Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Storytelling God

The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His ParablesThe Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables by Jared C. Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Throw away your Flannelgraphs. They are flat and soft, and the story of Jesus is neither.”

In his newest work, Wilson looks at The Storytelling God, seeing how Jesus used parables to reveal Himself to His beloved.  Wilson immediately confronts the misunderstanding of the parables as “sermon illustrations”, Confucius-says cousins, and shows them to be something much greater.

When Jesus teaches a parable, he is not opening up “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or a fortune cookie but a window to the hidden heavenlies. He is revealing a glimpse of eternity crashing into time, a flash photo of his own wisdom brought to bear. The parables give us a direct portal to the kingdom of God being done on earth as it is in heaven.

He continues,

There are two errors readers of the Bible make most often about the parables of Jesus, each a pendulum swing away from the other. The first error is to believe that the parables are simplistic religious illustrations, almost spiritual folktales. In this erroneous reading, the parables are read superficially, as moral lessons. The parables are of course fairly simple up there at the surface—some of them simpler than others—and there are clear moral lessons in the stories. But the parables are more complex than that. On the other hand, there is another school of thought, equally erroneous, that would have readers poring over the parables as if they were some kind of Magic Eye hidden-picture painting. It is definitely possible to overthink the parables, by which I mean to read them with too much speculative scrutiny, ransacking every point and detail for every possible meaning it may have locked up, squeezing symbols out of symbols, bypassing the primary intent of the story for some imaginative concoction of biblical connections.

One of Wilson’s main points is that the parables, first and foremost and ultimately and primarily, are about the Kingdom of God.  He quotes scholar Craig Blomberg to support this assertion.

The central theme uniting all of the lessons of the parables is the kingdom of God. It is both present and future. It includes both a reign and a realm. It involves both personal transformation and social reform. It is not to be equated either with Israel or the church, but is the dynamic power of God’s personal revelation of himself in creating a human community of those who serve Jesus in every area of their lives.

Wilson does not shy away from the fact that Jesus did not claim that His parables were told to illustrate or make His teachings easier to understand.  Quite the opposite is often true.  Those who have ears are told that they will hear, but for those who do not, the parables are meant to confuse and confound.

The parables in their power enlighten the elect to understand the parables in their content.   At the same time, the parables that illuminate themselves to the effectually called obscure themselves to those spiritually darkened. The same sun that melts the ice, as they say, hardens the clay.

Wilson encourages his reader to avoid the temptation to see Jesus as simply a “spiritual” teacher, one who is of benefit with the ethereal stuff but of no real benefit when it comes down to brass tacks, the things of “the real world”.

Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived. We have to get that through our thick skulls if we want to make a hill of beans’ difference for the kingdom in this world. So often we think of Jesus as spiritual in a way disconnected from reality. Jesus is religiously idealistic, we reason, but not “street smart.” Jesus knows how things ought to be, but he’s not so incisive on how things really are. Jesus is a good teacher, but in the popular imagination pretty much a naïve one…We come to Jesus’s teaching looking for tips on playing checkers, when all along he is playing chess…It makes total sense, then—real, actual, logical sense—to believe Jesus. He is no fool who believes the man who knows everything.

Wilson does not just talk about parables in broad generalities but also looks specifically at many of Jesus’ parables, albeit at a basic level.  While the scope of the text didn’t allow for much in-depth study, many parables were given a solid and meaty treatment, especially when considering the brevity of this work as a whole and the breadth of the topic Wilson takes on.

One area that Wilson spends a good amount of time on is social justice in the context of the Good Samaritan parable.  This is an area that many in my circles have been concerned with and, according to Wilson and, more importantly, according to the Scriptures, for good reason.  Wilson cautions the reader to be balanced and biblical when addressing the area of social justice.

We are pendulum people, constantly overcorrecting from one error into an error on the other side. So when some come along preaching a gospel of social justice, others will rashly deny the necessity of the thing in the first place. The consequence is a small gospel, scaled only to the individual. We’ve veered away from the cliff and right into a ditch on the other side, and there we lie with the half-dead man from Jerusalem.

