Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salvation History as a Five-Act Play

Yesterday I attended the Warren Burns Learning Series at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson, MS. The presenters were the Rev. Dr. Pamela C. Hawkins and the Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells.

Pastor Hawkins is a United Methodist elder and author of Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent and The Awkward Season: Prayers for Lent. She is also the managing editor of Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. (Turns out that we were in an ethics class together at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early 1990s. Small world!)

Professor Wells teaches Old Testament and biblical theology at Duke Divinity School, where she also directs the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies. Her books include God's Holy People: A Theme in Biblical Theology and Isaiah in the People's Bible Commentary Series. Ordained a priest in the first wave of women priests in the Church of England, she previously served as dean of Clare College as well as lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley Hall, both in Cambridge, England.

Both women offered much food for the soul in their presentations yesterday, and both preached outstanding sermons this morning at St. Andrew's Cathedral (one at 8:45 and the other at 11:00). In fact, what each had to say about the gospel reading was directly pertinent to a number of pastoral issues unfolding in the lives of several parishioners.

One of the things I found most intriguing about yesterday's presentations was when Professor Wells talked about salvation history as a five-act play (I note that she's drawing on and modifying work by N. T. Wright). Here's how the play unfolds:

Act I - Creation (ending with the Fall)

Act II - Israel (ending with the Exile)

Act III - Jesus

Act IV - Church

Act V - Heaven (or, perhaps even better, New Creation)

I find this approach to the Bible helpful for a number of reasons. First, it answers the question (for Christians, at least) "Why the Bible?" by saying, "The Bible is the play, or the basic story, in which we live. It is the story or meta-narrative in which our life stories find their ultimate meaning and purpose."

It also serves as a humbling reminder that we in the Church do not live in the center of the story. We are not the key players. The most important things have already happened, and the center of the story is the person and work of Jesus.

Following from that is another important and humbling point: since we are not the key players and we are not the center of the story, we Christians are not responsible for saving the world. Yes, we are responsible for serving the world in the name of the One through whom the world is saved. And we are responsible for sharing the story of Jesus with the world by word and deed, inviting others to discover that the ultimate meaning and purpose of their life stories is found in the biblical meta-narrative, living as kingdom-bearers and lights of the world who point to the One who is uniquely and exclusively the way, the truth, and the life. We are entrusted with the gift of salvation. And so the Church is an indispensable part of salvation history (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). But we Christians are not saviors, for there is only one Savior. And salvation is God's gift to the world through the Church, not the work of the Church on behalf of the world. We do not live in Act III, and we cannot jumpstart the arrival of Act V.

And so the understanding of salvation history as a five-act play reminds us that we are not responsible for the end of the story. God is. We have been entrusted, however, with knowledge of how the story ends (in God's way and in God's time). And building on what has come before us in the second and third acts of the play, we have sure and certain grounds for the kind of hope that can, indeed, allow us to "live with confidence in newness and fullness of life" as we look forward to "the completion of God's purpose for the world" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 861). Perhaps, in the midst of so much division and ugliness in the Church today, this can serve as a reminder that it's not up to us to solve everything or to get everything "right." Our job is to be faithful, and that can be more than sufficiently challenging.

Another aspect of this approach to the Bible I find appealing is that nothing that comes before gets lost. A play forms a narrative unity. No act stands in isolation from the others. You can't understand what happens in a subsequent act without knowing what happened prior to that act, just as you can't reach the ending or fulfillment of the story without everything that came before. And so this approach rules out supersessionism, for Acts III-V make no sense apart from Act II. Israel cannot be ignored or written out of the story.

In small group discussion, Professor Wells gave us three questions to kick around about all of this which I now share with you:
  1. Which act of the play do you most readily relate to?
  2. Can you name some examples of people who seem to operate as if they are living in the wrong act?
  3. How, by the way you live, do you (and/or might you) demonstrate that you are in Act IV?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bryan,
Thanks for this posting. Glad you were able to be fed at this event.
I will be able to use this vantage point with a number of friends who do think our job is to save the world!

Suzanne

PS. I missed getting to see you at MS Conf. this year.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Suzanne. I missed all of you at the conference this year, too. Unfortunately, I had a conflict I could not resolve, otherwise I would have been there. I've heard that it as a truly outstanding week, and that the closing service at the Cathedral was simply awesome!

Joe Rawls said...

Thanks for the negative reference to supersessionism, which is still alive and kicking in all segments of the church. Having a Jewish spouse makes one sensitive to such matters.

Rakovsky said...

"And so this approach rules out supersessionism, for Acts III-V make no sense apart from Act II. Israel cannot be ignored or written out of the story."

The word supersede does not necessarily mean writing something out. An amendment to the constitution does not mean removing the constitution. Supersessionism is a term that is thrown around alot, but to quote Montoya, "I don't not think it means what you think it means."

Rabbi Novak explains that Christianity is generically Supersessionist, because if Christianity did not come to bring in anything better, why not just stay with what you had before.

It's supersessionist because what comes in new supersedes what is before, even if you still have old things, like the Constitution.