I’m a science guy and I loved nonfiction books growing up. I was so opposed to anything related to writing, literature, or narrative that in order to satisfy my second writing requirement in my undergraduate studies, I chose a chemistry lab course that required more than twenty pages of lab reports. So, it is ironic that I am now a preacher, teacher, and student of the greatest book ever written.
You see, as much as I’ve tried to escape it, I have found that the world is best described not as a lab report of correlated facts, but as a narrative. And on a personal level, I’ve found that humans are story-forming creatures, crafting their personal stories to make sense of their lives.
The Movie Trailer in Your Head
The way I illustrate it is that each of us is directing, constantly and cognitively, the movie trailer of our lives. The low-level hum in our brains is a three- to four-minute video on endless repeat, playing our highlights and hopes, with that low, gravelly voice that opens every movie trailer narrating the story and creating suspense. Each day of our lives presents us with new footage to potentially include.
But critically, each of our life trailers is only roughly based on reality. We don’t—at least, the non-psychopathic among us don’t—consciously try to depart from reality in our narratives. But we are finite creatures who in our trailers filter finite information and misinformation according to our own particular perspective. James Davidson Hunter charts this type of story crafting in his book To Change the World. He observes that warring factions within a particular culture tend to develop narratives of offense about one another, based on available information, for the purpose of stoking vitriol against one another. It turns out, on a sociological level, that your self-identified cause and your perceived enemies radically affect the way you tell the story of your life.
Breaking News and Breaking Stories
New information can alter your story as well. Imagine that you discover, in the attic of your childhood home, adoption papers with your name on them. That would be no small or insignificant discovery. That new information would change how you view your childhood, your current identity, and possibly your future. But now, imagine that you’re in the kitchen of a good friend after a cookout. You’re raving about the hamburgers only to look down in the trash can and spot the empty packaging for ground turkey, not, as you suspected, ground beef. That new information might change your assessment of the dinner (and maybe the cook), but it won’t make any significant alterations to how you tell your life story. The principle at work here is that new information has the potential to change our story—how we understand our life and the world around us—based on the importance of that information. Given this truth, we now have a grid through which to consider the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its story-changing power.
In reality, a great many people have been exposed to the Christian gospel, the new information about what God has been up to and is up to in the world through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. But resultant life narrative changes vary. Some may give honor to Jesus as a great teacher. Others may dismiss Him as a nut. Some may consider Him an important part of their family traditions, while others claim Him as a removed but personal savior, a sort of spiritual fire insurance. Still others become captivated by Him, with the truth of His gospel changing every part of their story. But make no mistake, this last group is the only one that can be legitimately called Christian. How a person’s story changes after they’ve heard the gospel reveals whether they’ve believed in the real Christ. The Christian gospel is without a doubt the most important new information ever to be proclaimed in human history—past, present, and future. Because it is the most important truth, it also creates the most drastic changes in those who believe it. Christianity, undistilled, is the most powerful personal change agent in the world. When the Holy Spirit reveals the truth of Christ to a renovated sinner, every aspect of their story changes.
Asaph and Paul
Consider two examples from the Bible. In Psalm 73, Asaph finds himself in a rough spot. As he plays his life trailer in his head, it just isn’t adding up. He is a follower of the one true God, and yet he sees the wicked around him prosper. They are the conquering heroes of their personal movie trailers. Asaph is becoming increasingly convinced that his personal narrative is going to end up in the tragedy genre. But then, in Psalm 73:16–17, his narrative changes as he goes into the temple of God. Without taking too much time for theological heavy lifting, let me note that the sanctuary prefigures and points to Jesus Christ. It is the place where God meets with His people, where worship happens under the shadow of God’s covenant promises, where believers are accepted and forgiven based on the grace of sacrifice and atonement. It is in that place, chronicled in those two verses, that the gospel changes Asaph’s story. He sees that the decaying prosperity of the world is no true judge of divine approval. He sees that his story is one of God-secured hope and final triumph promised, all because God is the hero of the story, not Asaph.
We find a similar example in Philippians 3 where Paul reviews his Jewish résumé up until his conversion, what Paul at one time would’ve considered a superstar Jew’s religious record. Most Jews would count Paul’s story before he became a Christian as an impressive biopic of spiritual fortitude and zeal. But that isn’t the way that Paul saw his story. All of his earthly, religious accomplishments he compares to noxious filth in comparison to knowing and following Jesus. Jesus had radically changed Paul through forgiveness and new birth, and so the amazing new information of the gospel completely reoriented how Paul told his personal narrative.
If we loop back around, we can tie all of this up together. We are storytelling creatures, grasping at reality with all the information we can gather. New information always changes our story based on the importance of that new information, whether it is adoption papers or ground turkey wrappers. The gospel of Jesus is the most amazing, most important information that anyone could hear. And the quality of your personal movie trailer—the significance of your life—has nothing to do with how well you craft it and has everything to do with how much you value Jesus. He is either the record of your entry into a new life, a new story, a new family, or he is just a discarded wrapper.