Lucy, Stephen, and Witnessing

All my life in the Church, I’ve been taught that a) one of my primary jobs on this earth is to testify, or bear witness, and b) that I should expect persecution when I do this.  We look to Acts to see how those who testify about Jesus are thrown in prison, or stoned to death, as proof that the world just doesn’t want to hear about Jesus.  This is most certainly true.

Even so, it never made sense to me when I was a kid.  It certainly didn’t match my experience: making proclamations about the existence of God in the schoolyard, or lecturing my peers about their cuss words, certainly led to arguments!  But I was never really sure if that was comparable to being jailed or stoned to death.  The “offense of the gospel” didn’t really seem that offensive, I guess.  Being a witness wasn’t very fruitful: I didn’t win any converts, and I didn’t get thrown in prison either!

This morning, my Sunday School group started working through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together, three chapters at a time.  In the first three chapters, the most important thing that happens is that Lucy finds Narnia in the wardrobe, but when she returns, nobody believes her.  Edmund even mocks her for her belief in this other world.  We talked about how this is somewhat similar to our experience of “bearing witness” to the kingdom of God.

But let’s think about this carefully.  Lucy is arguing for the true existence of Narnia, which is something that nobody else can see or touch or experience, yet is fully outside the boundaries of the natural world; of course nobody believes her!  In our society today, arguing for the existence of God is like arguing for the existence of an invisible world in the back of your wardrobe.  People respond with disbelief, because they have very little reason to do otherwise.  They may mock us, but more often they’ll simply try not to encourage our belief (as Peter did for Lucy) or, increasingly, they’ll be quite happy to let us indulge in our delusion so long as we don’t force it on them.  Honestly, given the content of our witnessing, I can’t really blame them.

Why is it that our experience of witnessing to the world is so different than the experiences of Jesus, Peter, and Stephen, to name a few prominent persecuted witnesses from the New Testament?  Why were they executed, when we’re only scorned or ignored?  Is it because we live in a different society, which really doesn’t care about religious beliefs at all?  Or is it because we’re actually bearing witness to different things?

Lucy argued for the existence of the unbelievable, and even though it was true, her siblings had no reason to believe her.  But they had no real reason to disbelieve her either, so her belief in Narnia was little more than an annoyance.  But when Stephen made a long and careful argument in favour of  Jesus in Acts 7, his audience wasn’t just annoyed, they beat him to death with big rocks.

Stephen’s message was not just about the existence of God – his audience already believed in God.  And it wasn’t just about the deity or messiahship of Jesus – though that would be blasphemy, Stephen doesn’t actually talk about Jesus’ deity at all (and for all we know, he didn’t actually believe that Jesus was God the way that we do!), and he portrays Jesus as a prophet rather than as a king or messiah.  His audience didn’t even get too upset when he called them names and compared them to their ancestors who killed the prophets.  What was in his message that brought about his own death?

Stephen’s audience had plenty of reasons to disbelieve his testimony, and to try to prevent it from spreading.  When he said “behold, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” the implication was that Jesus was approved by God.  Jesus was critical of the religious Jews that Stephen was talking to – critical of their theology, but much more than that, critical of their practices, and specifically the way that they used religious practice as a way to gain authority and praise from the masses.  Their entire religious system was corrupt, and Jesus pointed this out – and this is why they killed him.  So when Stephen comes along and says, basically, “you can’t kill Jesus, because God has raised him to life; you can’t silence Jesus, because I will continue to speak his truth; you can’t carry on the way you are, because God approves of Jesus and not of you” – well, they have a big problem.

This is not an issue of simple belief, it’s an issue of judgment.  Agreeing or disagreeing with the existence of God is a part of it, but it’s not particularly the point of Stephen’s proclamation.  Lucy’s witness is all about the existence of the supernatural, and there are no consequences to belief or disbelief; Stephen’s proclamation assumes the existence of God, and instead focuses on the social and ethical implications of God’s approval of Jesus, meaning that there are dramatic and profound consequences to his message, just as there were for Jesus’ teachings.

