Friday, January 25, 2013

We Need Better Storytellers

So, this is the last of 3 posts I'm writing reflecting on the powerful story of Les Miserables. It's a story that has captured my imagination and revealed the gospel more clearly any other story I've encountered.

Stories have power. We are the stories we tell ourselves...the good stories and the bad stories.

Some of you are still living into the narrative a teacher gave you when she belittled you by saying you would never amount to anything. Some of us have lived bad stories because we've believed bad stories and accepted their limitations.

Others of us were given imagination through wonderful stories that inspired us to do great things. Without those stories that shaped our world, we would never have lived the incredible lives we have.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

And Victor Hugo is one of those wonderful story tellers. He understood the gospel.

But the interesting thing is Victor Hugo likely wouldn't have described himself as a Christian. The church frustrated Hugo because of its indifference to the plight of the poor in 19th century France.

So, how did Hugo embody the gospel so well in Les Miserables so well if he wasn't a Christian?

Have you been to the theater recently? There's plenty of anti-gospel stories on the big screen. But I'm telling you, if you have eyes to see, you'll see the gospel in some of the most unexpected places.

Have you listened to the radio recently? There's plenty of filth out there, but if you have ears to hear, the gospel emerges from the most unexpected artists as well.

I know the Bible says that Christians are only supposed to listen to "Christian" radio stations and "Christian" movies (I forgot the exact verse, but it's in there somewhere). But I'm finding that much of the stuff that passes the filter for KLOVE are merely poor counterfeits of what culture is producing with sappy lyrics that could be written for a girlfriend or boyfriend as easily as they are offered to God.

You don't know what I'm talking about? Just take a look at these "Christian" t-shirts.

Christian is a terrible adjective. And at times, Christians have uncritically purchased and consumed these "Christian" wares because the "Christian" business market is large enough and forgiving enough to make up for our apparent lack of creativity.

I appreciate bands like U2 and Mumford & Sons who are willing to navigate the "secular" music world while writing lyrics that tell the gospel in more creative and imaginative ways that will reach an audience that will never find their station tuned to KLOVE.

And that's what Les Miserables has caused me to rethink.

We need more preachers to be sure.

But we also need more creative storytellers wherever Christians find themselves in the world. I hope we can inspire imagination in a new generation of culture creators who won't tell and sell their stories in Christian "ghettos," but who will spin their stories in the middle of the world.

Jesus taught in parables. And the surprising thing about his parables is that he didn't tell them so that people would understand them on first hearing. He told parables that could only be unlocked if someone was willing to spend time with them and unravel their underlying implications. He left the audience "interpretive space" to come to their own conclusions, but only if they cared enough to investigate more deeply.

My encouragement to young Christians who want to change the world is this:
1) Immerse yourself in the Gospels. Get to know Jesus well.
2) Discover your artistic gift.
3) Don't automatically follow your parents' advice to enter the "Christian" ghetto in your industry.
5) Read Les Miserables. If you don't have the time to read it, start with the movie.
6) Get to work. Create art that tells the story of the Gospel in brilliant, subtle ways.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Miserables - The Greatest Story Ever Told

Les Miserables is "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Period.

Now, I know I'm not supposed to say that. I'm supposed say that the gospel is the greatest story ever told. And when I've suggested that Les Mis actually beats the Bible, every time someone in the crowd offers a "Jesus Juke."

You don't know what a "Jesus Juke" is? A "Jesus Juke"* is the Christian version of the Debbie Downer (if you don't know Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live, then this whole post is likely lost on you). It's when someone takes what is clearly a joke-filled conversation or a comment made in jest and completely reverses direction into something serious and holy.

So the conversation usually goes like this:

Collin: Did you know that Les Miserables is the greatest story ever told?
Super Christian: Hmmm...interesting. Have you ever read the Bible? I think Jesus would disagree.

Actually, both of us in the conversation are right. Because Les Miserables is the gospel written in 19th century disguise.

I've grown up knowing the gospel all of my life. I could name the 12 disciples before I left the womb. I could sing the "Books of the Bible" song before most of my friends at church knew that "Acts and the Letter to the Romans" was actually a book of the Bible.

The Bible is so familiar that I sometimes cease to be surprised by the shocking rescue mission of God, which is sad. And that's why it's so refreshing to read the Bible with someone who is encountering it for the first time.

Yet, Les Miserables wasn't a story I knew as a toddler. And the first time I watched it, I was completely shocked by the twists and turns of its storyline. And it's story of grace shocked my sensibilities. As I said in my first post about Les Miserables, I sided with Javert (Law) instead of Valjean (Grace).

