to the Navajo people is instructive only when we take this trajectory [HOPE…WARNING…DEMAND] to a whole range of ‘powerful practices’ in our society. As we critiquely engage movies, government institutions [and political leaders], sports, novels, medicine, foreign affairs, different aspects of our jobs, our marriages and families and a myriad of other life settings, the gospel story can say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ [hope and warning] in a variety of ways as we engage these with prayer and discernment. We will continue to see more clearly how this gospel story can speak to these different ‘powers’ in more strategic ways—the community must always live out the gospel story as we engage these cultural conditions [demand].
For Further Discussion:
1. Why is ‘story’ [narrative] so important?
2. How are the Christian story [Great Story] and the American master story different? Share how you can see both of them in your own life.
3. Share a movie that you’ve seen recently and brainstorm how you can critique the story or certain characters in the story by revealing its HOPE of gospel truth, a WARNING of how it harmfully embraces lies/illusions and the how a community of the gospel story can be a living witness to it [DEMAND].
**You may want to spend part of your time watching a movie [or parts] together and then prayerfully discerning and analyzing it together.
For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon [chapter 12]
Witness, McClendon [chapters 1 and 2]
Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World by Jonathan Wilson
The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright [chapter 5]
Borrowing from McClendon, I present to you a critique of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), a film that garnered widespread acclaim, including more than $130 million at the box office and an Oscar Best Picture nomination.
Hope: Tarantino is a genius at unveiling just how gruesome humanity can be. In Django, he reminds us just how twisted race relations have been, particularly in the years anticipating the American Civil War. African Americans were so "thingified" (MLK) that they could be bought and sold, breaking up the family unit at will. Indeed, it was a shock to Southern whites when Django had the audacity to ride a horse, as Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie passionately pushes his slaves into vicious Mandingo fighting-to-the-death against slaves of rival slave owners. We know that Hollywood has fictionalized the Mandingo enterprise, but slave owners would send slaves to box it out for pure entertainment.
Tarantino's presentation of life in the 19th century American South beckons us to consider the continued racial injustice that plagues our nation and our world. Our overcrowded prisons and dilapidated schools are overwhelmed with African-Americans who have grown up in impoverished innercities, while our corporate farms are harvested by immigrant labor, undocumented and poorly compensated. On top of this, our corporations are getting more and more sophisticated outsource slavery to Third World locales that make everything from iPhones to the Dallas Cowboys.
In short, we must be reminded of the hideousness and insanity of our history, both personal and national. Indeed, we are all greatly shaped by the mentality and actions of previous generations. We do not start afresh. Only when we dare to enter the darkness of the past can we embrace a true journey of healing, joining our oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters in their demand for personal dignity and systemic justice.
Warning:Django is porn for all those who harbor revenge fantasies. Tarantino soaked German Jews in redemptive violence in Inglorious Basterds and, who knows, perhaps will come alongside the 18th century frontier Native American or late 20th century gay high school student next. Tarantino, in fact, set out to make this film the photo negative of the legendary African-American Roots:
One thing both men agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be “the bigger man.”
“Bulls--t,” exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. “No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,” says Tarantino. “The powers that be during the ’70s didn’t want to send the message of revenge to African-Americans. They didn’t want to give black people any ideas. But anyone knows that would never happen in that situation. And in Django Unchained we make that clear.”
But this is a vital problem despite the longing we all have for the world to be put to rights, that the evil-doers will be done right. Redemptive violence is a myth on two major counts: (1) because over and over, throughout history, it has proven to both repeat and intensify what the Brazilian priest Dom Helder Camara called "the spiral of violence;" and (2) after the revenge fantasy (in all its glory!) has concluded there remains a deeply disappointing pit of unfulfillment in our souls--sure enough, evil is blown away by evil, but as Gandhi enunciated so beautifully, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind." Only forgiveness and a creative strategy towards restorative justice can heal the epidemic of abuse and atrocity lurking in the corners of our world.
Demand: If not revenge, then what? The narrative weaknesses of Django call all people of faith and conscience to a more bold and courageous vision of nonviolent resistence and enemy love. This is pacifism, not passivism. It will take power to assert ourselves, confronting injustice in its manifold forms. We will need to embrace a more strategic creativity that employs a variety of weapons of peace and love, like boycotts, protests, marches, artistic appeals, education, satire and a commitment to a holistic lifestyle of nonviolence that considers what we eat, how we communicate and where we work in our grand conspiracy to extinguish hate and abuse from the world.
According to Cornel West, it has been the African-American experience itself that has been a "leaven in the loaf" of American history. Isn't it a wonder, West asks, that there has never been an emergence of a black al Qaeda in the United States, after centuries of violence and terrorism against them? Indeed, Django flips the script on the legacy of Martin Luther King who, influenced by Jesus and Gandhi, consistently and coherently devoted his movement of confronting the vicious presence of racism, poverty and militarism on the American landscape to the practices of love and forgiveness. This, West consistently points out, is portrayed in the words of the grieving mother of Emmett Till: "I don't have a minute to hate. I am going to pursue justice the rest of my life."
Our world desperately needs practitioners who are militantly committed to peaceful confrontation with power and creative solutions to the many problems, both individual and systemic. A robust critique of Django, during a week celebrating King's prophetic witness, implores us that this task is fiercely urgent.