Back to Metaphors

pentecosticon.jpg

Suppose you have the occasion to sit with someone, an interested party, and explain to them the Christian faith. How do you tell the story? When I was in college we had groups who shared the 4 Spiritual Laws – a version of a Christian story, but not the one I would tell.

We do not think long and hard enough about the imagery and language that we use. Frequently, our religious faith becomes ingrained in jargon that we no longer notice when we use it. What are the fundamental images that your sharing of the Christian faith uses?

My earlier arguments about essential elements of the Christian story is to argue that we should have digested the whole of the New Testament, as well as a couple of centuries’ worth of Patristic writings (the 1st two centuries are not really that much), before we begin to give an account of what Christ came to earth to do. If your version of the story requires the lens of the Reformation – then you’re probably telling a 16th century story and not the New Testament, despite whatever verses you may cite.

But back to the fundamental question at hand. How do you tell the story and what images do you use?

It is these fundamental images – Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Death, Descent into Hades, Resurrection, Ascension into Heaven, Coming of the Holy Spirit – that make up the Christian faith. Interestingly, all of these images can be rendered in picture – form. Indeed, in the Orthodox Church we do render them in picture form and place the icons of these events in the middle of the Church on their feast days.

I can recall an old Evangelical tract called “the Roman Road” that gave an account of salvation solely from verses drawn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s a nice turn, but was quite truncated in its account of the Gospel and our salvation.

If we read St. Irenaeus or even St. John of Damascus (5 or more centuries later), we will encounter the same Gospel that will carry us through the same images. But I suggest to my readers – take some time. How would you share the saving story of Christ? What are its images? Are those images faithful to the whole gospel?

I can recall an incident that occurred early in my ministry. I was serving as a Deacon in an Episcopal Church – a woman came to me who wanted to be baptized. As I recall, she had grown up in Hawaii. She had never been “churched.” She said that she mostly knew the name of Jesus as a curse word but did know that He was some sort of religious figure.

I remember feeling more pressure than I ever had on an exam in seminary. This was a true test for a Christian. Could I share the good news of Christ with someone who was well-favored towards conversion – and give her enough information to lead her to the path of salvation? I know that I worked harder for that Baptism than almost any of which I have ever had occasion to be a part.

I am convinced that we need to live closer and closer to the very root images of the story of our salvation – that the more we abstract the more likely we are to go astray. I am not arguing for any sort of anti-theology (I care deeply about theology) but for a theology that is, in fact, a mediation on the good news of Christ, and not an intellection five to ten steps removed from that good news.

Strangely, although Orthodoxy is 2000 years old, it continues to maintain this dogged affection for the most primitive layers of the Christian story. I believe that this is a correct instinct – a prompting of the Holy Spirit – Who seeks to lead us into all truth.

Go back to the story. How do you tell it? 

37 Responses to “Back to Metaphors”

  1. Coroebus Says:

    “How would you share the saving story of Christ?”

    Father, that this strikes me as a darned good question suggests the degree to which you’ve put me on the spot.

    …a really good question, for there is something shameful in my inability to provide immediately an adequate response….

    Makes me rather want to hear yours!

  2. Stephen Says:

    Well, to answer your question, I’m not sure how I would share the gospel, but what immediately came to mind is how my parents and their co-workers would do it. They are evangelical missionaries in Taiwan, mainly working now with the mostly illiterate working class. They use what is called chronological bible story telling, in which starting with creation, they tell people bible stories that illustrate a particular theme or event of salvation. Eventually, they get up to Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s a pretty informal way of telling the gospel, and as people there love to tell and hear stories, it works pretty well, and even someone who is illiterate can be trained to share the stories. Is this kind of what you are getting at when you talk about being biblically based?

  3. Mary Says:

    I hope this is not too off topic:

    Someone once asked me why I believe in God, and I told her “Because I need to.” I felt then the poverty of my response, and I have ever since. Perhaps the best way for me (from now on) would be a simple, “Come and see”, and then take that person to an Orthodox service, being careful to answer any questions simply and not impose answers to questions unasked and unlooked for.
    Images: Based on your recent posts on Christ’s Descent into Hades, I would probably use imagery from the LOTR films. I’ve had one too many misunderstandings with trying to explain icons (and their events) directly.

  4. Fatherstephen Says:

    Stephen,

    It’s certainly close to what I think about. For one thing, the story of Christ is the fulfillment of the Scriptures, that is, without the Old Testament, much of the New doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, without the New, the Old Testament (by Christian understandings) will be misread.

    Of course, one of the problems of an historical approach, will be the tendency to overlook the fact that Christ Himself is an eschatological event. He is the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end.

