The Story of Us
"We preach not ourselves" (2Cor 4:5), "but Christ and him crucified" (1Cor 1:23)
In her book, Spirituality for Dummies, Sharon Janis writes, “In a nutshell, spirituality relates to your own personal experience and relationship with the divine...Dogma can muddy the waters of a spiritual path.”1 Similarly, in his book Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch writes that “leaders, ministers, books, and even the Bible itself are not authoritative sources.” In fact, he claims that God specifically directs us to, “Listen to your feelings...Listen to your experience. Whenever any one of these differ from what you’ve been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words. Words are the least reliable purveyor of truth.”2 Madonna apparently agrees with this advice. In her song, “Bedtime Story,” she sings, “Words are useless, especially sentences. They don’t stand for anything. How could they explain how I feel?”
Of course, if words are so useless and unreliable, perhaps we could ask why Madonna and Neale Donald Walsh felt compelled to use so many of them. But the more important question to ask is why so many people in our day are attracted to the view that feelings and experiences are more important than words and ideas. Taken to the extreme, this is actually a recipe for anarchy. As just one example, if the words of various “traffic laws” begin to be thought of as “useless” and drivers end up focusing more on their own internal feelings (such as “the need for speed”), then a simple trip to the grocery store will increasingly become hazardous to your health.
The preference for feelings and experiences over words and ideas is ubiquitous in our day, even in the sphere of American Christianity. Doctrine is presented as cold, dull, and divisive—what we really need is an authentic “personal relationship with Jesus.” Unfortunately, few seem to have noticed how similar this is to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” approach of writers like Sharon Janis and Neale Donald Walsch. At the end of the day, spirituality relates to our own personal experience, which is why it holds our interest. Dogma, on the other hand, is rooted in the beliefs and ideas of other people, which is inherently more complicated and definitely less captivating.
If you think about it, those who suggest that doctrine is cold, or that “dogma muddies the water of true spirituality” are actually guilty of spreading their own doctrines and dogmas. Curiously, it’s a kind of “anti-dogmatic” dogma, but at the end of the day, it’s dogma just the same—words and ideas are being employed in order to affect the way we think. So while it’s common to hear, even in conservative Christian circles that “true Christianity isn’t a bunch of doctrines, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus,” perhaps we should follow up that assertion with a few questions, such as: “Who is Jesus?” “Was he a man, an angel, or God incarnate?” “Is he still alive?” “Did he actually atone for sin or not?” All these doctrinal questions simply can’t be avoided.
Nearly a century ago, J. Gresham Machen observed that “What many men despise today as ‘doctrine’ the New Testament calls the gospel.”3 His point was that the gospel, which lies at the very heart of our faith, is itself an announcement of a particular set of facts. In fact, the word “gospel” (Gk. euangelion) simply refers to the announcement or proclamation of “good news.” Paul famously gives a succinct summary of the gospel message in 1st Corinthians 15:
I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word that I preached to you—otherwise you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me... 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
We should pay close attention to the specific “words” and “sentences” employed in this important passage, since it happens to convey the beliefs and ideas of the earliest Christians. Specifically, Paul decided to unpack the main tenets of the gospel, which he calls the thing of “first importance.” He’s not attempting to generate religious experiences or to inspire certain feelings but is simply reminding the Corinthians of a particular series of events that had recently transpired. These events had to do with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, which had been announced centuries in advance throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. And he concludes by saying that if Christ was not actually raised from the dead, then Christianity is a waste of time—“your faith is in vain.”
So, according to the very clear words of 1st Corinthians 15, Paul didn’t think of the gospel as a spiritual tool for lifting you up when life gets you down. He didn’t provide us with tips and instructions to deepen our relationship with the divine or suggest that we follow our hearts wherever they happen to lead us. No, the thing of first importance was that Jesus died for our sins, that he died and was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures. And, of course, all this is dogma.
The problem is that in our day, many people both inside and outside the walls of the church have come to prefer gospels that are more about ourselves, which is why we want them to be less dogmatic. In other words, we’ve come to think of dogma as cold and irrelevant precisely because it’s external to us. It’s a bunch of inauthentic doctrinal mumbo-jumbo that we’re forced to process, whereas personal experience just feels right—it’s not cognitive, but intuitive.
Several years ago I recorded a number of man-on-the-street interviews at a Christian convention, and I asked attendees what they thought was the best way to reach people who are unconvinced of the most basic Christian truth claims. The overwhelming response was that we shouldn’t try to argue with such people, but should instead tell them our own story. But why should this be the preferred option? Well, they say, it’s personal, relatable, and something that can’t be refuted. But when people do end up challenging the basic factual claims related to the life of Jesus, why shouldn’t we attempt to address their questions?
