Who Gets to Narrate the World? by Robert Webber

I want to wax rhapsodic in giving a big old salt-water shout-out to my new friends at this year’s Ocean City Beach Project, an intentional living/learning community across the street from the Ocean City NJ Presbyterian Church, sponsored as a leadership development and discipleship summer experience for college students sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO.)  OCBP brings together a gang of collegians who read books together, attend several three hour lectures a week, learn Bible study skills and prayerfully consider how to offer their gifts and abilities for God’s work on campus, in churches, and of course in the world.  I and my daughter, Marissa and her friend Natalie, had the great privilege to hang out with the ’08 OCBP crew, and had the chance to deliver some lectures, lead some discussions, show a film, talk about Christ’s reign and explain why book-buying is a good habit for serious Christians who care about such stuff. And I didn’t get a sunburn in the hot south Jersey seashore.

My main presentations were on the development of a Christian worldview prepping them on their reading, especially, Derek Melleby and Donald Opitz’s excellent The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (Brazos; $13.99), a book that is ideal for that setting, mature and yet light, serious and joyful. (Please, if you know any college students, make sure they know about this one-of-a-kind resource!)  To invite students to meet God as clearly in their academic work as they might in a church service, to explore the relationship between faith and cultural engagement, to invite radical commitment to Christ’s ways, even in science, sports or sexualtiy, to think through a Biblically-grounded view of citizenship and politics, well, it is all very exciting.   (Why is it that middle age folk like most of my peers are nearly dull to the radical implications for this large vision of making a difference in God’s hurting world?)  Derek and Don’s book helps students explore their sense of calling, their studies, their future work, and I gave a broad a hopefully exiting foundation and framework for thinking about this perspective of whole-life discipleship, this Kingdom vision, this reformational worldview out of which the CCO approaches their work with students and college staff.  We spent considerable time diagnosing the problems of a half-baked and legalistic or rationalistic faith, as we hoped to learn to discern ways to avoid, even as we keep ourselves well rooted in the historic Christian orthodoxies applied in fresh and formative ways.  I even got to tell them a bit about Abraham Kuyper!

As a very small part of one of my talks, I showed this provocative youtube clip of Brian McLaren, called “Domesticated Jesus.” (Time didn’t permit a showing of “Rethink Everything” or “The Societal Machine” two other good clips in this series of brief DeepShift presentations.)  This first great clip laments the increasingly troubled view of faith, the disconnect, the way Christ is domesticated and distracts us from the purposes of God.  This is a view where we do not submit to the grand story of the gospel, but rather, have Jesus as a “hood ornament” on the car we are already driving to our own destination.  Seeing Jesus as a mere accessory to our own autonomy seemed to be a helpful image for these students, and I invite you to ponder this short clip, too, and wonder about how we might rethink the faith in meaningful ways that can equip us to live in the ways of Christ in the contemporary world.  Notice Brian suggests we’ve lost the plot of the gospel message, we’ve somehow gotten confused about the Story.

To counter this kind of loss of story, and to offer a reliably Biblical foundation for this “everything must change” rethink,  I cited one of the most amazing books I’ve read in a while, a really fast-paced book packed with amazing information and really fantastic inspiration.  In a season of tremendous books that help us recapture the whole vision of God’s work—these students watched N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report the week before talking about Surprised by Hope and were quite taken with his insistence on the notion that the final end of the Story is re-creation of creation, a healing of the planet and a reunion of heaven & earth—the new book, the last, by the late Robert Webber, is a must read.  It is called Who Narrates the
who gets to narrate the world.jpg World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (IVP; $15) and it argues that if Christians do not recapture the full story of a creation restored, other faiths or ideologies (think of radical Islam) will win the hearts and minds of the world’s peoples, capturing their institutions and cultures.  Insofar as Islam presents an all encompassing vision, a coherent way of life and vision of history, they do, indeed, intend to narrate the meaning of life for the 21st century.  And, insofar as Christianity is presented as merely private, personalized and sentimental, spiritual and churchy, we will fail at the Kingdom call to disciple the nations.  If we do not narrate the meaning of life as purposeful and the nature of history as a response to God’s sovereign unfolding of His rule, if we do not hold out a hope for the restoration of all things and the reality of the Kingdom, we will see other worldviews and ideological rivals to the God of the Bible win the day.  (For more about the excellent AEF statement that gave rise to this book, visit their website here.)

We unpacked Colossians 1 a bit, one of my favorite passages for decades, now, and of course, Romans 12:1-2. I showed a portion of the edgy and hard-hitting critique of hyper-reality and consumerism, The Trouble With Paris (a book and DVD curriculum I raved about in a post a few weeks back.)  We explored the implications of being “in but not of the world” and how other Christian traditions—liberal Protestantism’s accommodation to culture and radical fundamentalism’s world-flight avoidance of culture—fail at that mandated approach of Jesus.  Ahh, and then there is the cultural resistance of the new monastics and Shane Claiborne, who suggest it isn’t proper to truly engage the institutions of power, and want to only elect Jesus for President.  Weeeee, what a great conversation that was: what does Shane and friends think of Christian citizenship action for the poor, like, say, the lobbying efforts of Bread for the World, or the Kuyperian vision of redemptive engagement within institutions as expressed by the Center for Public Justice?  Does the Colossians insistence that Christ made the powers and that they “hold together” in him, and that they are for him, mean that somehow we can be “in but not of” a traditional political party?  Can Walsh & Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire help us here?

The very ecumenical and balanced Robert Webber has seen it all, and tells in great prose and astute lectures just how the church has and hasn’t walked that faithful balanced of “in not of” the culture over the long years of church history.  His explana
tion of how we have sold out due to our unhelpful synthesis with pagan dualism, how we’ve yet maintain some efforts to be redemptive within non-Christian contexts, how the Enlightenment befuddled us so, how the modern era present new opportunities, all of this is really insightful.  I wish Who Gets to Narrate the World? would have been an assigned reading, too, for OCBP, as it frames their passionate desire for relevant and faithful Kingdom discipleship with a good historical perspective, and offers hope for serious, global renewal as we relearn the proper Biblical narrative.  That is, as in the McLaren clip, we learn to regain the plot and story.  For Mr. Webber, rather than the “creation-fall-redemption-consummation” flow I taught, it is simply “creation-incarnation-recreation.”  God is honored in all things, through creation and incarnation, the cosmos is reckoned redeemable, and Christ is seen as Savior of the whole world, the one who restores the Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven” thereby giving hope within history.

I cannot recommend Who Gets to Narrate the World? enough. I wish I would have cited it more in my talks at OCBP because it really does offer a fabulous foundation for the development of a viable Christian worldview, and offers a helpful bit of insight about how we have gone wrong, and how we might, in God’s grace, regain a fuller appreciation for the whole counsel of God, and present a view of faith that is compelling, coherent, and consistent.  Such a narration of the story of our lives is just what we need if Christ is going to be more than a bobble head doll hood ornament.

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One thought on “Who Gets to Narrate the World? by Robert Webber

  1. Hey Byron,
    Thanks for the suggestions. I’m excited to check out some of these titles and clips.
    Also, I just had to read Colossians Remixed for my NT Theology class. Loved it! Also enjoyed seeing you & H&M get such acclaim from these authors. You all deserve it. Everytime I go anywhere and meet people who are thinking missionally about life and doing good work in cultural engagement, I mention H&M and they say ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place!’ Or often “I love that store!”
    Keep up the good work!

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