Remember This Movie: Lions and tigers and bears, ___________! If you could immediately fill in the blank, then, whether you realize it or not, you have been impacted by culture. If upon further thought, you could fill in the blank and your mind went to Dorothy and her companions walking along a yellow brick road towards Oz, then you have some context for that cultural expression. And if the conclusion of that statement causes you begin to think about your favorite scenes, smile at the munchkins, hum a song, and even have fond memories of seasons of life when you enjoyed watching the film, then you are part of the generation that has been impacted by the movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Many of us have grown up with this movie. We know the songs, we know the stories, and we know the characters. We have seen poor high school versions of this movie, and even a brave interpretation of the story by Micahel Jackson. And because this story is so ingrained in our current pop culture, there was a place for someone to come along and use that story to tell a fuller story. And that is exactly what happened in the production of Wicked.
In case you haven’t seen the play, which I highly recommend, let me give you a quick synopsis. Wicked is a more complete story of what is going on in Oz during the time of Dorothy. The movie is Dorothy’s story, and the play is the unfolding drama between the two witches, Galinda, the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. All by itself, Wicked is a compelling play with great characters and music. But what makes Wicked amazing is that it so incredibly clever.
Wicked tells the story by weaving in and out of the movie the Wizard of Oz. They reference people, places, and scenes. It is as if you get to walk through Oz and occasionally cross the yellow brick road just missing Dorothy and her entourage. During the entire play you have, “Ah, ha!” moments as you put all the pieces together. I found it to be a great evening of fun and incredibly refreshing. As I was driving home, I realized how much more I would have enjoyed this play if I had rented the Wizard of Oz before and re-familiarized myself with the original story. There was so much I missed, and if I weren’t so cheap I would have done that.
They Don't Remember The Movie: The next day I ran into one of the students I work with who saw Wicked several weeks before, and we began to share our favorite parts, the amazing music, the great characters, etc. But as our conversation continued for a few more minutes, I realized that she was not impressed at all with how clever the play was and how amazing the intertwining of the two stories was. And the more I thought about it, I realized it is because The Wizard of Oz is not part of her cultural story. She might have seen the movie once, and parts of it here and there, but without the cultural context, she missed the best component of the play.
Without the Wizard of OZ, Wicked would still be entertaining. However, Wicked is only clever and engaging because it has been built on a cultural phenomenon. Creative people love building on current cultural stories to create even more compelling stories. And this pattern is true in the Church as well. We are continually exploring ways to communicate the Gospel that are unique and compelling. Over thousands of years and through millions of stories, Christians have been finding new ways to tell this story. For many, there is a deep culture that has had touch points with the Gospel. There have been songs sung, books written, and movies made that portray the Gospel story with a fresh angle with fresh characters. And like the play Wicked these characters and stories just cross in front of and behind the hero of the story along the yellow brick road. Stories as renowned as Les Miserables, to recent films like the Book of Eli have attempted similar things with the Gospel. These stories are built on the expectation that our culture knows or is at least familiar with the original story. To fully enjoy and even be impacted by these stories, we need to know something about the Bible, about grace and forgiveness, and about Jesus the Christ.
As I reflect on my conversation with my student about Wicked and the connection between the play and the movie, The Wizard of Oz, I realized that culturally we are losing, or have already lost our cultural connection to the Gospel. Yes, there are many biblical, “Christian,” Jesus, or spiritual references in our pop culture, but our ability to use context to connect all the dots and enhance the Gospel, the Gospel centered on the transforming grace offered to us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is getting harder, if not impossible. One of the implications of this transition is that we must connect the dots and re-tell a compelling Gospel story.
How Do We Re-Tell The Story: Because we are transitioning into a post-Christian context, it might be time to re-examine the stories we tell and the manner in which we tell them. It is amazing that it has only been ten years since conversations started about postmodern vs. modern worldviews. In that time the church has moved into finding really clever and new / old ways of telling the Gospel story, and has made some amazing strides into applying this faith into missional living. Christians have been refreshed with a more holistic version of the Gospel, a gospel that is more community driven and must be applied in tangible and real ways in our world. Even though the church is being much more intentional in its theology and practice, worship, and mission, it is this post-christian context that continues to shift and move further away from any understanding of the original story.