Simply believing in God doesn’t require life change.  As James points out, “even the demons believe, and shudder!”  Sure, people usually need to believe that God exists before any of Jesus’ actual message makes sense (though there are many atheistic messages that catch most of the life-changing aspects of Jesus’ message, they lack most of their power if God isn’t a part of them).  But as long as we leave it at that – the question of the existence of God – we’re like Lucy, telling people about Narnia.  Even if it does exist, who really cares?

We usually try to argue for God’s existence in order to get to the “gospel” – the message that we can have forgiveness for our sins through Jesus.  So the argument about the existence of God usually leads into the argument about the sinful nature of humanity, which is also a sticky point for a lot of people.  And again, while this is a part of the foundation of Jesus’ message, it wasn’t actually what he was talking about; his audience already believed that human beings sin.  But even if people believe that there are such things as ‘sins’, they recognize it as preaching morality, and usually personal morality at that.  Because most of our audience today already believes that we should be nice to other people, not take unfair advantage of them, or hurt them, etc.  Christian preaching about sins, then, are usually about the sins that people don’t want to acknowledge: the personal sins, such as hate, lust, extramarital sex, etc.  And in the eyes of society, if it isn’t harming someone else, then it’s not a problem.  Our “witness” often shifts to how our pers0nal sins really can affect other people, but more often, it focuses on how sin offends God.

This wasn’t a focus of Jesus’ teachings either.  It was there, but the context was different: Jesus was telling religious Jews that their religious observance doesn’t please God; he was telling them that their practices were not having the intended effect, and were in fact having the opposite effect, keeping people away from God rather than bringing them to Him.  In our context, we say that our sins offend God in the way that breaking the law in feudal Europe was an “offense against the King” – that somehow it offended the King’s dignity, and since the King’s dignity was worth more than yours, then you could be killed for doing so.  This was not part of Jesus’ message.

If our “gospel” is just about getting let off the hook when we offend God’s dignity, it really only matters if someone believes in God.  We’re actually creating a disincentive for people to believe in God.  They may or may not believe that God exists; but if they do believe, then they’re on the hook for offending him; but if they don’t believe, they don’t need to worry about it, because like Narnia we don’t need to interact with God so long as we stay out of the wardrobe (or so it seems).  Pascal’s Wager is still in effect (if you’re wrong, you’ll burn for it!) but that’s not exactly enticing: live an ascetic life on the off chance that the seemingly absurd statement that God exists is actually true?  It’s not surprising that people reject the concept outright, because existential what-ifs don’t usually come across as being directly relevant to one’s life.

The part of Jesus’ message that was directly relevant to his audience is usually the part that our witnessing doesn’t even get to.  Jesus’ message was a direct challenge to the Powers.  He overturned social norms, religious systems, and political authority.  When the Powers are threatened, they respond with violence: Jesus was crucified, Peter jailed, Stephen beaten to death with rocks.  The Powers are there to create order, and often to do so they exert control over human beings, even if in so doing they end up defeating the purpose of that order (i.e. a just human society).  Jesus preached freedom from unjust powers, and that true order in society comes from being willing to give up one’s place rather than relying on the rules in order to insist on one’s place.  The Powers exist to keep order in a fallen world; Jesus urges us instead to rise up, to be not-fallen.  The Powers are a bandaid; Jesus heals us.  This is the part of Jesus’ message that was directly relevant (and threatening) to his audience, and it’s just as relevant, and just as threatening, to our audience today.

But we’re not bearing witness to this anymore.  Indeed, we rarely understand it.  We’re caught up in the context of Jesus’ message, and we never get to the point.  We’re Lucy, not Stephen, and we’ll always get the same results as Lucy; eventually, someone else will corroborate our story, and believe in Narnia.  But believing in Narnia wasn’t the point of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The point of the story was that Aslan breaks the power of the White Witch over the peoples of Narnia, and does it by revealing her corruption and evil through his own self-sacrificial love.  Relationship with Aslan is restored, and the White Witch no longer holds the land in perpetual winter with no Christmas.  We need to stop talking about the wardrobe, and walk through it to find Aslan and see the world being turned upside down.  Then, when we talk about that, we’ll finally be like Stephen, or Peter, or Jesus himself – and the world will notice.


