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WORLDVIEW: The meaning is the message

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Would you risk your life to tell a story?

Followers of Jesus in some places take that kind of risk on a regular basis. Consider the band of Arab believers who took a grueling three-month trip into the desert on camels this year. The purpose of the journey: to tell Bible stories to groups of notoriously fierce nomads (see accompanying Baptist Press story, “Arabs take epic Sahara camel trek to spread Gospel”).

These Arab storytellers, who first believed in Jesus after hearing stories from God’s Word themselves, left their families behind during the desert trek. They had no guarantee of sufficient food and water on the trip, no guarantee of a safe return, no guarantee of a polite reception at their destination. They met with violence and danger in several locations. But they went anyway. The stories of God had transformed their lives, and they wanted to pass His truth on to others who had never heard.

Such is the power of stories — stories with eternal meaning, that is. The problem with many of the stories floating around in our culture is that they have no meaning at all, eternal or otherwise.

I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., last spring as part of my ongoing –- and futile — effort to understand modern art. Once again I failed to comprehend what I saw, either with my mind or my heart. Some say modern artists are imposters. The painter Jackson Pollock, for instance, famously threw buckets and gobs of paint at his canvasses. This is art? I don’t question Pollock’s talent. Many of today’s artists, musicians and writers possess great gifts, but squander them on pointless (or actively evil) projects.

“The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919 in his prophetic poem, “The Second Coming.” Things have become worse than Yeats imagined. Terrorists seem to believe in their cause with greater passion and intensity than artistic elites believe in the continuation of civilization. You will find great talent in the art at the Hirshhorn, and great passion, but you won’t find much meaning. You will find a lot of meaninglessness –- and even the glorification of meaninglessness, which seems to be the “message” of our time.

I dwell on this because artists are cultural storytellers. Great artists in every age and every medium –- writing, painting, music, film -– are seekers and tellers of truth. Recently I took my daughter to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the unsurpassed summit of Western music. It brought tears of exaltation to my cheeks, as always, particularly during the choral “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. The united voices of the choir (and of humankind) sing the poet Schiller’s call to praise:

“Do you bow down, ye millions?

“Do you sense the Creator, World?

“Seek Him above the canopy of stars!

“Brothers! Brothers!

“Above the canopy of stars

“surely a loving Father dwells.”

There can be few more sublime sounds this side of heaven than the voices of Beethoven’s choir. Yet Beethoven never heard them; he was stone deaf when he finished the Ninth. The music resounded in his soul, however, and we have it for all time as a transcendent monument to truth. He understood that even the storytelling of a genius would be pointless without meaning.

I had the pleasure of interacting with some young storytellers at Baptist Press’ 2006 Collegiate Journalism Conference, held Oct. 5-7 in Nashville. They came from numerous Christian and secular colleges and universities -– writers, photographers and other communicators -– to hone their crafts and learn from Christian professionals in journalism. Many of them already are doing excellent work for their campus newspapers and other media.

My message to the students I met was simple: It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how tech-savvy you are, how cutting-edge you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the coolest blog or podcast or the sweetest digital camera or state-of-the-art video equipment. If you don’t have something to say that has meaning and eternity in it, you’re wasting your time.

Communication guru Marshall McLuhan declared decades ago that “the medium is the message.” This much-debated dictum may seem more applicable than ever with the explosion of powerful new media: the Internet, multimedia, media “convergence,” interactivity, etc. But the medium is not the message. The message is the message. And there is no real message without meaning.

If you really want to change lives, tell a meaningful story. Jesus is Immanuel -– “God with us.” He is the Word made flesh. He is the ultimate story, the ultimate meaning. It’s no accident that He told stories -– parables –- to convey His own meanings.

Grant Lovejoy of the International Mission Board, an authority on Bible “storying” as a key to reaching the world’s many oral cultures, says this: “God’s stories give us a reason to live, a reason to die, a reason to sacrifice for others.”

God’s stories, in other words, give us meaning. That’s what people are searching for in an age that glorifies meaninglessness.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges