The Greatest Story Ever Told

Wednesday March 5, begins the countdown to Easter. It’s a great opportunity to enter into the time honored tradition of retelling the “greatest story ever told”. Here’s some random thoughts on the subject:

Strident atheist, Philip Pullman author of “His Dark Materials” trilogy understands the power of the story: “Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”

The story appeals to an otherwise tuned out audience. Jesus’ approach to ministry channeled Isaiah when he said, “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

The passion play originates in the middle ages as a way of communicating the Easter story to the masses. It was an effective way of

presenting the Gospel when you consider that the cost of a Bible in those days was close to a year's wages –a price local parishes could hardly afford much less peasant families. So the ritual of reenacting of the crucifixion (in all its pageantry) became the way many people learned the Gospel.

God Encapsulates His Truth in Stories for the Ages

The tipping point of Abraham's faith was in every sense a passion play. When God told Abraham, "Take your son, your only son and offer him as a burnt offering," he was directing him to act out the script of his own heavenly drama, called, "God so loved the world..."

And what about the Passover? The sacrificial lamb, the blood on the door posts, the exodus from Egypt (type of the world) –all for benefit of retelling the story. “I’ve also done it so you can tell your children and grandchildren about how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and about the signs I displayed among them.”

The woman in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper who prophetically anointed Jesus for burial with very costly spikenard. The Lord defended her before her critics with a prophecy that said her story would be told and retold: “Wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her."

The Gospel Script Has Power

One of my favorite Pastor Mitchell wisecracks is one that he uses to critique church dramas with weak messages, “Yep, twenty minutes of whores and cigarettes and two minutes of Gospel.”

Speaking of whores and cigarettes… Marilyn Monroe had a wonderful matter-of-fact observation about films based on the Good Book, “You know why those religious theme pictures like Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments are so successful… because the Bible is a good script.”

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing ($612 million) non-English-language film of all time. This is particularly noteworthy because the studios in Hollywood refused to touch it and Gibson had to finance the film (about $30 million) out of his own pocket. I like Jay Leno’s comment following Forbes magazine’s declaration (in 2004) that Mel Gibson was the world’s most powerful celebrity, “After he won the award Mel said, "Thank you Jesus!”

The Story Alone is NOT Enough

Back to Jesus’ use of the parable. I think his point was that telling a story is an elementary way to help people understand. Unfortunately there are those who refuse graduate from milk to meat. Anything that doesn’t come from the lips of a dancing tomato or a singing cucumber just isn’t palatable. To the spiritually dull ear, the story alone may leave them duller still.

The story alone dumbs down religion. The mega-church worship production (formerly known as a church service) might be an amazing spectacle, but it could leave a once-a-week, dormant audience spiritually unedified. Sometimes I wonder if America is experiencing a redux of middle age Christianity when the lay classes drifted through annual pageants and feast celebrations but experienced very little growth in the Word of God.

Nevertheless, the Story Can Plant Seeds of the Gospel

I reluctantly agreed to see Jesus Christ Superstar when I was still a lost teenager who wanted nothing to do with religion. The film’s hippie motif put me at ease enough, however, that I was able to get into the story. I found myself captivated by the scene where Jesus is mobbed by a group of sick people desperately trying to be healed. The thought of Jesus healing somebody with the touch of his hand truly astonished me. Afterwards, I remember asking my older cousin (who had invited me) if the Bible actually contained stories of Jesus healing people. This quasi-religious rock opera had piqued my apathy and planted a seed. Even though it might have received two thumbs down from the Council of Nicaea for its questionable theology, I can’t deny its impact on me.

Finally, Warren Wiersbe’s description of the parable is one of the best I’ve ever heard, “[It] begins innocently as a picture that arrests our attention and arouses our interest. But as we study the picture, it becomes a mirror, in which we suddenly see ourselves. If we continue to look by faith, the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His truth.”