4 thoughts on “Lucy, Stephen, and Witnessing

  1. Wow Jeff, there’s a lot to think about with what you’ve written.

    You said “Stephen’s proclamation assumes the existence of God, and instead focuses on the social and ethical implications of God’s approval of Jesus, meaning that there are dramatic and profound consequences to his message, just as there were for Jesus’ teachings.”

    However, I don’t see social and ethical accusations in Stephen’s address. I do see his charge of them, resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting & killing the prophets who proclaimed Jesus’ coming, culminating with the betrayal and murder of Jesus Himself. That they would persecute and kill God’s prophets means they’ve not kept God’s Law after all. They might have reacted this way because Jesus threatened their own ‘power’, but that’s not made clear through Stephen’s speech (IMO).

    Do you think it’s implicit that in Stephen exalting Jesus, that it’s all of Jesus’ accusations against their wrong doing that’s being expressed against Stephen?

    When it comes to witnessing, I suppose the big question is, what is it that Jesus commanded His disciples that we need to teach others? (Mt 28:18) If the Great Commission is our “marching orders” as the church, then we need to figure out what disciple making, baptizing, and teaching others is all about. If we start with “what do I need to communicate in order to be persecuted like Jesus” I think we are asking the wrong question. Instead I would ask, “what do I need to communicate to be faithful to what God has asked us to do?”

    Does any of that make sense lol!

    • Hey Jes, good to hear from you!

      I suppose the social and ethical implications of his message are implied by his charges against them: the message of the prophets was deeply social and ethical (which cannot be separated from their religious message – faithfulness to Yahweh means justice and mercy). In killing Jesus, as when their forefathers killed the prophets, Stephen’s audience was rejecting a social and ethical interpretation for a “religious” and “moral” one – that is, their religion was personal piety, and didn’t require them to love. So you’re right, Stephen is telling them that they haven’t kept God’s law after all, but it’s shocking and offensive to them because they believe that they have. My point here was simply that the existence of God and the validity of the Law were never in question, only what the actual living out of it all is!

      I think that they very much projected Jesus onto Stephen, as Stephen self-identifies as a follower of Jesus. The threat that Jesus presented to the pharisees remained present so long as a single Christian remained.

      You’re right that asking what we can do to be persecuted isn’t a great starting point, and that’s not what I meant to imply – only that the “offense of the gospel” is in what it requires of us, not in intellectual arguments about the existence of God and sin or the validity of moral values. After all, the thing that we’re commanded to teach others is: to obey (i.e. to follow Jesus, to do what he did).

      I hope that clears it up! Thanks for your comments!

  2. Don’t you think the context that Stephen was speaking into was different than what ours is today? You point out that Stephen’s accusers accepted the existence of God and the reality of God’s moral standard. But if I am speaking to people who do not have those foundations how valuable is the message that their Powers are corrupt when there is no absolute with which to compare those Powers to? Am I then not just another political/social lobbyist who has a different point of view? To me the issue of corrupt Powers takes meaning only in the light of the glorious standard that is based in the character of God Himself. The message that upset the White Witch was that Aslan was on the move. The creatures of Narnia needed the hope that there was indeed an Emporer Beyond the Sea and that He had heard their plight and sent a Saviour. The White Witch never tried to defend the validity of her social order but instead questioned whether such a Saviour was actually coming and His ability to do anything.

    Similarily, our message today is that there is a God who loves us and has created us to be in relationship with Him. We need to help people understand that we are trapped in a propensity to rebel against that God and His plan for us and the only hope that we have of being set free from that is Him. The offense of that message is no matter how much we like to think that we are in control of our own destiny, it is a lie. Our only hope is to stop trying to be in control and surrender to the control of God. That absolutely flies in the face of our human nature. That is why people reject the idea of God. If an Almighty Creator God does exist and is actively involved in the world today they are responsible to Him.

    • Thanks for your comment Lauren! I’ll try to answer point by point.

      Yes, I agree that Stephen had a very different context than we do today. My point is that people back then really cared about the existence of God, and so they already had a strong opinion on the matter (they even took it for granted). Today, people don’t particularly care if God exists, because we’ve managed to separate the question of the existence of God from the question of the social and ethical implications of that fact. I’m not trying to say that the existence of God is not important, quite the opposite – I’m trying to say that if we try to convince people of that before telling them why they should care (i.e. the implications of God’s existence for the way we live together), they have no reason to care that God exists at all.

      To carry on your analogy, the White Witch tried to get people to question whether Aslan was coming, or whether he was good, because his reality and his goodness would mean the end of her regime. The question of whether Aslan exists at all is important to the story of Narnia only in that Aslan has the power to overturn the rule of the White Witch. The question of Aslan’s existence and character is itself interesting – but Mr. Tumnus needed help, not an existential question. He was heavily invested in the existence and goodness of Aslan; our audience today is not.

      To use the context of the Powers, you’re right, it only really makes sense in relation to God – but if we start with the existence of God, people have no reason to listen, because we’re not actually addressing a problem. The only problems we tend to address are moral problems, and our culture no longer cares much about morality. We’re held under the rule of the Powers more than ever, but we’re also benefiting from the Powers, and so we don’t see it as a problem. So when we’re telling people about God, we’re giving them an answer to a question they’re not asking – or a question they don’t realize they’re asking. But though they aren’t aware of the Powers, they’re aware of social problems like poverty, corruption, pollution, etc., they just don’t have a framework within which to connect those problems to God. What I would suggest, then, is that our preaching or witnessing be focused not on the question of whether or not God exists, or whether or not Hell exists, etc., but on the problems we face that God is actively working to solve.

      I know it sounds bad to say this, but why should anyone care that God loves them when they can’t see, hear, or feel God? We’ve been talking about a relationship with God for a long time now, and we talk about it in terms that are very intimate and emotional, but we can’t really interact with God in any way that is analogical to the way we interact with any other person, particularly people we love and are loved by. You can’t hug God. He doesn’t hold your hand. Rebelling against God is rebelling against what an ancient book says God is like, which tells us to do a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense any more (e.g. most of Leviticus) with the promise that it’s for our own good, that God wants what is best for us, but even that promise is mediated by that same ancient book, which itself is mediated by translators, interpreters, and preachers; we don’t usually interact directly with God in a concrete way at any point in the journey. Trusting God to control our destiny is just like trusting Fate, in the sense that it takes place entirely in your mind, because there’s nobody there for you to actually interact with to get that assurance. That’s the awkward thing about serving an invisible God – we have no reason to believe in God unless we need him. When atheists say “the flying spaghetti monster loves you” – do you care? What if we said that Santa Claus loves you? The issue of whether or not Santa Claus loves me may be interesting to some, but unless there’s a real outcome from it, it’s not something that’s going to change my life. I might get a confidence boost, the way I do when I get a card from a friend, or spot someone checking me out, but it won’t cause me to re-evaluate the way I live. And if the person telling me that Santa Claus loves me puts any sort of condition on it (“Santa Claus loves you – so stop sinning, and come out to our weekly Christmas party!”) it loses even the power to do that.

      But if someone on the street corner – even on the street corner! – was talking about how the deplorable condition of the poor in the third world was directly related to a group that I’m a part of (e.g. consumers), I’d listen. If they said that I could do something about it by changing the way I interact with others, making my actions reflect my values, I’d listen. I’d probably point out that this point that it’s hard to change my actions to match my values, because there’s so much incentive and habit which makes me tend to do the wrong thing. Because I already know the problem of sin – we all do. At that point, this street-corner preacher/activist can say “Hey, I know what you mean; it’s hard for all of us. But there’s a group of us who gets together to help each other to get better, and you’re totally welcome to join us. We think that it really is possible to get out of our entire society’s rut, and to live in a way that’s positive. We believe that we need a lot of help in this, but that God really is making us into better people who can make a real difference in this messed up world.” Even that sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s something that is far from an existential question about the existence or character of God, because it relates that question to something concrete.

      This has been a very long reply, sorry! tl;dr – witnessing needs context, or it’s just pie-in-the-sky religious philosophy.

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