My colleague, Jack Peebles, loves the Star Wars movie saga. I thought I was a fan, and I am. Yet, Jack has shown me new heights of character appreciation, plot connection, and theological meaning. The recent release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story allowed Jack and me to dig ever more deeply into this artistic masterpiece. In the digging, I saw a way to illustrate the Bible for a new friend who is struggling to understand the Bible.
A very sincere young woman recently presented me with a number of challenging questions about the Bible. For each question she cited the more troubling passages of Scripture that are popular among the Bible’s critics. The passages were ones where God enacts justice against another people group. She cited passages of punishments for breaking an Old Testament law. My friend presented the passages of Scripture with declarations against certain sexual behaviors; behaviors that our culture has decided to popularized and endorse.
Her conclusion was this: if the Bible contains passages such as these, and Christians look to this book for answers, I do not want any part of Christianity.
This is when my Star Wars conversations came to mind. To discuss a particular cinematic installment, it helps to know what Lucas produced before, and what he produced afterward. Likewise, only eight of the ten slated episodes are released to the public. We have unfinished theories, hypotheses and questions about what will yet unfold.
The supposedly troubling passages of Scripture work the same way. If placed into a larger narrative of God’s gift of mercy and grace, these passages make much more sense. I am not suggesting these passages placed within God’s larger story will placate or fail to challenge our postmodern, relativistic ethic. Nor am I excusing some of the patriarchy and homophobia authors in specific historical contexts inevitably carry into their writings. Yet, I knew to focus upon these passages without the larger story is futile.
What if someone were to view the following scenes in the Star Wars saga and then draw these incorrect conclusions?
Scene A: Yoda unleashes his mad light-saber skills against soldiers in Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Incorrect Conclusion A: “Yoda is a violent, brutish creature due to his sword fighting, and therefore must be brought to justice and locked up!”
Scene B: Darth Vader, injured and dying, in Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, has his helmet removed by his son, Luke.
Incorrect Conclusion B: “Oh, what a sweet innocent man, that Darth Vader! You know, he was so misunderstood. And that cruel boy of his just sits there and doesn’t get help. How horrid!”
Scene C: In Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi Princess Leia wears a bronze and leather bikini. She is chained to Jabba the Hut. They sit in a bar full of revelry and questionable characters.
Incorrect Conclusion C: “That trollop! Exhibiting her sexy body to the men! This is such a degrading feminist moment! She should use her mind! Not her body!!”
For Star Wars fans reading along with me, you know that each of the conclusions above are what? Wrong. Flat wrong.
Here are the true conclusions to draw from the same scenes.
True Conclusion A: Yoda is a Jedi master who has the Force in him. He is on the side of the Rebels, which is good. Yodi’s righteous vengeance is part of a larger war: good defeating evil.
True Conclusion B: Darth Vader is a sad pitiful man who sold out to the dark side. His anger drove him to choices that eventually kill him. The very son he never nurtured, and even tried to kill, ironically loves and nurtures him at the end of his life.
True Conclusion C: Princess Leia is an unfortunate victim of human trafficking. She is disgustingly chained to her captor and is forced to wear demeaning clothing for the exhibition of others.
Why would Star Wars fans come to the second set of conclusions and know them to be true?
The narrative. Star Wars aficionados know the story-line from beginning, middle, and (almost) to the end. We know the characters, the motivations of each, and their growth over time as they conquer their demons, and journey towards triumph. And as of today, we still have two more movies to go! How might our theories change as more of the story unfolds?
Tim Keller, senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, provides an outstanding way to approach the Bible with narrative central to the task. His talk to the American Bible Society entitled, “The Bible as a Single Story” compares and contrasts a piecemeal approach to Scripture with a narrative based approach.
The piecemeal approach to Scripture is illustrated by a tree trunk cut into horizontal slices, against the grain, akin to a loaf of bread. One comes away with a large number of tree trunk slices. The slices can be as thick or thin as the saw operator wishes to make them. Each tree trunk slice represents a vignette in the Bible: an event of Jesus’ life, a missionary journey of Paul, a psalm, a Proverb, or prophetic oracle.
Keller notes that most of the American church today is faithful to teach the Bible, but we unknowingly teach in slices. Twenty to forty minute sermons, small group curriculum, and devotional reflections lean on the Bible for insight, and then draw, often, moralistic conclusions. We subtly begin to tells ourselves a misnomer about the Bible, Keller concludes.
Because we never line up the passages of the Bible, or the tree slices, the Bible becomes for us a large compilation of miss-matched, loosely affiliated ethical quips.
We begin to think the purpose of being a Christian is to be moral. We turn to our book of Aesop’s Fables when life gets hard or confusing to learn a higher moral truth.
Rather, Keller argues for cutting the tree along the grain, from roots to branches. When a tree is cut along the grain one can lay open the trunk and see the years of growth and the effects of drought, lightning strikes, rainy season and more.
He carries this analogy to the Bible. Rather than picking off individual passages and events of Scripture to satisfy our need for moral satisfaction, Keller says we must first understand the overall arch of God’s story. Once this occurs the individual passages fall into place.
Scripture suddenly becomes a grand narrative of God’s missional work from Creation to Redemption. Within that timeline creation falls, covenants restore a working relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants, and Christ’s arrival secures the necessary atonement caused by the fall. The church, then, becomes a missional outpost in and through which God is calling His people and Creation back to Him.
It is at this point I see my role. My role in God’s cosmic plan of salvation is so much more grand, clear, and with direction. The Bible isn’t my collection of moralistic fables filled with inconsistencies, errors, and inhumane treatments (per today’s cultural standards). Rather, the Bible is the story of an unfolding saga in which I am just as much a key player as Balaam, Peter, and Dorcas. Faith is experienced anew as this perspective brings God’s Word alive as it directly speaks into our purpose for living, working, loving, and evangelizing.
Will Jack and I one day have a role in the Star Wars saga? (Hello…why do you think we serve a church near the epicenter of Disney magic and Star Wars mania filled with employees who have connections? I’m kidding. Sort of.) Whether we will ever unleash our mad light-saber skills on the silver screen or not, we all have a role in God’s saga. The book we carry to worship is electric with the Force, ready to unveil power and purpose in our lives that squarely fits in God’s power and purpose.
Dr. Case Thorp leads The Collaborative and serves as senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.CASE THORPJANUARY 16, 2017