One of the responses to this transition was the “seeker” church movement. Although the leaders in this movement correctly understood that our culture was moving away from a biblical worldview, the application only further separated this new church culture from the original Gospel story. In an attempt to reach this drifting “christian” culture, many churches moved away from themes of sin and punishment, and transitioned to contemporary language highlighting contemporary themes. But all this did was remove even further the themes and language to fully tell the Gospel story. What the post-modern and emergent moments highlighted was that people did want some connection to the historical Christianity and a theology that actually impacted our world that was not so individually focused, but rather community and world minded: Christ’s heart for the entire world.
This movement helped remind the church that we need to define our terms. No longer should a preacher begin a sermon with, “We have all heard the story of the prodigal son, and many of us are prodigals . . .” But rather, “In Luke, the third book of the New Testament there is a story about . . . “ Over the last decade we have moved even further along to the point where words like Luke and New Testament no longer have any cultural connections. Because our context is becoming more and more post-christian, the church needs to be that much more intentional about making the original Gospel story clear and compelling.
We Need To Understand Our Context: Our culture doesn’t know God’s redemptive story as told through Scripture. This story is rooted in history with real people and real events, all pointing to a Messiah who was going to come and usher in a new Kingdom. This Kingdom is to be centered around Jesus the Christ, a Gospel that invites people to move from spiritual death and brokenness, to a an eternal life, a healed life. This life is to be used for the Glory of God in this life and the life to come. There has been plenty written regarding this new Kingdom, about the need for Justice, about Redeeming Creation. The assumption is that people can put the pieces together and have a fuller and deeper appreciation for the original Gospel. What I am noticing is that they can’t.
I am not arguing that we should move away from “Kingdom,” “Justice,” or “Redeeming Creation” theology or praxis. I am arguing that we use the thin spaces to tell a compelling story for God’s desire and our need for true and full salvation in and through Jesus Christ. Just like the “Seeker” movement missed part of the story by assuming everyone knew their Bibles, I don’t want our current movements to only paint a beautiful picture as we work towards Justice. Even more than before the church can not be so subtle with the picture we are painting. We are made in the image of God and are longing to be healed from our brokenness. Our personal and cultural desire for healing and justice is because of this universal truth. And because of this universal truth, we can be bold in pointing out that it is through Jesus that we are healed and wrongs are made right.
This is what famous missionaries did a century ago such as Hudson Taylor. In the mid 1800’s Taylor went to China, and with a sensitivity to their culture, found these thin places. These are places where the needs of that particular culture have rubbed up against solutions the Gospel of Jesus address. And then Taylor would use those thin places to point to Jesus. We need to take a closer look at the culture we actually live in without our church eyes and look for these thin places. The good news is that the Holy Spirit has been already moving the church to these places, specifically in justice, poverty, and peace issues. As we strive to be missional and work for justice, we can immediately find places where our post-christian context and the church can meet. (and have been meeting)
We Have To Get Around To Jesus: The step that is missing is the point that tells the rest of the story. Our desire for missional living and justice go hand and hand with the very character of God. We are motivated by our love for Jesus and a response for the complete salvation he offers us. This connection is getting more and more tricky. Since our non-christian neighbors have zero touch points for any of this language, the church, you and me, must be that much more intentional and purposeful in communicating. While missional living and justice are vital in of themselves, if we never get back to Jesus, then we have really missed it. We must find a clear and compelling way to put this all together. We have to find a way that Jesus is the hero of the story again. We have moved so far away from a cultural understanding of who Jesus is that our post-christian context has no idea that the buildings we work on in our community, the schools we volunteer in, the non profits we partner with have anything to do with what Jesus has done for us and for them. There was an important pendulum shift over this past decade. Like all transitions, there is a need to come back towards the center so that the canvas is complete with the beautiful setting, and with our hero Jesus Christ front and center.
Without a crystal clear understanding of the original Gospel story, those Kingdom principles and works of compassion and justice, just become a nice story that has value in it of itself. Just like Wicked! is a great play on its own merits. But what makes the play truly amazing is the original story of the Wizard of Oz. As our culture loses connection to the original Gospel story, maybe it is time to revisit how we tell our story, so that the redemptive story centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the center of what we do once again. As our heart grows for people who are totally unconnected to the church and to Christian faith, we might need to do less with fancy illustrations to a great story, and go old school and share the original story once again.