Excerpt from The Magnificent Story

I met a man who watch­es The Lord of the Rings movies every night. When he told me this I pushed back, Every night?” He said when he gets off work he goes home, fix­es his din­ner, and turns on the movie and watch­es until he gets sleepy. He stops the movie, and resumes in the same spot the next night. I was stunned by this, but in a way I under­stand. Great sto­ries filled with adven­ture, with an epic bat­tle of good ver­sus evil, where tragedy ends in tri­umph, do some­thing to our soul noth­ing else can.

We are crea­tures with a mys­tery in our heart that is big­ger than our­selves. We may think we can find ulti­mate plea­sure, sat­is­fac­tion, and mean­ing in alco­hol, sex, mon­ey, or pow­er, but in real­i­ty those have nev­er sat­is­fied any­one. They are too small for our mas­sive souls. We were designed to take part in a divine dra­ma, an epic sto­ry. We were made not mere­ly to hear it but to be in it. We are, indeed, sto­ries. But in truth we are not the pro­tag­o­nist of the real sto­ry, the sto­ry we long to take part in. God is the hero of the only sto­ry that will sat­is­fy us.

The the­sis of this book is that there is a mag­nif­i­cent sto­ry, which is the most impor­tant thing hap­pen­ing on this earth. It is our only hope as indi­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties, coun­tries, and a species. But for a vari­ety of rea­sons the gospel mes­sage we often hear, the sto­ry often told, is shrunk­en and dis­tort­ed. This is why we see so many frus­trat­ed, dis­ap­point­ed Chris­tians. It is not that they are bad peo­ple, but they have nev­er heard the mag­nif­i­cent sto­ry in its fullness.

The good news of the gospel is sim­i­lar to cry­ing over the beau­ty of heav­en­ly music. The good news of the gospel is sim­i­lar to feel­ing glad when we see some­one per­form an unex­pect­ed act of kind­ness for a stranger. The great­est news is that this is what God is like.

To dis­cov­er this we need to look at the sto­ry — the gospel — through the lens­es of beau­ty, good­ness, and truth.

My friend Trevor stat­ed it well: In order to see beau­ty, good­ness, and truth, I have to have hum­ble eyes.” Our eyes can be hum­ble only when we get our­selves out of the way and focus on the beau­ty all around us. And we see God best when we learn to see and expe­ri­ence beau­ty, good­ness, and truth. When we see them, we get a glimpse of God. We not only see them, we hear them, we smell them, we touch them, and we taste them. God gave us all of our sens­es — phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al — to feel God’s love.

God sings his love to you in bird­song. God smiles at you in maple trees. God charms you with the col­or green. He gave you eyes to see sun­sets, ears to hear rain­fall, a nose to smell a rose. God’s mas­sive love appears in the small frag­ments. God is lov­ing you in these moments, even if you don’t know it.

Beau­ty And Suf­fer­ing: The Cel­list Of Sarajevo

From 1992 to 1995 the world wit­nessed one of the worst civ­il con­flicts, the Bosn­ian War. Three fac­tions, each tied to a reli­gion (Ortho­dox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Mus­lim Bosni­aks), began attack­ing one anoth­er in a strug­gle for pow­er after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Serbs, backed by the Yugosla­vian army, attacked the Croats and Bosni­aks, but the lat­ter two unit­ed and fought back. In the end no one was inno­cent of the blood­shed. Over 100,000 peo­ple were killed, 2.2 mil­lion peo­ple were dis­placed, and it is esti­mat­ed that over 12,000 women — most­ly Mus­lim — were raped.

In the midst of the ugli­ness and the suf­fer­ing, beau­ty emerged to offer a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. As the mor­tar shells rained down on Sara­je­vo, a musi­cian from Bosnia and Herze­gov­ina named Vedran Smailović did the only thing he knew to do: he played his cel­lo. In the midst of the destruc­tion of build­ings and the killing of his fam­i­ly and friends, Vedran played his cel­lo — in full for­mal attire — alone in the ruins and in the streets, even though there was relent­less sniper fire.

Dur­ing the con­flict no one knew when or where he would play, but as soon as some­one heard him play­ing, the crowds grew. Griev­ing and starv­ing, the peo­ple gath­ered to lis­ten. Why? As Smailović said, They were hun­gry, but they still had soul.” In the midst of tragedy, his music echoed from anoth­er world, a place where beau­ty, good­ness, and truth reside. Through Smailović — an instru­ment of God, I believe — the peo­ple found hope and healing.

As he played his cel­lo in the ruined city dur­ing the forty-four-month siege, Smailović inspired peo­ple around the world. Singer Joan Baez sat in sol­i­dar­i­ty with him as he played on the streets. Com­pos­er David Wilde wrote a piece for cel­lo in his hon­or: The Cel­list of Sara­je­vo,” played by Yo-Yo Ma. Smailović became a sym­bol of how beau­ty stands in resis­tance to the mad­ness of war. Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn, in a speech he gave after win­ning the Nobel Prize, said, If the too obvi­ous, too straight branch­es of Truth and Good are crushed or ampu­tat­ed and can­not reach the light — yet per­haps the … unex­pect­ed branch­es of Beau­ty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way per­form the work of all three.” Per­haps Dos­to­evsky was right when he said, Beau­ty will save the world.”

What is at Stake?

Our world is in search of a mag­nif­i­cent sto­ry. Many peo­ple are hun­ger­ing for some­thing that will pro­vide answers to their deep­est long­ings… No one wants to live a lame life, yet it seems many peo­ple are doing just that, includ­ing Chris­tians. Our mag­nif­i­cent sto­ry has been reduced, shrunk­en into a tame, man­age­able sto­ry fail­ing to cre­ate mag­nif­i­cent lives.

We need a vision. We need the true Chris­t­ian story.

Excerpt­ed from Long­ing for a Mag­nif­i­cent Sto­ry,” The Mag­nif­i­cent Sto­ry by James Bryan Smith (Down­ers Grove, IL: Inter­var­si­ty Press, 2017).

Pho­to by Jan­der­son Tulio on Unsplash

Originally published September 2017

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