Several days ago I had the chance to see Ghost in the Shell directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson as Major, a human-cyborg warrior who is attempting to discover the secrets of her past and find meaning in the midst of a futuristic cybernetic age.
At the end of the film, Major makes a statement that, while meant to be inspiring, I find slightly chilling:
"We cling to memories as if they define us, but what we do defines us." - The Major
This is after we have seen person after person throughout the film get "brain-hacked" (since most people have actually cybernetically networked their brains to the internet and computer systems), and have had their memories written, rewritten, altered, and tampered with to the point that no one who is plugged-in can know for certain if the memories that they have are real.
Major's statement is intended to put a positive spin on a bleak situation - a way to say that we define who we are as people, not our past, since the past has been rendered unknowable to us by our own foolhardy integration of our very selves with technology on a global scale.
However, Major's statement did not comfort me. Instead, it made me concerned about where we as a society, especially where we as the Church, seem to be headed.
TLDR - The Post in a (nut)shell
- People do not define themselves by what they do. They are defined by the vision, purpose, and meaning that is spoken over their lives throughout their lives - many times by other people, but most of all by God.
- People who try to define themselves by what they do inevitably come to a crisis of existence, purpose, and meaning in their lives, because they realize in the end that if we define our own existence our existence is ultimately meaningless (or as one ancient author put it vanity.).
- If churches, or churchgoers, forget the stories of what God has done in the past and the present, eventually they replace God's stories with other stories - and they lose themselves.
- All of the above points are great, but they won't get us anywhere unless we build in some fun.
The past more than anything tells us who we are. That's because we are built to run on stories.
Why Stories (and Memories) Matter
To illustrate this point, I will point to a seminal work on the importance of memory and stories: not the Bible (we'll get there later), but George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the protagonist Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth and, literally, rewrites history to the point that it becomes unknowable by everyone. It's a team effort. Society as a whole has been engineered in such a way that the residents of Oceania are unable to know what is true and what is false. Why should they be upset with the way that things are? The Party has done nothing but improve the lives of its citizens. Whatever it has done, it has done for its citizens own well-being. If it has told its citizens to believe that 'black' is 'white', its citizens should do that because the Party knows best. And who can say otherwise? Was the Party responsible for wrongdoing a month ago when a group of outspoken dissident citizens suddenly disappeared, carried away by strange men in black? No one knows, and if they think they know otherwise they have been deceived and led astray by misinformation and rumor.
As Winston attempts to do the right thing, stop rewriting history, and set society and his own moral compass right, he comes to an unfortunate end when he is imprisoned and tortured in Room 101 by the Thought Police until he breaks, realizing that Big Brother alone knows the secrets of the past, and therefore those of the present and future, while no human alive knows enough to counter the Party's claims. His only recourse is to lovingly surrender to Big Brother and believe what he is told.
Which is precisely where the Major's statement leaves us. "Don't worry about the past. Define yourself by what you do in the here and now. Just surrender and move on. Shape your own existence and meaning yourself." To do so is to forget (and in doing so destroy) ourselves along with the very meaning and purpose that we crave and seek in life.
A Memory-less Faith
Why is it that churches in our country seem to be on the decline? In the United States between 2007 and 2014 we saw a 4.7% drop in the number of Protestants in the United States across the board and across the denominational spectrum (see this Pew Research Center report for details). Only the Nondenominational population grew, and that only by 1.7%.
There are a host of reasons for this, but I think that among them all there is one that stands out to me: people have forgotten God's story and the story of the people of God. In place of those stories, we're attempting to put out a whole lot of work and effort to turn the tide. And it isn't working.
Why would I say that it isn't working?
- When a sophomore in college and daughter of a pastor tells me that she doesn't believe in the Trinity as we read John 1 together, I can tell that at least one church has forgotten one of the most crucial stories of the first 400 years of the Church (i.e. the Arian heresy and the Council of Nicaea).
- When members of the church I grew up in think that the Bible was written in English, have no understanding of the Trinity when they are 50 years old, and cannot tell me what the Gospel is other than 'Turn or burn' and 'Get right or get left', it is difficult to know where to start to help them connect with Jesus (I grew up in an independent Baptist church). Also, those things are not the Gospel - they're really more of an anti-Gospel.
