One of the overriding themes of Donald Miller’s books (e.g., Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What) is that, in the Bible, God reveals Himself, not in bullet points, but in story. Miller is not the first, and he will not be the last, to notice that in the modern era, Christians are mainly concerned with bullet points. The stories that we read in the Bible are read, not as stories, but as sources of discrete theological statements that can be used to build a broader intellectual understanding of God, His Kingdom, morality, and a biblical worldview.
Whether by way of a sermon or a Bible study, the quest for knowledge as a Christian is focused largely on information. Questions that are posed, even if implicitly, almost always have a decidedly academic bent. “What does this phrase mean? What is the difference between this and that? Can we judge the importance of this concept, perhaps by counting how many times the word appears in the New Testament? What did the apostle Paul have to say about this? Are there any references to this idea in the Old Testament? How do the synoptic Gospels record this event and what do the differences in the various accounts mean? How does this story contribute to my theological understanding of God? Having come to understand the intellectual concepts, how do I apply them in my life?” The process typically fails at the last point in the process.
While this whole, almost extra-corporeal conversation is happening, somewhere deep inside, true God-seekers are wondering, “What does this have to do with my life?” And, even more importantly, they are asking, “Where is God in all this?” Their perplexity is minimized immediately, because the voice of the status quo starts screaming: “Get with the program! If you want to grow in the Christian life, you have to learn doctrine. Theological truth is central to who you are. The truth will set you free.” I know that all this happens, because I lived in that desert, a dry and weary land where there is no water, for 40 years.
There is no experience like being set free in a desert.
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Is there a way out of the desert? St. Ignatius thought so. He knew that God was not to be found in doctrine. “For it is not knowing much, but realising and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.” Judging from the fact that this sentence appears in the second paragraph of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius must have viewed this principle as being of cardinal importance. In fact, considering how and when he gave the Spiritual Exercises, I have to conclude that Ignatius did not believe that God would be found in church, either. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises a good 15 years before he became part of the Catholic clergy. No one knows how many people took the Exercises, but hardly any of them, if any at all, were clergy. The Exercises stood against the status quo to such an extent that Ignatius was hauled before the Inquisition more than once.
Ignatius knew that people could encounter God anywhere, but he also knew that prayer provided a setting for intimate interaction with the Divine. He believed that, since God is timeless, the gospel stories are more than just historical accounts. Exercitants would meet Jesus in the stories of the gospels as they relived those stories in prayer. He really believed what modern Christians say they believe, that “The word of God is living and active.” The stories of the Bible are always alive, and can be lived and relived. In prayer, we can live those stories right alongside the apostles. Surprisingly, there isn’t much overt religion in many of the stories. Babies are born, crowds are fed, roads are walked, boats are launched, fish are caught, meals are eaten, people die. The Exercises defy the human tendency to segregate the secular and the sacred by leading exercitants to see the whole of their lives being lived under the standard (banner, flag) of Jesus Christ. Washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, changing diapers, going to weddings, making decisions, all of daily life would be lived as a practical extension of intimate intercourse during prayer.
So, you see, Donald Miller has not espoused a newfangled idea. For thousands of years, serious God-seekers have known that God is found, not in bullet points and theology, but in story and, especially, as those stories are internalized and personalized and lived. The vast majority of those stories take place, not inside a temple or a church, but in fields and homes, on roads and mountains, in war and peace. And each of us is writing one of those stories with our own lives.