Neil Livingstone: Picturing the gospel

IV - Neil Livingstone

Do you wish you had more effective ways of describing the gospel to your friends? Ever wish you understood more about what’s good about the Good News? Neil Livingstone has written a book that can help. We asked him about Picturing the Gospel: Tapping the Power of the Bible’s Imagery (InterVarsity Press) and what he’s learned about communicating his faith effectively. Here are his responses. Tell us a little about your intent for Picturing the Gospel. Since many readers won’t have picked it up yet, what is it generally about and why should they consider reading it?

Neil: Through this book I want to give Christians more ways to see and speak the good news. The Bible is full of vivid images of what Jesus has done for us, images that tell the story in different ways. Too often we let the gospel shrink down to one flat outline and a story about what happened to us once a long time ago. And then we wonder why neither we nor our friends are excited about it. But if we could see all these amazing pictures of what Christ has done, we’d realize that there’s a lot more good news in the Bible, and more good news in our lives, than we ever thought. What events or situations triggered this idea of using pictures to communicate the gospel for you? How did you get into it?

Neil: I kept seeing outlines and presentations of the gospel that just didn’t feel right. I felt uneasy and a bit unsure — Christians aren’t supposed to question the gospel, right? But somehow I heard what was said and just knew that the good news was better than that. So over one winter break I grabbed my Bible and some good theology texts and dove in. That’s when I realized that there was a whole gallery of images that Christians can use to talk about the amazing things God has done in Jesus. So I began my journey of exploring the resources of Scripture, the whole gallery of images that it gives us to speak the gospel. Can you share any brief examples or stories that show how the idea of using images and metaphors from the Bible can help?

Neil: In the book I talk about Bobby, who came to Christ out of drivenness and drug addiction. The freedom offered in Christ, and the reality of the welcome of the Father, sounded like very good news to him. Picturing the GospelBut Marissa was in a totally different place: her life was well put together, and she felt her own life was going well. But as we were talking, it came out that she looked at the world and saw the whole thing as broken. “We need to change everything,” she declared, “the way whole systems and nations work.” I was able to start there with her and talk of God’s new kingdom; God does have a world-sized salvation to offer, and he has a place for her in it.

We have one Lord, and one story to tell, but that Lord brings us many gifts, and that story has many sides. Different people feel the effects of evil and brokenness in different ways, and Jesus meets all of our needs. These images give us ways to speak that good news to anyone around us. As you watch people try to share their faith and their spiritual experiences, what are the points of greatest struggle or frustration you see? What would free them up or help them?

Neil: A lot of my Christian friends love God and love their non-Christian friends, but when it comes to talking about Jesus, they feel like they are “dragging religion into the conversation.” What does Jesus have to do with anything? Jesus feels like a strange topic, disconnected from everyday life, so everyone gets awkward when he comes up.

But we aren’t just stuck with a hodge-podge of strange religious language from the Bible. If we go back and look, we find very clear, real-life images of what Jesus means for us. There is no situation where Jesus is irrelevant. We find language about family and connection, relationships and reconciliation, freedom from addictions, release from oppression, and a whole new world order. Jesus touches all of life, and all of life points to him. We have a lot to say, and these images connect it naturally to our real lives.

Does this make conversation about God easy? No. We will always need love and we will always need courage. But knowing that the Spirit is behind us and has given us good words to say — well, that helps a lot. In your book, you say that before we can communicate effectively, “We have to let the gospel touch us, we have to rightly name the work of God in us as gospel, and then we can take that living and relevant word to our world.” Is this what you are talking about?

Neil: Exactly. Like I said before, there is not only more gospel in the Bible than we realize, there is more gospel in our lives. Let’s say that, way back, I was a rebellious teen on drugs and God saved me. This may be true, but is it the only gospel story I have? No way. Just yesterday I was feeling totally crushed by ways I’d been a hypocrite and had let down some of my friends. God came to me and showed me it was all right, that he’d walk me through it. I suddenly felt a dead end open up, like I wasn’t a failure but that anything was possible with him. What was that? It wasn’t some generic God experience, it was what Jesus won for me at the Cross, and it was the promises of the gospel coming true. The Bible’s gospel imagery help me understand what happened: God came to me like a Father and treated me like a son. Instead of death creeping in I felt eternal life bubbling up. Seeing all the different images of the gospel shows me all the ways he works in my life, even now. It helps me see that all of my God stories are really gospel stories, and I can share with anyone how the gospel works for me today.

