I want to change the world. I’m obviously not alone. Protestors, politicians, pastors, parents, and beauty pageant contestants—we all love to talk about changing the world. Just stick a microphone in front of one of us and we’ll gladly poetically drone about change and hope and the power of possibility.
Except for a few fringe extremists, everyone I know genuinely desires world peace. We want to see the hungry fed, the endangered children saved, and the abandoned elderly dignified. It isn’t too hard for us to imagine a better world without slave traders, child abusers, and hatemongers. We want love and respect to replace racism and selfishness. We want the world to change. Most of us are even willing to change it. The only problem is that we simply don’t know how to do it.
As a result, some of us have decided to become more political. But is government—any government—going to change the world? Are we to believe that we are only a few well-crafted pieces of legislation or a new messianic leader away from Heaven on earth? Throughout the entire human experiment, how have the governments of the world succeeded in bringing peace or preventing poverty or creating selfless people? Not very well at all. History unveils a clear, stark realization: we can’t govern ourselves well enough to save ourselves from ourselves.
But at least we can trust education to rescue us, right? We just need better teachers, better facilities, and better academic standards. If there is anything G.I. Joe cartoons taught my generation it is that “knowing is half the battle.” Surely a more educated society could find a way to analyze, theorize, and organize us out of this predicament.
Of course, the irony is that we already live in the most educated society to inhabit the earth. We are the wiki generation, toting around the entirety of collected human knowledge in our iPhones and Androids. Yet, remarkably, the world remains as broken as ever.
Once we dismiss government and education as the hope for all humanity, we easily find ourselves romantically sentimental for the “good ole days.” After all, isn’t it really a simple matter of right living—of being good people? If we could return to those happy days and rediscover that “utopian Judeo-Christian America,” then everything would be better: God fearing. Church going. Value loving. Praying before meals. Marriage before sex. Nation before self.
Returning to our Leave It to Beaver roots has to be the way to change the world, right? Possibly for the Cleavers among us, but my African-American friends might disagree. We tend to forget that the “good ole days” were Hell on earth for some among us.
Or maybe, in contrast, the postmodern existentialists have it right. Maybe it’s really just about you finding the courage and freedom to be you. Simply embrace your inner journey to discover the person God made you to be. Claim your freedom and don’t judge others. Live and let live. Don’t impose. After all, nothing says “change the world” quite like a liberal dose of extreme tolerance. Or does it?
You Can’t Change the World
Maybe you are like me. You’ve spent a good chunk of your limited life on this planet trying to change things. And maybe you have discovered what I have. Namely, that you can’t change the world by being political or piling up PhDs. You can’t change the world by being religious or trying harder to be a better person. You can’t change the world by finding your deepest inner calling. Not by getting rich or gaining power or becoming famous. You can’t change the world “one person at a time.” (It sounds good, but it takes way too long.) And you can’t change the world by being a Christian.
Because you can’t change the world at all.
You aren’t that good . . . or talented or influential or intelligent. I hate to pile on like this, but somebody needs to say it: you and I are not the hope of the world. Somebody bigger, better, and smarter than us needs to take over this sorry operation if change is going to come.
Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was once asked, “What is the most revolutionary way to change society: Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?” Illich gave a careful answer: “Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.”
It’s Not About You
There is an alternative story. And it isn’t about you. It is about a living, eternal, one-and-only creative Being. His name is unpronounceable, but when pressed he asks us to call him “I Am” or “The One Who Is.” His name is I Am, because before you were . . . He Is.
We think our personal, individual stories are so terribly significant—that they really matter. But compared to the story of this I Am, our stories are laughably short and insignificant.
But here’s the game changer: he made you. Therefore, he—get this—loves you. More accurately, he loves all of us. If you are a parent, then you know his kind of love. The love you have for your children is a diluted carbon copy of the way he loves you. He created parents to love their kids so they could better understand how he loves us.
He loves us so much that he invites us to abandon our lonely pitiful stories to join his better one. At some point, each of us must answer this foundational question: Do you want to continue starring in your own torturously bad amateur one-act play or would you rather exchange that part for a better role in the single greatest story ever written?
That is the alternative story. Countless people throughout history have traded their story for that better one. To put it in the words of Jesus, they “took up their cross” or “became least” or “died in order to gain their life.” By surrendering your story to the one-and-only I Am, you are introduced anew into the next chapter of his masterpiece. And you aren’t the first to do so.
As Old As Time
The alternative story is as old as time:
• In a world where every thought of every person was only evil all the time, Noah abandoned his own story for the alternative one. He trusted a new author’s voice and built a wooden freighter in his backyard during a drought. And his story saved the world.
• In a world where people worshipped rocks shaped like goats and logs with faces painted on them, Abram accepted the alternative story of a personal God who speaks promises to the childless elderly. Then the I Am birthed a new nation out of a geriatric barren woman’s womb.
• In a world where his family rejected him and his boss’s wife framed him as a rapist, Joseph told the alternative story to the face of the most powerful man in the ancient world. He challenged the Pharaoh to submit to the presence of the I Am—to trust the only One powerful enough to truly bail out nations on the edge of economic collapse.
• In a world where he and all of his countrymen were the slaves of a tyrant and a bounty was on his own head as a murderer, Moses told the alternative story to the face of his oppressor when he said, “You can’t have this nation anymore. We are God’s people and he’s been pretty clear this time. I’ve just returned home from a magic burning bush and this is what I Am says, ‘You let my people go. They have a better story to tell than the one you are telling.’”
