Every book that’s worth its salt leads me inexorably back to the only book that I read and re-read constantly, and which also happens to be the best-selling book of all time: the Bible. And let’s face it: all good books should do that, because every good story must have concerns that every one can relate to existentially, people, places, events that we can relate to, even identify with, and they must inevitably bring us back to the big questions in our life:
Why am I here? How can I know truth? What gives meaning to life? What should I do?
And only one book, the Bible, can answer all those questions in a way that – as enigmatic as many parts of it can be – is deeply seeded in the history of humanity from its beginning to its end, because it is itself a story, a narrative in real time of all the events that went into making us who we are and where we are going, corporately and as individuals.
Within its pages is the one story that explains all other stories, and not just stories, but our lives, in a redemptive-historical-eschatological framework. “It comes with clarifying, overwhelming force from the books of Genesis through Revelation,” writes Richard Bewes. “The granite truth of God at work—in the shape and goal of our human story—tells us all we need to know.”¹
Is it any wonder, then, that one of the most popular books in the world, one that has never been out of print since its publication in 1678, is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which breathes the Bible through every syllable of its entertainingly panoramic and didactic allegory of a Christian’s life?
In Bunyan’s opening scene, a pilgrim stands with a great burden on his back reading the Bible – described only as the book – one that causes him to awaken to the nature of his pitiable plight. It sets him on a journey that leads him to saving grace and relays the story of his life as a pilgrimage beset with dangers, toils, and snares, as well as matchless beauty, joy, and comfort. But it all begins with a self-awakening. It all begins, in fact, with a book.
It is in the very nature of stories, be they in music, books or movies or galleries, to bring us to a sense of ourselves and our plight, our existential dilemma. Contemporary art shows us the ever-shifting forces of our culture, the narratives that drive and inform the attitudes of those around us. Which is why I have never been clear on why it is that many Christians shun the arts – that great creative outpouring of tales – as being unworthy of their time.
Are we not moved to evangelize in our communities, communities that are more and more saturated in a post-Christian culture? How then can we understand our friends and neighbors if we don’t understand the culture in which they exist, by which they are shaped consciously or not?
I can tell a tale or two of such a misguided segregation that alienates rather than engages with the lost in our generation. But let me tell a tale of three books instead. Three books about belonging in a place named Gilead – a fictional town in Pulitzer-winning writer Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014).
Don’t be misled by the graphics. This isn’t a book review. But of all the authors writing today, Marilynne Robinson is the most concerned with describing the shape of being, whose words swell into a paean of praise for the gift of existence.
I began reading the first novel, Gilead, after hearing of the unabashed orthodox Christian tenets that adorn this tale of John Ames, a dying man writing to his young toddler son who one day will want to know more of the father who didn’t live to see him achieve manhood. I wasn’t disappointed, either by its tender lyricism or its literary profundity. Here was depth and genius, merit and grandeur locked in the pages of a single seamless tale. A rare find indeed. And it led me to Robinson’s second novel, Home, this time a story of the prodigal son who returns to his waiting father, seeking to find the answer to his restlessness. Once again, a tale that did not disappoint.
But when I read Lila, I felt an immediate hostility. Robinson had followed a theological course that led away from the orthodox to the amorphous “spirituality” that passes as a pseudo-religion these days. I felt betrayed by the author and this led to a disaffection that blinded me to the window she had opened to what so many of my neighbors had come to believe as the alternative to Christianity, what they conceived of as tolerant and open-minded, but is in reality deceptive and ultimately futile.
Art gives us a window into the cultural milieu that our world is marinating in, the feelings and attitudes, the stories that shape the imagination and perceptions of our friends and into which they insert their own stories, their own lives. If we want to see “where they’re coming from,” we can’t shut out the arts or stop our ears against the questions they raise.
In his discussion of how Christians should reach across the growing cultural divide in movies, filmmaker Anthony Parisi recounts the intense backlash against Martin Scorsese’s movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, at its initial release. What could have been an opportunity to direct people’s attention (including Scorsese’s) to the truths of the Gospel became an occasion of vitriol because of the Christian community’s failure to see that the movie’s value is “not that it is true of Jesus but that it is true of Scorsese,” a man who, as movie critic Roger Ebert put it, made the film because he wanted to “get to know Christ better.” His misguided vision (and perhaps that of millions of others) could have been gently corrected had more Christians acknowledged the “sincere, spiritual wrestling” of this lapsed Catholic. Parrish concludes by writing,
What matters most is that when we encounter the Christ of the cinema [or the novel], who we’re really seeing is our neighbor. How will we respond?²
Perhaps we should respond with some honest evangelism. Perhaps we should be generous with our time, listening to understand their stories, hearing too the voices of the culture that shape their ideas of God and their (non)engagement with Him. Perhaps, as Anglican pastor Rico Tice suggests, when the moment comes, we should ask that neighbor or friend if they would like to know who Christ Jesus is, and if they would like to begin by reading the Bible with us, that book to which all others lead.
¹Richard Bewes, “Describe Your Worldview” (Decision, Feb. 2016).
²Anthony Parisi, “The Christ of the Cinema,” (Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 2016).