    Though I do think it quite possible to begin with the story of Christ and work out from there (forwards and backwards).

  5. Mark Says:

    I’d be interested in seeing some contemporary work done along the lines of St Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, formulating the basic narrative of salvation from creation to completion, Christologically centered.

    In our adult class, some folks have remarked that certain Orthodox writers/speakers do a really good job at “telling the whole story” whenever they address a topic. Fr Thomas Hopko’s name came up, because in many of his written works dealing with a specific topic, he develops a rather thick schema (the story of salvation) in which to situate the topic at hand.

    I recenly read through his little book on same-sex attraction, which I confess that I picked up rather reluctantly. As a former episcopalian, I still suffer from burnout on that topic. The book was a pleasant surprise, inasmuch as he placed the subject in the context of the entire Christian story and life. It’s a very evangelical book – and the approach is one I’d like to see more often.

  6. rdreusebios1 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Where did the icon you used come from? I’ve never seen one quite like it. The Aescent of The Holy Spirit? Just curious.
    Peace,
    Don

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    rdeusebios,

    Actually it says Descent of the Holy Spirit, but is using English letters in a somewhat Cyrillic style, which tends to make the D look like an A. I thought the same thing at first until I looked more closely.

    It is from the OCA site for the Feast Day.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    I should add my thoughts as well about Fr. Hopko’s work. I’ve probably listened to most of his tapes many times. Several years back I was traveling weekly down the road to Chattanooga while we were starting the mission there and at least monthly up to Kentucky for a Church we were working with to receive into the Orthodox Faith. All of that is to say I had a lot of time behind the wheel for a couple of years. Fr. Hopko probably was my favorite companion. There is a consistency in all of his talks (it is said that a priest only has one sermon). What I will say of his is that it is richly embedded in the whole story of the gospel – which is why whatever topic he’s addressing, it is well addressed and yet the gospel is preached. His tapes on the Cross are his own personal favorite, I’m told. But I always find him quite solid and a tonic to my soul.

    I would say, as well, that the writings of Fr. John Behr have something of this same quality. It’s very encouraging to read such theology. I am looking forward to Orthodox reading over the coming years.

  9. JMC Says:

    Father, bless me.

    Thinking of your recent posts on what we should know (i.e. “everything”) I suppose how I would share the Gospel would depend on the time of the year. I would look to the feasts of the calendar and use that as the starting point to talk of Christ. After all, every major feast in the calendar is related to Him, so talking about whichever one the Church as a whole was celebrating would reveal at least part of the Gospel; and an important part (because none is unimportant).

    I can understand why some evangelicals would want to start at the beggining of the Bible and work their way through to the Incarnation. But why use OT representations of history when the liturgical calender re-presents it to us as we are now? The OT shadows the Incarnation but was written before it so I think reading in this way is to read it with the lights off. Christ came, now He is risen, and that’s a very big thing. If we don’t start from the Incarnation, the revelation to end all revelations, then it can be very difficult to know if we’re grounded in the truth.

    JMC

  10. Steve Says:

    Lately I think I’d ask the person how they were doing emotionally. Are they resentful, fearful, full of regret? That is spiritual death. I’d share with them God as He loves, and the spiritual life available (here and now) from the Holy Spirit.

    Obviously if someone tells me they’re doing quite fine emotionally (thank you very much), then it might not be the best approach. But who knows.

    Then again, the “hellfire Christianity” message only seems to work on certain types of people. Many react very badly to it.

  11. JMC Says:

    I think St. Silouan, quoted often here recently, would certainly have some things to say about hell-fire Christianity.

    I was asked at work a few weeks ago by a colleague whether reading the Bible would make her a Christian. I said that obviously reading the Bible didn’t make you become a Christian by definition, but it might cause a change of heart. She said, with just a hint of fear, that she didn’t “want to be changed yet.”

    I got the impression that she saw Christianity as intrinscally a “good thing” but that she’d rather get on with life without it for the time being. I think in such situations the regular refrain of Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose might be needed:

    “It’s later than you think!”

  12. Barnabas Powell Says:

    This is a wonderful conversation. It has caused me to pause and think about how I tell the story. Facing seminary this fall in Boston, I am increasingly aware of this choice of attending seminary to serve the Church. I pray this work at seminary helps me tell the Story well.

    The fact is our ability to not only “tell” the story but “live” it is at the heart of our true continual conversion to the Faith.

    How do I do that? A good question and one I should refrain from answering quickly!

    Barnabas

  13. Thomas Dunbar Says:

    speaking of pictures, might there be a beautifully illustrated Nicene-Constantinople creed in print?

