Philip Pullman, the children’s author and atheist, known most famously for his trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) where he attacks and seeks to undermine Christianity, (the film of the first book comes out this Christmas) says in an recent essay:
‘We need a myth, we need a story, because it’s no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it’s reasonable. How much effect would the Bible have had for generations and generations if it had just been a collection of laws and genealogies? What seized the mind and captured the heart were the stories it contains’ (‘The Republic of Heaven’, The Horn Book Magazine, 2001, 666).
I believe Pullman is correct. He is aware that if we reject, say the Christian story, we need to replace it with something equally powerful: we need a story in which we can orient our life and answer the big questions. Where I disagree with Pullman is instead of rejecting the Christian story, I believe we need to tell the story better. The New Testament scholar Richard Hays has remarked,
'I have grown increasingly convinced that the struggles of the church in our time are a result of its losing touch with its own gospel story. We have gotten "off message" and therefore lost our way in a culture that tells us many other stories about who we are and where our hope lies. In both the evangelical and the liberal wings of Protestantism, there is too much emphasis on individual faith-experience and not enough grounding in our theological discourse in the story of Jesus Christ.' (The Faith of Jesus Christ, 2nd Ed., 2001, lii)
Pullman, in His Dark Materials (HDM), is reacting against the Western description of God as an authoritarian power, which I think he is justified in doing. I have no problems with Pullman killing off this god. In fact it clears the way for us to introduce the triune God of the gospel, who's power is displayed on a cross. We also see in HDM that Pullman's understanding of the Christian story is centred on heaven and hell. Colin Gunton has said '‘[the Enlightenment’s] view of traditional Christianity as authoritarian and excessively other-worldly was not entirely a caricature’ (Enlightenment and Alienation, 1985, 1). But the Christian story we find in the New Testament is not centred on the individual's eternal destination, but in the person's participation in the divine drama of the triune God.
It is God’s story that the gospel tells and only secondly of our involvement. It’s a story that subverts and reveals the emptiness of all other stories. This is a story that we can orientate people towards in their search for identity, which is grounded not in fantasy but in truth and a truth that is not firstly scientific and detached, but is personal and christological, that is, Jesus Christ is the Truth (Jn 14:6) or ‘. . . no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 3:11). Because this truth is christological it is also relational. The gospel is not a doctrinal basis to which people sign up to, but is the Spirit liberating us through Christ into relationship with the Father.
Sadly Stanley Hauerwas is right when he says, 'God has entrusted us, God's church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed to make the story, with the aid of much theory, boring has hell.' We need to find new ways to tell the story of Jesus, to show that it is alive and kicking, to show that it is world-altering and life-changing - it might mean we have to change. This I believe is what deep church is all about.