“They’re like Romeo and Juliet.”
I’ve heard that said when two people are deeply in love. What is meant, of course, is not that the two people in question are star-crossed lovers, destined to crash and burn as a result of their passionate feelings for one another. No, it means that they epitomize the timeless, starry-eyed ideal of the romantic love story.
But is Romeo and Juliet a timeless, romantic love story? I was reminded the other day that this uber-famous play is actually about “a relationship that lasted three days between a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, which resulted in six deaths.” Well, when you put it that way . . . Romantic? No. Timeless? Only because we’ve made it so.
In fact, Romeo and Juliet has been told and re-told in countless different ways with as many different settings and backdrops (from Nazi Germany to wherever Porky Pig lives). One of the most famous re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s tale is the 1950s musical West Side Story (cue snapping), which is set in contemporary (then) New York and involves street gangs, knives, and zip guns (zip guns!). Another well-known retelling was a film called Romeo + Juliet that came out when I was in college, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set in a fictional modern-day location called “Verona Beach,” which is probably in California. Car chases and gunfights ensue, but the story of two star-crossed lovers remains the same.
“Has anyone seen my zip gun? It’s this long. And it’s a zip gun.”
It seems that the setting is incidental to this story. It’s really about the relationship between these two families (or gangs or whatever) and how it affects two young people and their budding relationship. The rest is just backdrop, which can easily be replaced with another backdrop without harming the tale.
This switching out of backdrops for classic stories is pretty commonplace: Clueless is really just Jane Austin’s Emma plopped down 180 years later in a Beverly Hills high school and O Brother Where Art Thou is a loose re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. Both work because these timeless stories can play before any backdrop. Georgian England or 90210 in 1995, the Trojan War or Depression-era chain gangs—these are just details not essential to the plot. Now, there certainly are stories where this doesn’t apply (for instance,Orwell’s 1984 ceases to make sense if you remove the backdrop of a tyrannical dystopia), but Romeo and Juliet easily survives a split from its historical setting.
Why do I even bring this up? Because our culture is viewing the world around us more and more in terms of narratives—stories. This is good news for Christians, since we have always viewed the world through the lens of the meta-narrative—the one Big Story of how God created us, we fell into sin, and He redeemed us through an incredible plan that climaxed with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we speak in terms of stories, then, we’re speaking both the language of Scripture and the language of the culture, which can make for some pretty effective preaching and some rather naturally occurring evangelism in the workplace, the family, or among friends.
But we have to be careful how we tell the Story. I’ve previously shared with you the best advice I ever got about preaching: my homiletics professor told us, “Gentlemen, when you’ve finished your sermon and think it’s just about ready to preach, read it over and ask yourself this . . . Could this message still be true and make sense if Jesus had not died and risen again for our salvation? If the answer is yes, then throw it out and start over, because it’s not a Christian sermon. It’s self-help or life-coaching or tips for family dynamics, but it’s not a cross-centered message, which is what we are called to proclaim.” In other words, if you’re about to deliver a sermon or teach a lesson that is supposed to be rooted in the cross of Jesus, but you could swap out the cross of Jesus for the Koran or a book on etiquette or a self-esteem or productivity seminar (just as easily as swapping out Fair Verona for 1950s New York), then there’s something seriously wrong.
Well, the same thing applies to our very lives—our narratives. How is it that Jesus and his cross fit into your story? Is He part of the backdrop, a detail not essential to the plot? Is He a set-piece that could be removed or replaced without harming the overall story? Is the cross of Jesus like the setting of Romeo and Juliet (incidental and unessential) or is he more like the shark in Jaws? Think about it, you can do Jaws without Jets, but not without a shark. No shark, no story. Then again, we could replace the shark with a tiger or a huge snake or even a hurricane (after all, it’s a basic “man-versus-nature” story) and not lose too much, I suppose. The story of Scripture, though, is man-versus-God. And God Wins through His coming down in flesh to dwell amongst us and His dying for our sins, only to rise again. It’s the tale of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. You remove that and plug anything else in its place and you’ve lost everything.
Rather than being part of the background or a supporting character in our story (a character who might be written out at any time), God calls us to become a supporting character in His story, the Big Story of redemption that he is writing. That means that our whole existence is only meaningful in relation to the plot of the Jesus Story. To remove us from that and try to find any meaning apart from it would be meaningless, like trying to create a spin-off series for the Close Talker or “Frightened Inmate #3.” When we realize that our lives have meaning only because they are part of God’s Story (and not because He is part of ours), then we can say goodbye to much of the uncertainty and doubt that so often plagues us as Christians—doubt that we’re doing enough, doubt that our story is compelling enough. It’s not. But His Story is.
Just as a sermon should pass the “Would it make sense without the cross?” test, so should our lives. When we prayerfully reflect on each day, perhaps we should ask the question, “Would today have looked any different if Jesus hadn’t died for my sins and risen again for my justification?” If it would have been the same, take heart—God’s story carries on. Let’s repent of our attempts to make Jesus part of the scenery and ask him every day to make us part of His Story, which is timeless—not because it can be re-imagined in a number of different times and places, but because it spans all of time. And he’s cast you in the role of disciple. How could we possibly pass that up?