The great story

As we have been following, week by week, since the beginning of Advent 2015, “God’s story” – the story laid out in the Bible from the birth of Jesus, back to creation and on now through as far as Easter, now may be a good time to take stock.

It has become fashionable these days to talk about the end of the great stories. Communism, in its classic form, told a story about human society progressing until full equality is reached, workers achieving freedom through struggle, there being no longer any private property. Though, reputedly, a few still believe it (some say Jeremy Corbyn believes it), to all intents and purposes it is over.

Capitalism, in its classic form, also told a story about human progress, in which the freedom to make money, private ownership and “small government” hold the day – the market, if it is allowed to rule, will ensure the maximum possible prosperity for everyone. But after the financial crash of a few years ago and continued angst about the huge disparities in wealth around the world, this story is looking a bit shaky, to say the least.

Christianity, in its classic form, told a story in which everyone in society belonged to God and would be looked after by him, as long as they obeyed his commands (which meant following the teachings of the church) – whether rich or poor, high or low. Lots of Christians, including many Baptists, down the centuries, tried telling a different, more personal, version of the story, but in any case it no longer holds sway as once it did over pretty much the whole of society.

Fascism, as propagated by the Nazis especially, told a story in which human progress depended on racial purity and absolute obedience to the will of the leader, a story told and reinforced using violence and repression. For a while it held terrible power over much of the world – and is, reputedly, still followed by some, but thankfully most people have seen through it and it no longer carries the day.

The other religions – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. – all tell powerful stories, that are followed by millions but at least in our part of the world none of these stories seem to be able to do it for everybody. The day of the “great story”, so it is said, is over – these days what seems important is that every individual should find their place in a story that works for them.

The watchwords of our day are “individual freedom”, “choice”, “selffulfilment” – happiness is studied as a subject at university level and in business schools; there’s a general sense that whatever your story, you should be allowed to live according to it’s rules and it’s aspirations – and society should exist as a kind of “level playing field” to provide enough of the essentials – freedom, privacy, human rights, protection – for everyone to live as they see fit.

When, occasionally, somewhere is still trying to live according to one of the great stories – North Korea, perhaps, or Saudi Arabia – well it looks to the outside observer as if it only works by being imposed from on high and that it leaves ordinary people both hoodwinked and oppressed – even if there is some truth in the great story, there is no truth that works to help ordinary people to flourish. We are, I suppose, then, being quite stubborn. We are refusing to accept that the age of the “great story” is over. We are proclaiming that the great story of God’s love for his world, shown through the life, ministry, death and rising of Jesus, is as powerful, as universal and as relevant as ever it was. Which is not to say that the way the story has been told – nor the institutions (the churches) that have been telling it – has always been good, or right. The institutions, because they are populated by ordinary human beings, have sometimes overlaid the story with all kinds of restrictions and cultural expectations that have obscured, rather than revealed, the great story of God’s love.

Sometimes, the way people in the churches have acted, God’s love has not been much in evidence. Sometimes they have made the story so exclusive that it has seemed only to be available to a select small number, or else they have made it so inclusive that the love of God has seemed like nothing more than just wishful thinking. Whatever else it is, it is not that – God’s love in the great story of the Christian faith is a costly, sacrificial love – shown to the world through the death of a human being at the hands of other sinful human beings.

But above all, the great story is a story of hope. This will be read during the season of Easter, when the story reaches its climax, not in the tragic death of that human being, but in the marvellous mystery of his rising again – such a great story, we believe, that everyone and anyone can find their place in it.

But more, even, than that – more even than a message of individuals. The great Christian story is a story, not of progress towards a better world, but of the transformation of this world into the world God wants to see – his Kingdom. And that’s a story great enough for the whole world. It’s the story that is being told all the time in the life of the Church – and the lives of anyone who is committed to following Christ and believing in his unshakeable, peaceable Kingdom.

Michael Docker