Recently at CCIW, we completed a four part series on contextualising the Gospel. This is the first of those parts.
In starting this series I'd like to acknowledge the great value I've gained from Tim Keller's book, Preaching, Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, which in turn, has drawn on Charles Taylor's work, A Secular Age. I owe much of my own thoughts to both these very significant works.
It could be that your worldview has been shaped entirely by Biblical truth uncontaminated by the stories our culture feeds us every day. Philosopher Michael Foucault called these stories ‘unthoughts’, which are self-evident and common sense to all. These ‘unthoughts’ shape our lives and our decisions - they are the cultural myths we all breathe every day.
Much more likely is the prospect that you hold mixed ideas that in many ways are shaped by the Jesus’ story as well as by these 'unthoughts'.
The first of these stories is the story I form about myself – the need to be myself. Let’s call this the identity narrative.
On the one hand, as this story goes, there are the bad old days, the days of conformity and blandness, the days of obligation and restriction, the days of duty and suffocation. All of those things squeeze the life out of you and make you grey and conformist - you just fit in to a given order of things that exists outside yourself and to which you are expected to mould your life.
And we know what “these bad old days” were called - the 1950’s! A horrible age of stultifying societal expectations, of sameness and production line personalities. Your identity was assigned rather than being created or found.
And so there has been a huge change - yes, there is a source that tells us who we are and how we are to live and love - but it’s not out there, it’s deep inside you, it’s your own passions and desires and preferences. Your job in life is simple - it’s to get in touch with that inner reality.
The theme song of our generation is epitomized by Elsa of Frozen fame, whose song, Let it Go, is one of the best selling songs of all time:
“…It’s time to see
What I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong
No rules for me
Let it go! Let it go!
I am one with the wind and sky!
Let it go! Let it go!
You’ll never see me cry!
Here I stand and here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on…"
Elsa has stopped struggling and accepts herself as she breaks out in song!
There is something that is both profoundly right and profoundly wrong about this narrative. One the one hand, the Bible teaches us that mere external religion, mere performance of roles and rituals in response to God is not enough. It is Jesus himself who says that it is not what goes into you that makes you unclean, rather it is what comes out of your heart that defiles you. It is deeply part of our Biblical faith that the inside of the person, the inner motivations and desires of our hearts, really do matter!
On the other hand, you don’t have to look too hard to see deep flaws. Being yourself simply can’t work. First, our desires are too incoherent and many are too enslaving to serve as the sole basis for identity. For instance, my desire for hamburgers doesn’t work alongside my desire to be healthy. And this leads to an even deeper problem. The fact is that you have to choose between these conflicting desires some way, and since your internal world is a mess, that means it has to come from outside.
What does the gospel of Jesus Christ say about our identity? It endorses neither the old way nor the new way. In the old way, your identity is achieved through the performance of social roles, and there was intense pressure to do just that, and intense rejection if you failed. With the new narrative, your identity is equally achieved, by having the courage and the internal resources to be your authentic self. But what happens if you can’t do that? You are just another sad failure!
Which is where the gospel is so utterly, radically and beautifully different. Because the gospel of Jesus says that our identity is not achieved at all. Rather our identity is received as a gift. Listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it, Gal 2.19:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Embracing this truth, I am truly free to take on an identity that gives me unshakeable confidence. In Christ, my identity is shaped by the reality that though I am deeply sinful, my creator's response was to love me and give himself up for me! Though I am far more sinful than I can imagine, I am far more loved than I can imagine.
This is who I am, if I am in Christ.