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Who I Say You Are 2

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I have been sensing that it is time for me to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And since my answer is not short, I am going to give it in serialized form. To begin, then…

What I say:

I say that he is the master of the short-short story form and of the memorable phrase.

What I mean:

A short story is usually at least several printed pages in length, and is often even longer. But a short-short story is one that can be printed on a single page.

The parables of Jesus are the most influential short-short stories in history. Yes, other religious and cultural leaders have told great short-short stories (Aesop, for example, and Chuang-tze), but the parables of Jesus have become so much a part of the fabric of our being, at least here in the Western world, that we still remember them even in this highly-secular age. People who would never set foot inside a church are nonetheless familiar with the Prodigal Son, and they even remember the evocative image of his father running out into the field to welcome him home. We still talk about Good Samaritans, and we still vaguely remember the story Jesus told about one of them. The parable of the Unforgiving Debtor might not be so well-remembered, but anyone who hears it is struck by the emotional power of the eponymous Debtor grabbing the other guy by the throat. Still to this day, people think they’re being clever when they say, “So I said to myself, ‘Self…'” but they don’t seem to realize that Jesus told that joke first, in the parable of the Man and His Barn.

Jesus’ parables are so extremely short that, if we had to do so, most of us would be unable to retell them as succinctly and yet as powerfully as he did. But as short as they are, they are so full of meaning that lengthy sermons – and even sermon series – are needed in order to explain their significance. As both a writer and a speaker (and an occasional preacher), I know how hard it is to be brief. It is amazing to me that Jesus could take the most important message in the world and encapsulate it in such tiny little narrative packages.

But he didn’t just specialize in storytelling; he was also a master of the memorable phrase. We still quote him often, although most of the time we don’t remember that he’s the one who said the line we’re quoting. Whenever we speak of the blind leading the blind (or joke about the blonde leading the blonde), or a house divided against itself, or the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, or we talk about having ears to hear or eyes to see or casting our pearls before swine, or we say we must separate the sheep from the goats – whenever we say any of these things, we’re quoting or paraphrasing him. When we say, “O ye of little faith,” we’re repeating what he said. Long before there were bumper stickers or tweets, Jesus was the master of both.

Why does this matter? Because I am in awe of anyone who can say something important and put it in such small packages. We humans (or at least we human speakers, writers, and preachers) are verbose by nature; to be concise takes amazing talent. But to be both concise and revelatory… THAT is divine. Those of us who follow Jesus may have many things we admire about him, and each of us can only speak for ourselves. When Jesus asks me to declare, publicly, who I say he is, this is the first thing that comes to mind. As a writer, speaker, and occasional preacher, I can give no greater praise: The way he preached… the way he told stories… the way he got his points across… I know of no one else in all of history who does these things like he did. He is the Master of short-form communication.”

I don’t suppose that was the kind of answer he was looking for that day when he asked his original disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” But I think he knows me well enough to realize how heartfelt my answer is.

Of course, I’m not concise like he is, so I also have several other answers to his question. I’ll share the second one in my next post.

A Comedy I Didn’t Take Seriously Enough

Sometimes you can fail to hear God’s voice because you’re being too serious.

In January 1996, I was doing graduate work in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. This involved taking graduate courses, teaching an undergraduate course, and doing research that would lead to my dissertation. I was a year and a half away from finishing the program, and I was very serious about it all. In fact, I was on fire with it. God had impressed certain things upon me that I wanted to get out to my people. I envisioned a larger audience than just a classroom full of students. I wanted to get the word out to people everywhere.

It was a message about God’s involvement in all of life. Taking that idea one step further, it was also a message about the mysterious ways in which our lives are intertwined, not only because we are all related to God (whether we acknowledge that fact or not) but also because there are connections between us that only God knows about. These were the days before social media, but what seems much more obvious to us now was already being shown to me back then — that our friends or our friends’ friends may be related to each other in ways that we don’t know about, because the subject never comes up. With social media, we now have the opportunity to see that our friend Sally Singleton knows our coworker Maurice Chillingworth — a fact of which we would never have guessed. But back in 1996, God was impressing upon me the lesson of Stanley Milgram’s “Small World” Experiment from the 1960s: that we are all interrelated in surprising ways that only God knows about. Not only was this fact being emphasized in my prayers and meditations, but also one of the spiritual implications of this fact: that God is (among other things) calling us to move in ever-wider circles and learn from the people God wants to bring into our lives.

As I said, I was on fire with this idea in January 1996, and I sensed that God was about to reveal to me a way to convey the idea to others. But the Spirit kept telling me that I was censoring the Spirit. Again and again it told me to lighten up. What God wanted to give me would be closer to a cartoon than a philosophical treatise.

Finally, I relented. I told God that I would accept the revelation in whatever form it would come.

The very day I prayed that prayer, I was given the idea for a comedy. It was about a super-serious professor and a wise-cracking journalist who had 10 days to find an alien operative or the world would be destroyed. I would get across the serious philosophical idea through the unfolding of the story itself, because these two would end up having to rely on a network of associates in order to find the alien operative. But there was also something important about Mr. X (the person they were looking for), and when they found him, his identity would change the meaning of everything that had led up to that moment.

It took me years to write this comic-strip novel, because I thought it was frivolous. My wife could always tell when I was working on it, because I’d be chuckling or (at the very least) smiling while I was typing. No other writing project I’ve ever done has given me such joy. But I sat on it for 21 years because I couldn’t justify spending my time on it. I had more important things to do, or so I thought. In the meantime, I wrote a book about my experiences with God in the work world (Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ) and another one about my philosophy of God in secular life (What Does God Do from 9 to 5?), and I still believe that those books were also inspired by God. But during the summer of 2016, the Spirit tried to get my attention again, and this time I listened. I stopped telling Him that the novel was too silly, too trivial, and too much fun. I sat down and wrote it. It was half done when I started, and I got the whole thing finished in time for my target date: April Fool’s Day, 2017.

Last week, Kirkus Reviews had this to say about the resulting novel, Small World:

They said that the author “has somehow taken the philosophy of Hegel and the experiments of Milgram that demonstrate there are only five or six degrees of separation between any two people; mixed in equal parts Marx Brothers, Watergate, Douglas Adams; tagged his characters with monikers straight out of Dickens, film noir, and Snow White; and wound up with a snide, witty, completely entertaining romp through human nature and all its foibles…. Johnson, a philosophy professor, has more up his sleeve than great writing and a funny, extremely readable story; readers will also have fun searching between the lines for deeper implications and references.”

Okay, Lord. I get it now. Thank you for your patience.

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