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Underwood knows there's more to the story than the facts
In House of Cards, President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) uses all the power he has to push a piece of legislation designed to create jobs through an immobile Congress. I’ll spare you most of the details, but one of the most interesting things about the program is when Underwood hires a famous novelist to write a novel about him highlighting the great things that his legislation does. I suppose Underwood figured out the value of story, the power of story, the ability it has to lead people.
It seems like for all of time people have been using stories to deliver truths and ideas to an audience. Underwood is trying to convince the nation that he has great legislation by telling his story. As the real election cycle begins, note the importance of anecdotes about real things that are relatable to everyone. Leaders often use stories to deliver messages and so does God.
The Bible is really one big story designed to tell the story of God. It’s a story that is meant to help us relate to God. And the stories that are in it are used to create purpose beyond merely distributing the facts.
Somewhere along the line, I think we got the idea that history, or any stories really, serve the purpose of objectively delivering the truth. When I was studying journalism, one of the main ideas the professors overemphasized was the importance of “remaining objective,” especially when it came to hard news stories.
Those hard news stories are generally found above-the-fold in your local paper. Though newspapers are often accused of being anything but objective, I think the content of their material is often what is criticized, whereas I would note, and not with a negative connotation, that the material they choose to highlight is where their bias primarily exists.
Stories aren’t meant for objective displays of truth because the stories that we select to share already have a bias. Beyond that, what is the value in so-called objectivity? Who writes the rules of what is objective and what isn’t?
Like Jesus taught me, I prefer to have relationships with people. I want to be led. I don’t want to sort through all the objective facts to come up with my own conclusions. Although that is kind of the world we live in—go and Google your data and come up with your own ideas. We don’t live in a relational world, and when we aren’t in relationship, stories themselves become less effective.
People begin applying the same rules that we use when we Google something to the scripture. The idea is that the Gospels should be historically accurate accounts of Jesus’ life, and for our purpose, so should Acts. The truth is that writers of the Bible told stories to specific groups of people for a reason. Sometimes, then, we find what a modernist would call discrepancies or inaccuracies between accounts of the same story. Commentators, especially from a certain era, specialize in these discrepancies and then lead us then to question the truth that is coming from those stories because of their differences. They don’t necessarily explicitly tell us doubt, rather they supply the information and then we come up with our own conclusion.
Acts is a book of history. One of the problems that we face when we study it is Paul. Paul wrote many letters in the New Testament. Commentators sometimes discover contradictions, or even assume corrections in Paul’s letters compared to Luke’s account. It’s the same technique they use to discredit the Gospels. It’s not effective because the purpose of the texts is not documentation (which, in my opinion, is not the purpose of a newspaper or even an encyclopedia), there’s more to the story.
One of the most important events in the book of Acts is Paul’s conversion story. This story is a crucial one for the whole church to know and understand. It is littered with meaning, application, and it has endless use even to this day. It is so useful, that it occurs in Acts three different times and in Galatians Paul at least makes an allusion to it himself. All of those accounts have variations, the details of which are beyond the purview of this speech, but I think the main point I want to make is that a story can have a variety of purposes and uses. Subsequently, it may seem like it isn’t “accurate,” but it is rather just being used differently.
The power of story, then, isn’t in the objectivity of its facts (why then would we use the narrative form to deliver it?), but rather it is in its ability to enchant and inspire. We relate to a story, and we relate better to the person delivering it as a result. Jesus came to us in the form of a person, for the purpose of having a relationship (not to convince us he existed), and then he related to us further by telling us parables, stories.
Paul’s conversion then is a story that people can relate to and Luke places it in Acts for the purpose of a relationship. The story is told and retold for many reasons. I want to focus on the account in Acts 9:1-18.
This story takes places after Luke introduces Saul as a villain. He approves Stephen’s murder and that is emphasized again in the beginning of chapter 8. Now we are at chapter 9. Paul, who is Saul here, and will remain Saul even after his conversion for a while, is characterized as being a major antagonist toward Christians. He embodies the wickedness that was in the Jewish people that killed Stephen.