So I have more gospel stories to tell, and I’m more excited about telling them: As I have focused on these images I have become more convinced that Jesus is good news for me, and for everyone. And convinced people are a lot more convincing; a deeper gospel-believer makes a stronger gospel-speaker. In the forward to your book, Brian McLaren writes that our culture is reductionistic — we want to “boil things down” or “put things in a nutshell.” How have you seen the gospel “reduced” as you work with students on campus?

Neil: Different groups of Christians choose different nutshells, and then we throw them at each other. One group will grasp the love and acceptance of God, and be drawn to the fatherhood and adoption imagery. Another will grasp the seriousness of sin, and latch onto the law court and justification image. Then we’ll start up on our love-vs.-truth discussion and be off and running. Then yet another group will say, “You’re both missing the point! It’s about action in the world, it’s about the kingdom.” It’s a classic way to be wrong, to mistake the part for the whole. I just think we should bring these pictures together and use them to show each other, and the world, the full good news about Jesus. Our Christian subculture can be as reductionistic as the rest of our culture. We like to wrap truths into discrete propositions and outlines. But much of what Jesus said, and many of his own pictures are rich and multi-faceted. He knew his hearers would not grasp his message all at once, or even very clearly. Are you comfortable with leaving some communication incomplete? How do you handle this kind of ambiguity as you try to be less reductionistic and use images, pictures and your own life experiences?

Neil: A five-year-old can say “yes” to Jesus and yet a wise old saint will tell you she’ll never know all there is to know about him. Any gospel words we speak need to be clear, but they are never the end — they are a call to begin. These gospel images show us Jesus, but they’re like a view through a doorway that invites us further on. My job is not to explain everything to my friend, but to try to clearly picture this Jesus and help them see how they can obey him and take the next step in.

Sometimes you just get only a minute to introduce a picture, a chance to intrigue someone: “Look, I know you think God is out to make life no fun, to chip away at your life till all you have is church. But Jesus said he was Life, and he came to give us life. Why do you hang out with the Christian fellowship before heading off to the parties? Because what Jesus said is true, there’s a kind of life here in these people, and you can tell.” Sometimes you just have a chance to give a look through the doorway.

But sometimes you have a little longer, a chance to lay out more fully how any one image might tell the gospel story: the bad state we are in without Jesus, what he did by living and dying for us, what good things come now and in the future because of him, and how to say yes and step into all of this. Each image has its way of casting the story: the dead and dying finding life, the outcast coming home, the captive being freed. And each one is enough for someone to begin with Jesus.

Once you begin seeing these images, you can see there are always more. You see that being welcomed home by the loving Father is part of the story, but also you have been brought into a whole kingdom that is changing the world, and so on. As you explore the gallery of gospel images, either as a seeker or a believer, you see more and more of the Lord you first met, in that picture that first made sense to you. There is currently a lot of talk about the best outlines to use in communicating the gospel, and several books have been published about the nature of the atonement and what views are theologically correct. Is your book an attempt to respond to these questions? If so, how do you hope your approach helps the discussion?

Neil: I’m glad to see people working on good gospel outlines, and I want us to be theologically correct when we talk about salvation. I’m an opportunist, I guess: In all this discussion and argument I want to take the chance to say “Hey, let’s take a fresh look at our Bibles. There’s more there than we’ve been seeing.” I’m really excited by times of change and new thought like this — while it’s possible for folks to go off the deep end and lose important truths, it’s also possible to shake the dust off some of our thinking and let God show us some things we might have lost. If we let the Spirit guide us we can learn to witness in ways that are both faithful and relevant — and I think these images of the gospel will be a great help to us.

You can read more about Picturing the Gospel at both the IVP web page for the book and at Neil’s own site, where you can read the introduction and the first chapter.