• In a world where the greatest leader of their nation died after millions of families wandered as political refugees in the desert for four decades, Joshua revived the alternative story as he slid his general’s sword into his scabbard and said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the I Am—your God—will be with you wherever you go. Our story is his story, and it is not a story that ends in defeat.”
• In a world where the good people of the world were being beaten, pillaged, and raped by an evil nation, the eternal I Am sent a messenger to Gideon, a frightened weakling of a man. The angel said, “On your own you are nobody, Gideon, but with God you are a mighty warrior. Get up and trust the writer of the alternative story to rescue his people from this disaster.”
• In a world where two superpowers lined up opposite each other for war and the destiny of two nations hung in the balance, a shepherd teenager carrying a basket of bread for the soldiers was the only one brave enough to believe the alternative story. David said, “I’m just a boy with a sling and a few stones, and he’s a giant with a spear, but my God is alive . . . and that giant worships a bronze-plated frog. My story wins.”
• In a world where his entire family was killed or taken captive to a foreign land—a world where he himself was a slave for his entire life, Daniel incarnated the alternative story when he approached king after king, decade after decade, and said, “There is only one living God. He is the living I Am. And he has a message for you: your story is temporary, but his is eternal.” They threw Daniel’s friends in a fiery furnace and fed him to the lions, but in the alternative story, the fire’s not all that hot and hungry lions make wonderful roommates.
He Lived Among Us
And then it happened.
The Alternative Story became flesh and he lived among us. The Alternative Story was with God in the beginning. The Alternative Story was God. He came to the people of the alternative story, but his own people did not recognize their author. They rejected The Alternative Story for a different story—one that seemed more reasonable and possible and palatable and safe. And when it came time to give The Alternative Story a name, the peasant teenage girl who birthed him named him Jesus. Literally, she called him God Rescues Us.
For three years, God Rescues Us taught us that the alternative story was breaking into humanity in a fresh, real, and dangerously significant way. He came to let us know that the very last chapter of humanity’s alternative story had begun. And we believed him. He asked us to trust him—to trust God. And we trusted him. He warned us that we can’t always trust the religious leaders or the politicians or the economists or the powerful militants, but we can always trust him. When pressed, God Rescues Us let the truth of his true identity slip out, when he snapped back to his enemies, “before Abraham was . . . I Am!”
Then, suddenly, he was framed as a traitor, beaten, and brutally murdered. But not before giving death itself an alternative story. In our new story, death begets life—not the other way around. So though he died, he lives again. And so the resurrection, the final chapter of the alternative story, was leaked early.
And the alternative story continued.
Forty days after the resurrection, Peter offered the alternative story to the masses gathered in Jerusalem, and 3,000 of them exchanged their insignificant stories for the ultimate one.
Paul took the alternative story to those farthest from God, and they started little churches in most every town in the ancient world—little spiritual families that spread like a good cancer all throughout the Roman Empire.
One hundred years later, Polycarp, the elderly pastor of the church in Smyrna, proclaimed the alternative story to those who burned him at the stake for his faith. His last words ring through history: “Eighty-six years I have served him. How can I now deny my Savior who bought me?” Then, fueled by the blood of the martyrs, the alternative story expanded into a forest fire of hope and redemption across the landscape of antiquity.
Centuries later, a fellow named Francis, a wealthy, snot-nosed son of a fashion designer, joined the alternative story when he rejected all his father’s wealth to start a movement of compassion and radical generosity in the village of Assisi.
Martin Luther discovered the same alternative story when he questioned the corruption and materialism of the church at a time when a thing like that could get a monk killed.
And on it goes from there: from John Calvin to the Wesley Brothers to Martin Luther King Jr. to Mother Teresa to Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. Dozens of names you would recognize and millions of names you would not. They all boldly stood up in their time and place and joined the alternative story of a living God.
Telling the Story
But who is this ultimate storyteller? This I Am? Do we really know him or have we quite innocently and accidentally reduced him to something less than who he is? Have we somehow replaced this living being and his story with a simplistic system of philosophical and ethical beliefs?
There is no Christianity without the primacy of the story of God. There is no hope, salvation, or Heaven apart from his story. To somehow dismiss this God’s story as secondary to a belief system is to wildly miss the point. Christianity is fundamentally narrative. It’s not a formula, a religion, a philosophy, an idea, an ethic, or a construct. Christianity is a story.
To be a Christian, then, is to tell our stories. The stories of the Bible, the stories of our history, and the stories of our own lives—these stories are what make us . . . us. What if preachers, parents, and teachers began to realize that we are first storytellers? What if we measured our effectiveness not so much on knowledge acquired or acts of righteousness, but on passing our stories along to our children?
The future of Christianity in the emerging postmodern, post-Christian America is perilously uncertain. Many are clamoring to return to the days when Christians (particularly white Evangelical Christians) controlled the culture. Those days are gone—not likely to return. (And for the sake of the gospel, I am glad.) When followers of Jesus discern that we cannot control the world at large, it is then we retreat into our story—and in it, we find the alternative story we were searching for all along.
Then God can do what he does best—use the church to change the world.
Joe Boyd is the founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, a film and television production company that exists to tell stories that spark people to hope and action. He also serves part-time as the teaching pastor at Vineyard Cincinnati in Ohio. Joe’s book Between Two Kingdoms is available from Standard Publishing. Connect with him via Twitter (@JoeBoyd or visit his company’s blog, www.rebelpilgrim.com, or his blog, www.joeboydblog.com.