Wilson then gives 7 reasons we must, as believers, be engaged in social justice.  But he cautions the reader to ensure that the Gospel is the Gospel and give 9 reasons as to why we should guard against financial justice becoming another Gospel in our thought, rhetoric, and actions.

The gospel for the materially poor is not financial justice, although that is a valid implication of the kingdom’s coming to bear in the world; it is, instead, the same as the gospel for the poor in spirit: eternal life in Christ Jesus. Why must we hold this distinction between gospel content and gospel entailments as it relates to poverty?

Wilson leads the reader gently and thoroughly through the topic of hell in a way that only a seasoned minister in regular fellowship with the Spirit of God could, even highlighting some oft-neglected aspects of this conversation.

Here is something provocative, dissolving of the pernicious dualism masquerading sometimes as Christian faith: hell does not belong to Satan. As the place of condemnation, it is a realm under our sovereign God’s jurisdiction. Satan himself will suffer there, just like the rest of the condemned.
And so it is more precise to say in the long run that in the last day, God wins. He wins even now. He has never failed. Oh, we could say that in the end love wins too, so long as we are acknowledging along with the Bible that those who love themselves, and thereby hate God, will suffer eternal defeat in hell. Hate loses. Those, then, who love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength—and their neighbors as themselves—win. Infinitely. Irrevocably. Invincibly:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh . . . (Rom. 8:1–3)

Towards the end of the book, Wilson goes some places that I did not expect.  He looks at the parables in the Old Testament.  Personally, I preferred the earlier parts of the book where Wilson dealt specifically with the parables in Christ’s teaching, but I also suffer from some underlying, repressed, Freudian- level Marcionite prejudice in my thinking that causes me to favor the New Testament over the Old Testament, so take my preference for what it is worth(that is, probably not much).  Wilson does however, address head on the difficulty of studying parabolic teaching from the Old Testament, especially in separating parables from types and not falling prey to allegorizing the text.

Identifying parables in the Old Testament is an intellectually arduous and frustrating task. The varied use of poetic forms, metaphors, symbols and types, the apocalyptic, dreams, and so on and so forth render the search as time-intensive as one would care to make it, depending on how “parable” is being defined.  Certainly much of old covenant prophecy could be labeled parable (Hos. 12:10). Recall that the Hebrew word for parable (mashal) in the Old Testament is used for proverbs, stories, riddles, and similes. In addition, throughout the Old Testament, in both the historical and the poetical texts, we find types and shadows of Christ and his new covenant.
For our purposes, however, we will look primarily at some key stories that connect to the unfolding gospel story in the New Testament, and we will focus on intentional fictions meant to convey God’s prophetic truths. That is, we will not look at historical events—things that actually happened—that may also be interpreted as parables of the kingdom (things like Noah’s ark or water flowing from desert rocks or ravens delivering bread to Elijah), but instead at narrative or poetic stories that in a parabolic way reveal truth to or conceal truth from their hearers.

Wilson also looks at the “I am” statements in John’s Gospel as parable and even looks at Christ himself as parable.

Strictly speaking, the “I am” statements found in the Gospel of John are not parables. But as we’ve seen, it is difficult to speak strictly about what fits into this genre in the first place. The scope of mashal seems quite malleable in the Old Testament. A less flexible but not inflexible scope persists into the New Testament. Some scholars and preachers will include the similitudes of Matthew 5:13–14 (salt and light) in the genre of parable. The metaphors Jesus uses there complement the symbolic mechanism of many parables. And while I have not made space in this book to include the detailing of every clearly identified parable of Jesus, much less every significant instance of metaphor and symbol found in the Gospels, the seven peculiar statements from the Johannine narrative demand inclusion because of the way they resemble the parables’ subjects and object. That is to say, the “I am” statements are like the parables because they are complex comparisons that reveal the glory of God in Christ to those who have the ears to hear. They reveal truth to the hearts of some and confound the minds of others.

