Boiling it Down

I’ve been thinking about the fundamentals of the faith lately. Does that make me a fundamentalist?

What is left when you boil away all the institutional, cultural, historical, and personal additives from our Christian faith? That’s a question missionaries face every day.

A cross-cultural missionary is someone who’s communicating the Gospel in a culture of which he/she is not a native. I got to meet hundreds of them during my six years at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Before going out to their overseas assignments, new missionaries go through an intensive multi-week training regimen. One of the first things they learn is how to separate their North American culture from their essential, biblical faith. As you might imagine, some have more difficulty with the concept than others.

I remember visiting a missionary in a remote Central American village. There, in stark contrast to the straw and mud huts surrounding it, stood a church building that looked just like one you’d find in any southern U.S. town.

The missionary understood his assignment as a “church planter” to include re-creating the kind of church experience he grew up with… including the architecture. He had convinced his home church in Georgia to contribute money and labor. And the result, like a glaring anachronism, stood amid the simple, humble village houses: a gleaming white frame church building with columns in the front, a high-pitched roof, and a steeple on top.

I don’t want to be too hard on the missionary. I wonder if I do any better job as a missionary in my own culture.

The doctrines, traditions, and liturgy that have been handed down over the years from our spiritual ancestors provide essential context for interpreting the scripture and for understanding our own spiritual experiences.

Pulling the cultural wrapper off the essentials of our faith is not easy. But it is essential, especially for those of us who work in “the media.” If we want to embody and communicate what it means to be a Christian, we have to understand the core essence of our relationship with God.

This has been on my mind lately as we’re working on the second draft of the screenplay for the Prodigal Project. It has forced me to define exactly what it is that I want to say about my faith: what is the core belief burning in my soul that is driving the story forward?

I can express it best by describing a scene that might play out in the movie:

The protagonist is frustrated and dejected. It is the low point of his character arc. At that moment God gently places His hand on his shoulder and says, “You know, you don’t need to do anything grand. I made you and I love you. All I want is for you to love Me… and love My children. If you want to show the world what it means to be a Christian, live your life the way Jesus lived his: bring hope and love and joy to those around you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Smile. Have courage. Don’t condemn, don’t judge – that’s My job. I like your movie… I really do. But it would suit Me fine if we could just sit and talk for a while every day. Maybe you’ve been too busy making a movie to think about that.”

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