Victor Hugo told the gospel in a way I had never heard it before and I didn't like what I read. He snuck in from the back and tore away at the foundations of my legalistic notions of the gospel. In essence, it proved that I had believed in a false gospel.

The reason I believe Les Miserables is the best story ever told is because it is the gospel story.

For most people who haven't grown up in church, their experience with Scripture is as shocking as my experience with Les Mis. But for me, it took Hugo's powerful novel to awaken me to the story of God's redemption through radical grace and constant love.

Scripture is the best story ever told (so you can take me off your heretic watch list).

But I believe one of the most important tasks in our time is to form artists and authors who will retell the story in surprising ways that subvert our imaginations and help us to the see the good news of God without ever mentioning a Bible character or words like "sin," "grace,""hermeneutics," or "Penal Substitutionary Atonement."

Hugo called it Les Miserables. Tolkien called it The Lord of the Rings. And Jesus called it a parable.

They all shock us. And they are all stories of "good news."

Or you might just call it Gospel.

*"The Jesus Juke" was a cultural term coined by Jon Acuff at his blog "Stuff Christians Like." If you like satire, pay attention to his blog. If not, stay away from it. Click here to read more about "The Jesus Juke."


Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Story and Hugo's Story

I first encountered Victor Hugo's story, Les Miserables, around the age of 10 or 11.

Dad bought tickets and informed my younger brother and I that our family was going to see a musical, which wasn't the news we expected or wanted to hear. In preparation for "The Miserable" performance (did you see what I did there?), our family listened to the soundtrack for the first time in our living room. We followed along with the lyrics to the songs, which forced an interesting dialogue as my dad had to explain what a "pimp" was to the two of us. This preview was dad's only possible attempt to make the price of our tickets defensible.

Since then, I've seen the stage musical at least 5 times. I've seen the newest movie 2 times. And I've committed myself to reading the unabridged novel by the end of 2013.

What can I say? I've grown up with the story. The story has changed me as much my perspective of the story has changed over the years.

I remember the question dad posed to us when we entered the car after our first experience with Les Miserables. "What did you think?"

And I said, "I don't get it. I feel sorry for Javert. I don't understand why Valjean's the hero. They picked the wrong hero!"

For those of you who don't know the story, Jean Valjean finds himself freed from his prison sentence after 19 years of hard labor that made him a harder man. The story follows his transformation from hardened criminal to grace-filled hero. But throughout the story, his long-time nemesis, Inspector Javert lurks in the shadows to bring Valjean to justice. Javert knows that criminals cannot be rehabilitated. Javert sees the world in black and white. But through a series of incredible encounters between protagonist and antagonist, Victor Hugo spins a timeless narrative that unveils the gospel in shocking ways.

For those of you who know the story better, it might be hard to understand my soft spot for Javert. But the truth was I had caught a legalistic bug from my faith tribe that gave me a lens for the world much like Javert's. It was a black and white worldview that had no room for shades of gray. I missed Hugo's genius because I had been gospelled in story other than the gospel.

This was disconcerting for my say the least. He hadn't bought me a ticket so that I could side with Javert. And his preaching and parenting certainly hadn't led me to my dislike of the story.

But over time, as my experiences have colored my black and white worldview, I have grown to love and appreciate Les Miserables in more nuanced ways.

I've grown up with this story. And the story has evolved inside of me each time of seen it. I've sided with Javert, seen the story through the eyes of a teenager who found the love story between Marius and Cosette most relevant, rooted for Valjean as I needed grace in my own life, and I'm guessing a day will come when I understand more of Valjean's struggle to hand over my own Cosette to some young man who wants to take Addison away from me.

Every person chooses a story to inhabit. Some people choose good stories. Others live in poor stories. But we each have a story.

Les Miserables is my story. I recognize myself in it. I recognize my God in it. I've found my place in it and it won't let me go.


Sunday, January 06, 2013

90 Days Through the Bible

Last year, I spent 366 days immersed in 3 chapters of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount.

During the first 90 days of 2013, Holly and I are reading through the entire Bible. I've never even read through the Bible in a year, so why not 90 days? We're excited about the journey. Our readings are about an hour a day. Rich stuff!

Sometimes you need to read texts in depth and sit with them. Other times you need to read for width and perspective. I'm excited to soak in God's story in the first 3 months of this year.

You can follow me on Twitter to follow some of my regular insights about our reading. You can find me @collinpacker.

May God bless you in whatever you resolve to do in the new year!