I'm indebted to N.T. Wright for the idea of story as a subversive element in the art of convincing your audience. If you can bring your audience with you in the story you tell, the conclusion is a slam dunk. Their worldview is subverted without them even being aware of it, and there you have them. Only second thoughts can save or damn them from your message.
Well, there are (at least) three stories circulating the Christian world (among people of my acquaintance anyways) about church history. They all have the same plot, but different players and different endpoints but very similar conclusions. Each tell of an original church long lost by a cultural shift, a church that we all should get back to -- to reclaim original Christianity, or else. The three churches are the Jewish church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox church. Each has their attraction as the original church. The villain in the story, the one who cut us loose from our foundations, is different in each story. In the Jewish church story, it's the Greeks and their Greek ideas, as well as medieval anti-semitism. For the Orthodox story (I haven't heard much of it) the villain maybe the Roman Pope who excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and segregated Europe from the influence of the Greek church. The reformers are the obvious villains in the Roman Catholic story. They broke us away from Mother Church and we (protestants and free churchers) have been set adrift, lacking true sacraments as ministered by her anointed agents. Each story continues with you, the seeker, throwing away your worldview (if you like you can sing your own version of Weird Al's 'Everything You Know is Wrong'), adopting the worldview of your chosen original church and 'coming home' to the true church.
So if we want to be connected with the true church, which do we choose? Do we, remembering the race and home culture of our Lord, adopt Jewish terms and concepts, straining Greek concepts like gnats out of our reading of the bible and the understanding of our faith? Do we run in desperation for 'the real thing' back to one of the churches that claim succession? That's what stories like the above lead you to...
Well I've got a different story. It's a story that's familiar to anyone who's studied missions. The gospel is brought to a new culture and planted there. It thrives among the people and takes on a unique life of its own in that culture and spawns a church that makes sense in that culture. This is the missionary ideal. A famous quote by a Mr Murthi of India in the book Perspectives on the World Christian Movement says it all. “Do not bring us the gospel as a potted plant. Bring us the seed of the gospel and plant it in our soil.” So my story is that the gospel was planted among the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans, and the result is what we see before us. Take the Roman Catholic church, for example. They could not be more culturally Roman. They have a hierarchical chain of command with a senate (the cardinals) and an emperor (the Pope) to boot.
So why, I ask, why can't we have the same process for our culture? There was a cultural shift in the renaissance, that has made me what I am today. Why must I suddenly take on the worldview of the middle ages for my salvation? I can not bring myself to believe that I can decide for my children as to their eternal destiny, nor can I bring myself to believe that I am beholden to the Pope as the ultimate agent of Christ on earth. These ideas come from a different culture than my own. And I fail to understand how they can affect how I relate to Jesus, which I do. I love him and pray to him and I receive from him miraculous help without reference to anyone in the Catholic hierarchy. Can I not extend to myself what I believe must be extended to unreached peoples, that is the freedom to find what the gospel is, when it is planted by seed in my own culture. I have a friend who, on switching to the Orthodox church, reports that everything in the Bible 'makes so much more sense.' Well yes, I would answer, you've just taken on a culture 1500 years closer to that of the Bible. If I did the same, I would expect the same result. But how could I ever communicate that gospel to people of my culture. It would be as ludicrous as a triumphant quote from a misguided missionary documentary I heard in my youth. "When we came up the river, they were singing their demonic tribal music. When we left, they sang Amazing Grace." Nowadays, I would hope that missionaries would've assisted them to express their worship of Jesus in their own musical idioms. Similarly, I believe that the gospel is powerful enough to transform my individualistic western culture from the inside out without trying to impose upon it any other culture. This brings up the question, "how do we treat the bible?" but that I will cover in my next post.