In fact, Luke emphasizes his sinister nature when he writes that Paul went to the high priest, probably Caiaphas, the same one who arranged for Jesus’ death, to get permission to kill Christians—those that belong to the “Way” (refers to the Christian community in Acts). In his request of permission, we learn that there are Christians in Damascus (in modern-day Syria). Luke is telling us about the success of the movement, the success of the Way despite apparent persecution. Probably there aren’t many Christians there yet, but there are both men and women (another clue as to inclusive equality that the church has).
Then a bright light appears and Saul falls to the ground. It’s Jesus asking why Saul is persecuting him? An allusion to Matthew 25, where Jesus equates himself with the least among us (some argue that the term “least of these” refers to Christ’s disciples themselves). When Saul responds here, he asks him who is he and he refers to him as “Lord,” that is more of a term of respect, not exalting.
Then Jesus instructs him to go to Damascus, the very place he was to continue his persecution.
The second narrative in this section about the great disciple of Jesus, Ananias. The Lord calls him too. When he is called, Ananias knows it’s Jesus. Jesus directs him to go and find Saul and restore his sight.
Ananias resists. Surely, Saul, of all people, doesn’t deserve sight and restoration. Saul and his evil ways are infamous. Truly, he is Ananias’ enemy. Ananias even makes reference to Saul’s intent on seeking permission from chief priests to imprison Christians.
Jesus then tells of the assignment he has given Saul: bring his name to three groups of people: Gentiles, non-Jewish people, kings, people in power, and the Jews themselves (the very people with whom Saul was allied to begin with).
This isn’t a great reward, at least in the worldly sense. Almost in order to comfort his distressed servant, Jesus lists all of the suffering that Saul will endure in order to serve him. It is not payment for the atrocities he has committed or approved of. And Saul will later suffer for Jesus and praise him for it.
Maybe convinced after such a discourse, Ananias goes and heals Saul, who is now called Brother, and gives him sight, fills him with the Spirit. Now Saul is made new and can see. Ananias baptizes him and Saul is ready to go church planting in Damascus.
Luke uses this story in many ways. Again, its purpose isn’t just to tell us about Saul. It’s a little random if it’s just that. There’s more to it. Ultimately, it serves the purpose in the story of showing us how Saul changes. It introduces to us the narrative of Gentile conversion that he'll engage in. Paul uses this story later to explain to his oppressors the purpose of his mission and what he’s doing. He uses this story to help convert other people. Truly, this story has served that purpose for generations. Moreover, the story serves the purpose of giving legitimacy to Paul’s ministry. It records his direct account with the Lord.
For us, there’s even more use to it.
First, he’s telling us about the awesome power of Jesus’ transformation. Luke introduces Saul as a vile character and by the end of this story he is God’s servant. Proof that even the most heinous among us can follow Jesus, that no one sin, even killing Christians, can keep us from Jesus.
It’s also a display of radical inclusion. Ananias knows that Saul is evil, but Jesus convinces him to baptize him. Ananias loves his enemy.
Moreover, he obeys God. And so does Saul. The Lord appears to them in a radical, unbelievable way, and he tells them to do basically the opposite of what they have all done. They listen.
This real life occurrence gives us faith, ultimately, that we can be transformed. These stories, in some sense, mirror each other. One person repents and changes, the other person softens and love. A lesson in truth and love. We can repent, change, soften, and love too. We can tell our whole story and let Jesus use it.
Are you getting some of its purpose even for us? It’s a story of encouragement and hope. It’s a story of trust and transformation. It’s a story of influence.
What can you use your story for? That’s the question I want us to consider. A lot of our cells do a season of storytelling. I think we do it to get to know each other, but perhaps we can get to know God more through them. Perhaps our story can be a source of encouragement for someone.
My encouragement to you is consider what your story is and how you want to share it and how Jesus can use it. It might be hard because you don’t have some grand story of conversion or faith like Saul or Ananias, but try to give yourself more than that and see how God wants to use it. I think you have something to share and who knows, like Saul’s, it might do a little bit in changing the world.