Are We Playing the Right Game?

This is an excerpt of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s 2008 book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. The book blew my mind when I read it recently, so I wanted to share this powerful analogy that he uses to talk about God’s call to and for community, which I think is the central theme of Exodus 15-19. (This is a re-post of an entry I originally wrote for my personal blog, by the way.)

My friend Tim Otto from the Church of the Sojourners community in San Francisco likes to make this point [that God’s plan is to save the world through a people] with a little thought experiment. Imagine, he says, that you and your friends have never played basketball. You’ve heard of basketball. You know that other people play the game. But you’ve never played basketball yourself. Then one day when you’re out with your friends, you come upon a basketball court. Someone says, “Why don’t we play?” But you don’t know how to play. Then someone else says, “Wait! There’s a library across the street. I’ll go grab a rulebook and we’ll learn how to play.”

Well, imagine that your friend runs into the library to grab a book on basketball, but in his haste he checks out a book on soccer. (OK, OK, I know it’s a stretch, but use your imagination.) He comes back to the court and starts teaching everyone the rules. “We need one round ball.” OK. “We need a playing field with boundaries.” Got it. “We need to split up into two different teams and try to shoot the ball into goals that are on opposite ends of the playing field.” So far so god. It looks like this soccer manual might work out all right.

The only problem is that when you start playing, you realize it’s extremely difficult to kick a soccer ball through a basketball hoop. Not that it’s impossible–every once in a while somebody might get it through. But it’s an incredibly frustrating game. You begin to wonder if your friend misinterpreted the manual. Or maybe, you think, the rulebook was no good to start with. At any rate, you’d hope at some point the whole group could stop and ask whether you were even playing the right game.

Often we read scripture as if it were a soccer manual telling us how to play basketball. That’s why a lot of Christians in America wonder whether they’re playing the right game. At first we accused others of misinterpreting the Bible. Then some of us began to doubt whether the Bible was even a good book. But at some point we have to ask whether we’ve been playing the wrong game. What game does the Bible gives [sic] us instructions for anyway?

For much of the church, the game we try to play could be called “Make Myself.” The Bible is a long and complicated collection of stories that we need to boil down to principles, this game says. When you get to the point of all these stories, they’re really about how to make myself. The Bible tells me how to make myself good, make myself rich, make myself kind, or make myself humble. We might argue about just what the Bible calls me to make myself. But most of the church agrees that this is the point of the game. Of course, I cannot make myself all alone. To be all that I can be, I need Jesus. But in this game called Make Myself, the Bible is all about what Jesus wants me to do to make myself what I ought to be.

There’s another version of this game that is very similar. It could be called “Make Yourself.” In this game I know that the Bible isn’t just for me. It also tells me how other people should live. So I say to my neighbor, “Make yourself loving.” And I say to my nation, “Make yourself just.” I say to the rich, “Make yourself compassionate.” And I say to the powerful, “Make yourself humble.” The great thing about Make Yourself is that you can play it while you’re playing Make Myself. People do both all the time.

The trouble is that the Bible doesn’t quite work as a manual for either of these games. Almost, but not quite. Sort of like trying to play basketball with a soccer manual. Lots of things seem to work out at first. Abraham seems like a pretty good example of someone who made himself faithful. The prophets give us pretty good ammunition for the next round of Make Yourself. But the more you try to get inside the story of the Bible, the more it feels like it was written for a different game.

I think new monastic communities point to the fact that the Bible is really about a game called “God Makes a People.” This is the game the Bible was written to teach us to play–because it’s the game we were made for. I guess there are lots of ways you could try to test and see if God’s making of a people is really what the Bible is about. Historians could tell us whether other people have tried to read it this way before. Textual scholars could tell us whether there’s anything in the Bible that suggests we should read it this way. Sociologists might tell us what difference it makes to read the Bible as a story about God forming a people. But it seems to me that if you wanted to know whether a soccer manual was really meant to help you play soccer, the best you could do would be to try to play a game of soccer, informed by what you find in the manual.

Best I can figure, this is what new monastic communities are trying to do in the church today. We’re living together as God’s people to see how the Bible works as a manual for how to live together as God’s people.


About andyoftheway

looking for a new/old way
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