  14. Clint Says:

    When I was a protestant missionary in Estonia, we met many people who had absolutely NO idea of anything related to Christianity. They didn’t know anything about God. They knew nothing about who Jesus was, etc. We always started at the beginning just so they would know what we were talking about.

    I think it is difficult for us in the US to imagine a whole group of people who don’t know the very rudimentary basics of Christianity (however flawed their understanding may be). But it is a fact in some places.

    I can see the wisdom (and beauty) of working forward and backward from Christ as Fr Stephen mentions. I didn’t have that wisdom then. But we had to start somewhere.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    JMC,

    I’d have to look up the quote – but actually St. Silouan had fairly harsh things to say about those taking a “hellfire” approach – at least among the Orthodox. I’ll see if I can spot it sometime today. Both Silouan and Sophrony are quite gentle and kind towards all – the reality of hell which they both knew, spiritually, made them weep for others but not shout warnings. He is a good God who loves mankind and this is the most important thing for us to proclaim. The fact is that if people are living separated from God, they already know hell to some extent. But only a gift of grace can make their heart aware of that fact and turn them towards God. Thus we weep for them and pray.

  16. T Says:

    Without giving this question a great deal of thought, thus far, perhaps a good starting point would be to tell a story about providing a needy, homeless person with food, clothing and medical care. Or, even better, if the person is willing, have them join you in on a trip to the streets or a homeless shelter where they can participate along with you in caring for and giving assistance to a needy person. You can then present this story, or actual experience, as an analogy of what Christ has done for all mankind.

    We are all the poor, homeless beggar in need of shelter, nourishment and healing if we live apart from Christ. Christ has provided it all – freely. Just as the beggar has no way of aquiring that which is vital to his existence and healing himself, so we as a fallen creation have no way of providing for ourselves what we need for our healing and eternal salvation.

    For the sake of space and time, I will not ramble on and on with this analogy, but would like to list a few of the parallels that have come to mind in the context of sharing the Gospel through serving the poor.

    Appraoching a homeless person in love – Christ approaches us in love
    Providing a homeless person a shower – Christ cleanses us throug baptism
    Providing a homeless person with food – Christ gives His body and blood
    as our spiritual nourishment
    Providing a homeless person with medical care – Christ heals our sick souls

  17. T Says:

    So sorry…………. Hit submit by mistake!

    The remainder follows:

    Providing a homeless person with medical care – Christ heals our sick
    souls with His grace
    Providign a homeless person with shelter – Christ provides us a home and
    shelter in His Kingdom, the
    Church

    I believe that the Gospel not only has to be learned about intellectually, but more so, has to be entered into and lived out. Theological gymnastics will only get one so far. The Gospel must offered to others in real, tangible ways. The most important way, I believe, is through love. The Gospel makes a far greater impact when it is demonstrated, as opposed to being only spoken of in an academic way.

    Just my thoughts.

    Thanks,
    T

  18. Stephen Says:

    Thanks, Fr., for your comments. I see your point about possibly forgetting that Christ is the alpha and omega. I’ve never personally done the bible story telling myself so I don’t know all the ins and outs, and am not sure if that is a problem. I do though as Clint pointed out that the Taiwanese have never heard of Jesus before, or of anything in the bible which is why my parents et al start with creation.

    On a completely different topic, I notice that today is the feast of the third finding of the head of St. John the Baptist. I know that St. John is an important saint, but this still strikes me as a fairly odd thing to be celebrating, especially as there are other saints also being commemorated today. Could you possibly give an explanation of this feast? Thanks a lot.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Stephen,

    The findings of the Head of St. John the Baptist (there were 3 separate occasions) are feasts because of the importance of this precious relic. Actually, the Orthodox Calendar that any of us have may only list a couple of the saints or icons or other things that we celebrate out of the 10’s to 100’s that actually fall on that day. There is a place where one can get a publication that has them all – but I don’t have that information easily at hand.

    But the event is important because St. John is important.

  20. Michael Bauman Says:

    My favorite metaphor of the faith is the Cross as embodied in the layout of the Church building. It expresses visually and symbolically all of the aspects of the saving work of Jesus Christ, the Church herself and each individual’s journey in union with Christ. I’m blessed. My home parish is a Byzantine style cruciform building with an ever-growing compliment of icons. Beginning in the outer narthex and continuing to the icon of Christ enthroned above the altar, the icon of the Nativity in one arm, the Harrowing of Hell in the other. The Incarnation, the Cross, the Grave, the glorious Resurrection and Ascension followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit. All are there in a multi-dimensional reality from which my words would only detract for people who have eyes to see.

