The other evening I watched a story.
I enjoy stories, I like examining them, pulling them apart, being led around on a fun narrative journey. Sometimes they engage my intellect, sometimes they grab my imagination, sometimes they stir up my emotions.
The other night, the story I watched moved me in my feelings in a way I haven’t often experienced. It was the story I already know pretty well, that I’ve seen or read many times, visualized by many different artists. It was the story of the Gospel. The story of God’s love relationship with his creation. The story of Jesus. The story of me.
What I watched was a stage show, put on as part of a conference, performed by a group of young people from all over the world who were coming to the end of a half-year training program. These guys were pretty good dancers and singers, and they did a great job taking us through a stylized retelling of much of the Bible. They started with the Trinity, went on to the creation of men and women, continued with the coming of sin and rebellion, and went on to Jesus coming to earth and bringing redemption to all humanity. The dance included vignettes that were recognizable to anyone familiar with the Bible. We saw Jesus writing in the dust, shaming away those who had no right to cast a stone. We saw him restoring hope to the hopeless by bringing life from the grave. And we saw him conquering death once and for all.
But as talented as the performers were, and as effectively as the piece was choreographed, and as dedicated as all the artists obviously were–none of that was really was what touched my heart.
It was the story itself.
The story of a righteous God who acts out of perfect love and joy. The story of a people undeserving who discover there is hope after all. The story of a relationship between creator and creation that is more real and more powerful than all the distractions or confusion or mess that life brings us (or that we bring to life).
That’s what touched me, even though it’s something I’m supposed to already know. That’s why they call it the Greatest Story Ever Told. Because the truth behind the telling of the story has such tremendous power that it can change my situation, my future, and even my very being. And in fact, it already has done all of those things and more.
This is not to say that it’s not possible to tell this story badly. Certainly it is, and we’ve probably all seen them. But the story of the gospel is so foundational to the human experience that even a flawed retelling has the ability to deeply touch the heart.
An example of a clearly flawed presentation is the film Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by the great Norm Jewison, and based on the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Now, I say “flawed”, but I love this movie. There is a rawness to the emotions that I find gripping. But is the movie theologically sound and biblically complete? Probably not. But still, Ted Neeley – the actor who plays Jesus – shared on the DVD commentary about how people have approached him over the years about how much they have been touched by the movie and Neeley’s performance. It was easy to hear that and think that’s a bit ridiculous. After all, Neely isn’t Jesus, he’s just an actor in a movie that is not only flawed but possibly the most 1970’s thing you will ever see.
But then I thought that for many people, Jesus Christ Superstar may be their primary exposure to the gospel. And as I said, the story is powerful. And so people may not know Jesus, but they know the Neely / Rice / Webber / Jewison interpretation. And that was enough to move them.
Like many films about Jesus, Jesus Christ Superstar ends without a clear recounting of the resurrection. This wasn’t the case with the dance performance that I watched. In fact, it went on from there to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in history, and the spread of the gospel through the sacrifice of many dedicated men and women. It looked particularly at the Moravians, one of the oldest Protestant denominations who had a passion for prayer and worship, and who caught a vision for missions. The dance re-created the famous story where two young men from the group were called by God to preach the gospel to Africans who had been sold in slavery in the Caribbean. Stories like this from this movement continue to be an inspiration to missionaries today.
And the story continued, offering a quick overview to other missions heroes like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Eric Liddell. Finally, it concluded in a joyful celebration, reflecting the gladness in the heart of God that began before the creation of the world and will continue onward into eternity.
And here I am in the comparatively short stretch of time in between, during a bit called “human history”. I spend my time raising my family, contributing to my community, and making movies to share the grace and love of Jesus to people who don’t normally have much opportunity to hear that message. And I write my own stories and make my own little movies, and I watch movies and TV and read comics and sometimes write about them. And sometimes I get stressed out about problems in the world, both profound and trivial.
But thankfully there are things like this dance performance, because it helped to remind me about the stuff that really matters. That’s why I was moved to tears. Because I remembered again how much I have to be grateful for, how much I have been forgiven, and how much potential there is for me and the world now. Indeed, this dance helped me to remember again why I live the life that I do: both why I can, and why I want to.
And really, that’s pretty good for a 20 minute presentation by a group of young dancers and singers. I don’t know that I could have asked for more.