My guess is that this is perceived to be a fruitless exercise because most contemporary Christians have never actually been trained to do this sort of thing. Because they have focused so heavily on their own “personal relationship with Jesus” they don’t really know how to respond to those who assert (to give one example) that Jesus may never really have existed in the first place. So they simply avoid the conversation altogether and retreat to the realm of the subjective. As one respondent put it, “Sharing your own testimony is personal, and anytime you’re telling your own story, that’s gonna affect people more than something they might not be able to relate to, and I mean, you have instant credibility because it happened to you.”
Think about this for a moment. Because of the perception that people won’t be able to relate to all the dogmas and factual claims of the historic Christian faith, a conscious decision has been made to actually change the message. But in doing so, we’ve unwittingly relinquished the thing of first importance. Rather than focusing on Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as testified by a multitude of reliable witnesses and written in advance throughout the Scriptures, many Christians today have chosen to proclaim a different gospel entirely. This new and improved gospel is The Story of Us. This story is one that is perceived to be much more credible and effective than the story of Jesus, because, unlike the story of Jesus, it can’t be refuted. The end result is that we’ve inverted Paul’s statement in 2Cor 4:5—we preach not Jesus, but ourselves.
On the most recent episode of The Humble Skeptic podcast, ReThink315 founder, Jeremy Smith, tells the story of his own conversion and personal transformation. Later when he decided to share his testimony with his old friends, he says they could see that his life had changed, but they simply shrugged it off saying, “That’s good for you!” This, he says, is what actually led him to study apologetics because he quickly realized that he needed something more than his own personal experience. You see, his friends couldn’t step inside his shoes and feel what he felt, and furthermore, many of them had intellectual objections that called out for some kind of response. In other words, they had questions about the credibility of the Christian dogma.4
In her book Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers famously observed that “The dogma is the drama.”5 In this profound volume, Sayers attempted to deal with the popular but mistaken notion that “dull dogma” was responsible for all the problems in the church of her day. She never disputed the notion that the Church of England had indeed become boring, but in her opinion, this fact was actually due to a lack of theology and doctrine, rather than too much of it.
“The people who hanged Christ,” Sayers writes “never accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium.”6 Here we must evaluate our own situation. If we are content to proclaim The Story of Us, rather than The Story of Jesus, then it seems that we too are guilty of muffling Christ’s shattering personality. If we are more interested in telling others about the effects of the gospel in our lives than the gospel itself, we have lost sight of the thing of first importance.
The gospel of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. If you believe your story is more interesting and more effective than his story, I believe this is evidence that you have turned to “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7 NIV). We should recall that alternative gospels were around in the first century, just as much as they are today. “Jews demand signs,” Paul says, “and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1Cor 1:22-23). Admittedly, there is quite a lot of “dogma” in this gospel of the crucified, buried, and risen Messiah. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the dogma is the drama.
In this remarkable section of her book, Sayers highlights some of the “dull” aspects of Christ’s shattering personality:
Here we had a man of Divine character walking and talking among us…The common people, indeed, “heard him gladly”; but our leading authorities in Church and State considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the police, and we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows…So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what in heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?…We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand…He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as ‘that fox,’ he went to parties in disreputable company...he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position...he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people...he was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime...But he had a daily beauty that made us ugly and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness…Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God…is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as news; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it news, and good news at that; though we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.7
A few chapters later Sayers encourages her readers to “drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.” “If the pious are the first to be shocked,” she says, “so much the worse for the pious — others will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”8
It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.9
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of a national radio broadcast called the White Horse Inn, which he also hosted from 2019-2021. Shane has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, Heidelblog, and others. Shane received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
Creed or Chaos?, by Dorothy Sayers
The Importance of Christian Scholarship, by J. Gresham Machen
What is the Most Important Thing Taught in the Bible?, by Shane Rosenthal
Recovering the Art of Persuasion, by Shane Rosenthal
On Faith & Doubt, by Shane Rosenthal
The Humble Skeptic is a listener-supported podcast. To support this work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Sharon Janis, Spirituality for Dummies, For Dummies Press, 2000 (see chapter 1, section 1, “Spirituality and Self Knowledge).
Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations With God, Part 1 (Penguin, New York, 1995), p. 8.
Machen made these comments in London, 1932. His talks on that occasion were later printed in a booklet titled The Importance of Christian Scholarship which you can find here. They were also later reprinted in What is Christianity? (1951), edited by Ned Stonehouse, and J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, (2004), edited by D.G. Hart (p. 140).
If you have questions about the credibility of the New Testament portrait of Jesus, I recommend that you listen to Ep. 15, “Faith Founded on Facts.”
Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos, (Harcourt, Brace & Co, New York, 1949), p. 3. You can find this book online here.
Ibid., p. 5
Ibid., pp. 5-7
Ibid., p. 24
Ibid. p. 24, (italics mine).