    I’ve never actually tried using the metaphor outside of the tours I give during our annual Lebanese dinner, but I don’t see any reason why it would not work. It would take some time, but it could be done. I’d never seriously considered it until now. Thanks for the idea.

  21. Robert Bearer Says:

    Father, bless:

    Wonderful stuff as usual. I send these on regularly to family and friens. to your list of the essentials of the Story — Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Death, Descent into Hades, Resurrection and Ascension I would only add: Our Lord’s Righteous kenotic Life and the blessed Hope we enjoy of His Second Advent and our General Resurrection.

    Charis & shalom,
    robert+

  22. Philippa Alan Says:

    As others have said, it all starts with the person who asks.

    One of my daughter’s best friends was unchurched when they first met. DD was 5 yo; her friend 4. The friend came to visit the house during Nativity and saw the Creche on the mantel. She asked, “Who is that?” I took them down and we played with them as I told her the story of Jesus’ birth and that God was someone who loved her more than her Mommy & Daddy.

    It wasn’t too long after that the entire family was baptized and now are quite entrenched in ministry in the church.

    If it were an adult, I’d probably start with asking them what they thought about people who did “good” things and why. Then go from there.

    Each encounter is unique. When they occur, after I have a moment of panic (!) I utter a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit to speak and get me the heck out of the way!!

    Once again, thanks for the thought provoking post.

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    It is certain that there is no one way to share the gospel – but the question as I have phrased it is very much worth thinking about. I tend to think that every seminarian should be asked such a question and given time to think and read and write about it. My first several years after seminary I did this very thing, ending with a book manuscript that was far from publishable – but invaluable to me in considering what is truly essential in the gospel (everything).

  24. Don Bradley Says:

    I start by explaining the God I worship; the Holy Trinity. From there I proceed to the Incarnation. Then if there still is a conversation going I follow the outline during Holy Week of death (Holy Thursday evening), burial and descent (Holy Friday evening), resurrection and how Christ heals our number one problem; death.

    Starting with personal soteriology is narcissistic. We all are lost on our own, so we have to have something come to us that is external to fix us. The 4 spiritual laws don’t cut it to explain salvation, because there is no explanation of what God is (or is not). Hence, Trinity is but a mere category of doctrine for them…. maybe even a subservient category to their personal salvation. The individual shouldn’t be the focus, but the God we worship should be. Therefore, I start with Trinity.

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    Don, I like your point of not beginning with ourselves. Sounds right and healthy to me!

  26. Steve Says:

    Yes, thanks Don. Good point.

  27. JMC Says:

    Father,

    Yes, when I said “I think St. Silouan, quoted often here recently, would certainly have some things to say about hell-fire Christianity” I did mean that the Saint would have had harsh things to say about it. Reading back I realize that perhaps wasn’t clear. The quote you may be looking for is actually another conversation quoted by Archimandrite Sophrony. I give it below:

    The hermit “declared with evident satisfaction that ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.'”
    Obviously upset, the Staretz said, “Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?”
    “It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,” said the hermit.
    The Staretz answered him in a sorrowful countenance. “Love could not bear that,” he said. “We must pray for all.”

  28. Damaris Says:

    Wasn’t it Saint Francis who said something like, “Preach the Good News at all times; if necessary, use words”?

    While I try to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that’s in me, I still consistently see that it’s through my stumbling and tossed-off comments that God touches people, and not my reasoned discourses. He’s just making sure I know that it’s Him and not me!

  29. JMC Says:

    In also agree with Don’s point.

    Tomorrow is Pentecost and I think it interesting that when St Peter stood before those gathered he did not give a personal testimony. He certainly could have: “I was once a poor illiterate fisherman until the Lord entered my life…” and so on. But he didn’t, and instead declared to them the risen Christ and fulfilment of prophecy.

  30. Steve Says:

    The way I tell it is here, below the symbol of faith.

    Or at least that’s the way I start to tell it — obviously there is a lot more.

  31. fatherstephen Says:

    JMC,

    I thought later as I was writing the response that I was perhaps misunderstanding. I saw the same quote you noted and thought it too makes the point. I think St. Silouan’s own experience of “keep your mind in hell and despair not” would have mitigated against him ever being comfortable with “hellfire Christianity” as you obviously meant as well.

    There have been times that I’ve heard sermons (TV sermons and the like) where you get the sense that the preacher and at least part of the congregation are almost enjoying telling people about their chances of going to hell. That always scares me. Of course, sinner that I am, there are those whom I would quickly consign to such a fate and be done with them – because I do not love as I ought.