- When the vast majority of sermons that I hear lack these key ingredients:
- God's grace and your justification do not depend on you - they depend on Jesus.
- God, your Father, loves you in spite of your mistakes and will never abandon you once you are in Christ.
- God cares more about your relationship with Him than anything you would ever try to do for Him.
- God expects you to joyfully live a holy life out of the love and grace that He's drenched you in, not dredge your way through life trying to live holy because you have to.
- And tend to include these ingredients instead:
- God's grace runs out when you stop obeying His will (I heard this one in-person, verbatim, at a very prominent Atlanta church a few months ago - it is the very opposite of what the Bible teaches and it broke my heart).
- Four Steps to a More Fulfilling Life
- How to Deal with Stress
- Five Keys to Financial Prosperity
- Seven Sins that You Should Avoid
- You'd Be Much Happier If You Just Stopped Sinning and Lived Perfectly
When the latter points have become the bedrock of our sermons, I'd say that we've wandered off-track as God's Church.
Its crucial that we remember the story of God and His people - like knowing the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Isaac. By the way, one was a murderer, one was a thief, one was a liar, and one was almost put to death by his own father - so God's grace seems to require a whole lot of sin to be rendered null and void! But we don't even seem to know who Jesus is! Flip a coin the next time you enter a church, and ask them if they think that Jesus is the Creator of the Universe (cf. Colossians 1). Half won't know what to say.
And if we have forgotten who Jesus is, we can't know the story of what He has done, or who we are as His people.
However, I'd bet that almost every person in your church, or a friend standing nearby, could tell you:
- The basic plot of The Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Prometheus, Avatar, Up, The Avengers, and, for those with children under five or for anyone who knows children under five, Frozen.
- The plot of at least one Netflix or Amazon original series produced in the past year (The Grand Tour, Stranger Things, or The Man in the High Castle anyone?).
- What Stephen Colbert said about Donald Trump last night.
There is hope for us, because we don't just like stories. We crave them. We can't get enough of them. Why? Because they are exciting and fun.
But what has the story of God become?
The exact opposite.
Because we have missed the point.
How to Make God's Story Fun - and Risky
What would it take to make knowing God's story exciting and fun? I think it would require making God's story interactive. You know - not just something that you read about. Something that you can step into, breathe in, and live. After all, that's what appeals to me about stories like Ghost in the Shell - it's an exciting, yet terrible, new world that I can step into, explore, and experience for an hour and a half. It seems like at every turn there's a certain, 'Ooh - what's THAT??' element to the story. We want to know everything about this world: what cars people drive (or fly?), what foods they eat, how they communicate, what they read, what music they listen to, how do you hack someone's brain, how do you encrypt a brain so that it can't be hacked?. It's fascinating.
What would God's story be like if you could actually immerse yourself in it in this way? What if you could experience what it's like to hear God speak to you, walk out your front door, and then see God show up? What if we could see the ways that grace and mercy change people's lives up-close and personal - where we're actually a part of the story that's unfolding?
We'd have to believe two things:
- God still speaks to His people
- That world, where we can live with God that way, actually exists.
I think that many of us don't believe either of these things, or at least we only believe it in a sort of whimsical way. We believe in it the same way that we believe that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We believe that someone went there, but we never will. We'll never look back at Earth from a lunar hill - we'll never put our feet in the dust and see the sun and stars blazing without the protection of a planetary atmosphere.
But what if you could?
Here's what Jesus said about it all:
 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (ESV)"
We have forgotten that this is the plot of God's story: that Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead in order to rescue us from death and release us into a new life where we walk with God as our Father - both later and right now. Making faith interactive, and making God's story interactive, so that you are moved along and sent to new strange places by God's Holy Spirit by default also makes it risky. This is the kind of story that you can't just step into and then walk away from. It's the kind of story that changes everything, that shapes everything around you - and that you can't get enough of once you're in it. In other words: it's exciting and fun. And when it comes to stories that grip you, fun always wins.
So if you are tired of church-as-usual, and tired of hearing God's story talked about like it's just another boring history item where the final chapter has already closed, join me.
Because I'm done with church-as-usual. I'm ready to learn from the things that God has done and learn from those stories about how exciting life with God can be. I'm stepping out of the boat and onto the water to experience God and the next chapter He's writing in His story for real.