Jesus is himself a parable. Just as the parables’ words may be heard but not heard, seen yet not seen, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God who is either received or rejected. Blessed are those who hear him and believe. Condemned are those who are offended by him and disbelieve....He is a living parable because he is the inscrutable, eternal, ineffable God become a man, dwelling among men, tempted like men, sacrificed for men. As the parables contain the Spiritual power of awakening or deadening within stories of the human experience, Christ is the Spirit-conceived power of God undergoing the human experience.
Like the other parables, this parable is deceptively complex. The parable of the gospel of Christ is simple enough that a child may believe and deep enough to sustain the life of a countless multitude of saints for all eternity. Here is a mystery: he became one of us that we might become like him.

This is probably the most ambitious section of the entire book and it is also the part, for me at least, that did not deliver as much as I would hope.  There is always the looming possibility that I just missed it.  It is not uncommon for me to get a good ways into a book and see my attention and effort start to wane and the same may have been true for this work.  Regardless of whether I missed it or Wilson missed me, this section did not live up to the rest of the work for me.  I may wait a couple of weeks and take another swing at it and see if we can connect better than the first time through!

Wilson’s section on how we fabricate “Kingdom Growth” and attempt to be the Holy Spirit was excellent.  His critique of program-driven, results oriented, idol-creating pragmatism is not new, but it is appropriate and insightful.
But the more we lead with law, the more we stifle real growth. The more programs we throw at our church, the more inward it becomes. The more strategies we bring to the table, the less Spiritual wisdom holds sway. As that Korean pastor said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish without the Holy Spirit.”
We stay busy, brooding, building, asking God to bless our efforts, and then pat ourselves on the back when the Spirit works in spite of our ignorant attempts to quench him.
Time and time again we think we have the killer program, the system, the strategy, the secret for achieving Christian maturity and church growth, but the Bible tells us the Spirit blows where he wills, like the wind (John 3:8). We cannot generate a move of God; otherwise it would be called a move of us.
Wilson continues,
The emphasis today mirrors the emphasis of yesterday. Reach the cream of the crop, plant churches in the power centers, send missionaries to the cultural influencers, convert the CEOs and celebrities, and then you will see “trickle-down” kingdom expansion. Seminary professors warn ministers-in-training away from rural areas and some inner cities. It would be a waste of their talents.  It is the same “winner’s circle” evangelism strategy I remember from my youth. If you want to see the gospel take over your school, we were encouraged, you must reach the quarterback, the head cheerleader, and the student body president.
Of course, all of these power centers and power people need the gospel! We should not not take the message of salvation through repentant faith to them. But as a principle it seems to miss the tone of Jesus’s ministry, which was largely on the outskirts, among the people on the fringes. Jesus is looking specifically for the forsaken. He is intentionally selecting the weak and foolish. And he builds his church not through entrepreneurial ideas or clever strategies but through his gospel.

What Wilson never fails to do in his teaching is present the Gospel, clearly and persuasively and distinguished from works.  The Storytelling God is no different in this respect.

The gospel is the news of the work of Christ—sinless life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection—which is to say, the gospel is not the news of anything we’ve done or can do. The gospel is also “the kingdom” that was coming in and through Christ’s ministry, inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. But whether we use the gospel definition of 1 Corinthians 15 or the kingdom gospel framework of the synoptic Gospels, the gospel is still news of something that Christ has done or is doing. Therefore, anything that happens now and is done by us—including, but not limited to, what we might call social justice—is not the gospel message itself, but is the Christian’s living as if that gospel message is true. I maintain that the gospel’s content ends and the gospel’s implications begin when we start “doing stuff".

If you are looking for a book to give you a basic understanding of Christ’s parables and to teach basic hermeneutics for parable study, this is more than a worthwhile read.  Wilson has released a string of works that are a blessing to the church.  The Storytelling God is just the latest and one of his best.

I recevied a review copy of this book through NetGalley, I bought a copy as well....if that means anything to you!

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