  32. Demetrius Says:

    For me, the main medifer (to spell it as Fr. Stephen says it) stems from a couple times toward the end of Christ’s 3 year ministry when he makes clear to the Apostles that they need to lead by serving: washing their feet and cutting short their argument about who will be his right hand man in heaven come to mind.

    If feels like I’m overlooking a lot to leave it at that (the Cross specifically, as mentioned a few times above). However, this message was tied up in what Christ claimed were the two greatest commandments, so if I have to limit myself to a single metaphor, servant-leadership seems like it will do nicely.

  33. Ronda Wintheiser Says:

    Maybe it’s too late to comment on this…

    When I was still an evangelical, I did a lot of what we called “witnessing”… From the time I was a little girl, I would round up my friends on the playground and preach them a little sermon about sin and hell and Jesus dying on the Cross… and then I’d make them all kneel down by the swings and I’d tell them what to pray so that they could get saved and not go to hell…

    I continued that approach (with some refinements, of course, lol) into my young adulthood… (Anyone read Franky Schaeffer’s book PORTOFINO??? Gak…) Anyway, all my life I had had this picture in my mind of a mud pit. There were people in the pit, and they were all covered in mud, and they were bloody from clawing at each other and themselves, trying to get out… And I saw myself standing on the outside of the mud pit, holding on tightly to the edge of it so as not to fall in, and reaching down to try to drag all the people I saw in the mud pit OUT…

    But when I stumbled onto the Church… and stepped closer to examine and scrutinize Her to find out whether or not She had Her theology straight (lol), I began to see things differently.

    It began to dawn on me that I wasn’t where I thought I was. I wasn’t, as I had assumed, on the outside of the mud pit. I was IN the mud pit — along with everyone else. And there was only One Person on the outside of the mud pit, reaching down to pull us all out…

    So now I generally don’t talk to people much about salvation. When I see people out and about — at the post office, in the grocery store… and I get into conversations with them, I talk about the mud and blood that is all over me, and I ask about the mud and blood that is all over them. And then I try to tell them about the Place I have found where you can go and get rid of the mud and blood…

    Fr. Nathan reminds us frequently that the Church is a hospital; that it is a Place where we can go to be pulled out of the mud pit and have the blood washed off of us, and our wounds healed. So mostly when I’m talking to people that I meet when I’m out and about, and the conversation happens well… I ask them if they wouldn’t like to come to Great Vespers sometime… I tell them how you can walk into the darkened nave and see the candles flickering there, the clouds of incense rising into the apse… That you can stand there surrounded by the rich intensity of the lamplighting verses and the psalms, and sing, along with the rest of us… “Lord, I call…”

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    Rhonda,

    Great image! The mud pit. The Hospital. When my oldest daughter was living in Siberia some years back (2000), she said to me once, “Papa, the priest here says the same things you do!” Fr. Nathan must be saying the same things too. Amen!

  35. Ronda Wintheiser Says:

    I mentioned PORTOFINO; If you haven’t read it (you should…. it’s hilarious but oh so penetrating…), that comment I made was far too cryptic… In the book, Calvin’s mother takes a Gospel Walnut along with her everywhere (and requires Calvin to do so as well) and whenever some poor soul gets stuck sitting next to her on a train, she whips it out and pulls the different coloured ribbon out of the end of it as a “metaphor” of the Gospel story… : (

  36. Michael Bauman Says:

    An old post, but I want to share an experience related to it and one that would not have happened without it:

    I was visiting my brother in Indianapolis last week and went looking for a double cheeseburger. I pulled into a Dairy Queen and was waiting for my order when a dapper looking black man walked in. He was wearing a cross on his vest and I assumed he as a minister. As I was thinking about that a strong urging overtook me to tell him my story. Well, I inwardly hemmed and hawed and tried to run away but eventually, I sat down with the man and we started talking about Jesus Christ and the Church. I found out that we had much more in agreement than I thought we would. We talked about Mary and he was open to the way in which we Orthodox realted with Mary, especially when I was able to tell him why–she is the Mother of God.

    At the end of our converstation we clasped hands across the table and prayed with each other in thanksgiving for each other and for our God.

    Without your challenge Fr. Stehpen, that would not have happened. Thank you.

  37. Michael Bauman Says:

    I almost forgot: He asked me how Mary could be the Mother of God. I said that the only way I could answer was with a metaphor that shown a light on that mystery. I used the line from the hymn: “Her womb became more spacious than the heavens and contained the uncontainable God.” He said, “Aaah” and nodded his head.

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