“True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In”: A review

November 23, 2010

"True Story" will help many Christians better understand and articulate the Christian faith.

A couple weeks ago, I preached on witnessing. One of the promises we make as members of the United Methodist Church is to serve Christ through our witness. This fifth part of our membership vow was only added a couple of years ago at General Conference—likely the result of justifiable concerns by the more evangelical wing of the church that we’ve placed too much weight on service as a means of witnessing.

Of course we bear witness to the love of Christ when we love, serve, and do any work for God’s kingdom. In fact, our actions are the most important way in which we witness. At some point, however, we have to say in whose Name we do all this good work, right?

As I mentioned previously, I’m sure the prospect of sharing our faith with words makes many people uncomfortable—in part because we don’t know what to say, and in part because “witnessing” has been done so poorly by so many over the years, the whole concept has been tarnished. As I discussed in my sermon, we don’t want to shove our faith down anyone’s throat. We don’t want to disrespect people of other faiths. And we don’t want to come on self-righteously.

Nevertheless, to help address the first problem—not knowing what to say—a Korean-American pastor named James Choung wrote a book entitled True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In. Although on one level it’s a novel—and artfully written most of the time—its fictional conceit serves the interest of making the author’s gospel presentation clear. As Rick Warren’s cover blurb indicates (“Brilliant… Tools like this can change the world.”), it’s primarily a tool for evangelism.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a zealous evangelical believer and college student in Seattle, a Korean-American named Caleb, who is experiencing a crisis of faith. He’s outgrown the narrow evangelicalism of his upbringing, which strongly emphasizes going to heaven when we die as the main point of faith. At the beginning of the book, he’s recently come home from a life-changing mission trip to the Philippines, where he lived and worked among the poor. When he tells his hyper-evangelical pastor about the trip, the pastor asks, “How many people got saved?”

Is “getting saved”—and getting other people saved—the sole reason for the gospel? he wonders. Not that salvation and eternal life don’t include life after death, but surely there’s more to it than that. Aren’t we saved for something more than simply escaping this world for the world to come? Jesus seemed to think so.

It doesn’t help that a fellow student on whom he has a barely acknowledged crush—a political liberal and social activist named Anna—finds little good in the kind of good news he describes as the essence of his Christian faith. Although she likes Caleb, she sees Christians as a judgmental, self-righteous bunch who are much more concerned about people’s sex lives than making a difference in the world. (She could represent the stereotypical viewpoint of the “un-churched” in the recent Christian bestseller unChristian.) To Choung’s credit, he doesn’t look down on her at all. She’s a very sympathetic character.

The book’s scenes are split between an on-and-off conversation Caleb has with Anna, in which he shares his faith with her, and another ongoing conversation with a religious professor who opens Caleb’s mind to a fuller understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Also, everyone drinks lots of coffee. (It’s set in Seattle, after all.) And that’s it. Plot-wise, it’s only slightly more engaging than My Dinner with Andre.

By the end of the book, however, Caleb has a firm grasp of a gospel that seems like truly good news for our world today.

The author clearly knows the mindset of Campus Crusade-type organizations first-hand. (He’s now a director for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.) His critiques are firm but affectionate. He writes convincingly of the kind spiritual struggle that often confronts college students when taking a provincial Christian faith into a much larger and more hostile world.

His main target for criticism is the theology associated with the “bridge illustration.” If someone ever handed you a tract from Campus Crusade called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” you know what I’m referring to. Here’s what it looks like. It’s not that the bridge illustration gets it all wrong: By all means, our sin has alienated us from God, and the culmination of God’s rescue plan for humanity is the sending of God’s Son Jesus, who through his death—yes, but also his life and resurrection, please!—makes a way for all humanity to be in a saving relationship with God.

But this illustration captures only a small part of what Choung calls the “Big Story” of the gospel. Contrary to the illustration, the gospel isn’t simply for an individual’s salvation; it’s also for communities and institutions. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for the healing of the world—which is made possible now, to some extent, through the Holy Spirit (as Choung strongly emphasizes) and will be completed by God at the end of history.

Also, the bridge illustration represents one theory of atonement—penal substitution—which, while biblical, is only one of several in scripture, as the professor correctly points out to Caleb. The professor favors the “ransom theory,” but she tells Caleb that all of them reveal truth about atonement without saying everything.

I strongly agree with that, by the way. We should view all the classic theories of atonement (i.e., penal substitution, Christus Victor, ransom theory, orderly governance) as different facets of the same reality.

My problem with the popular stereotype of penal substitution—and the way it’s represented in the Four Spiritual Laws—is that it can easily reinforce the idea that a vengeful God required the blood of his Son to save us from our sins. (This is not at all the teaching of classic Christianity.) More than one popular atheist writer rightly wonders if this isn’t cosmic child abuse.

What easily gets lost is that God is the subject of the Incarnation: God himself (or herself, if you please) came to us in Jesus Christ, loved us, shared his life with us, and accepted the consequence of this life by his willingness to die on the cross. It is completely orthodox, in other words, to say that God himself suffered death on the cross. This is possible because God is Trinity, both three and one.

Why did God suffer death? Because God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Whatever else the cross means, it is at least an incomprehensibly beautiful act of love. Julian of Norwich, meditating on the meaning of the cross, got its spirit exactly right when she has Jesus saying, “I would bleed more if I could.”

Although I appreciate that Choung tried to make his gospel presentation as concise as possible and full-bodied as necessary, I don’t know how practical this “napkin theology” will prove to be. In my experience of sharing the gospel, the idea of actually drawing a diagram on a napkin or piece of paper seems very unnatural and contrived. The non-churchgoing people I usually meet are what we might call “lightly churched.” They know the basics of faith, I think, without requiring a diagram. But I could be wrong.

Here are a couple of other problems with the book’s presentation: I wish he would say more about Israel. The incarnation of Jesus Christ doesn’t represent God’s changing course after previous efforts failed. The gospel is God’s plan from the beginning—starting back with Abraham and God’s promise to bless the world through his descendents. He does describe this in the book, but the sense in which Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant is absent from the gospel presentation itself (as it also is from the bridge illustration).

Like many conservative evangelicals, Choung is too low-church for my tastes. He discusses in some depth the importance and necessity of Christian community, prayer, and Bible study, but there’s no mention at all of baptism and Holy Communion. As we join God’s mission in the world, we are nourished through the Lord’s Supper in a way that goes beyond words and rational thought. I would say, along with Wesley, these are non-negotiable parts of discipleship.

In spite of these reservations, I highly recommend this book for any Christian who wants to better understand the basics of Christianity and be able to articulate the gospel more effectively—if not necessarily share it in the exact manner suggested. Choung’s presentation of the gospel is refreshing to a post-modern sensibility and, theologically, solid as a rock.

He mentions in the prologue that there are plenty of good books by authors such as Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright that cover the same ground more thoroughly (and as you might know, I love Wright’s Simply Christian), but his book succeeds on the strength of its brevity. I could have benefitted greatly from this book when I was in college.

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