In his best-known book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells of an isolated jungle village called Macondo in which the entire population has become infected with insomnia and associated amnesia. To avoid forgetting important things, the inhabitants begin labeling everything. One of the first signs they erect reads, “God exists”.
But the main protagonist José Arcadio Buendía begins to dread what will happen when the Macondans have even forgotten how to read. He sets to work trying to make a daguerreotype (photograph) of God, to prove His existence and help everyone not to forget Him.
I fear we live in a similar time. Our culture is in danger of forgetting that God exists.
But God’s intention was that the church would be the sign that would help people never to forget. This is why some people talk about the church being “the hope of the world.” Technically, the church isn’t the hope of the world – Christ is (Col.1:27). But the church is the sign, the last hope for a world suffering from spiritual amnesia, saying “God exists.”
Sadly, while José Arcadio Buendía’s fear was that his village would forget how to read, ours might be that our neighbors can read only too well. When they look at the contemporary church, instead of reading “God exists,” we should fear that they see a spiritually bankrupt evangelicalism, wedded to conservative politics and gun culture and the love of money. Now as ever before the church needs to recover its mission and purpose to be a sign to the reign of God, a reminder that God exists and that His reign is one of justice, reconciliation, beauty and wholeness.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio is a kind of spiritual Don Quixote, on endless quests for impossible inventions (like a camera to photograph God). But we know that God has already revealed himself in physical form. Jesus is the image of the invisible God and he has commissioned his followers – the church – to be a sort of daguerreotype of God. The church is being formed into an alternative society, one in which people can flourish, with Jesus at the center showing us this whole new way to be human, pointing God as our savior.
Whether we like it or not, the church is the only sign to God our neighbors will ever see. This is one of the reasons behind the Apostle Paul’s reference to the church as “the body of Christ.” We should be able to say, “Look at us, we represent God, we’re showing you that God exists.” As huge a responsibility as it might be, the church images God to our world.
In February 2011, a massive earthquake, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale, devastated the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Nearly half the buildings in the center of the city were damaged, some completely. The ChristChurch Anglican Cathedral, built in 1864 and the symbol of the city, was utterly destroyed. The church’s spire and part of its tower had collapsed, and the rest of the building crumbled in the aftershocks. The Anglican Church decided to demolish their beloved building.
But that didn’t signal the end of the church’s presence in the city. They might have abandoned their cathedral, but they didn’t abandon Christchurch. The Anglican diocese commissioned Japanese “disaster architect” Shigeru Ban to design a cardboard cathedral to take its place. Yes, I said cardboard.
It opened in 2013 and can seat 700 people only a few blocks away from the original church.
There’s something kind of beautiful about the very idea of a cardboard cathedral in an earthquake zone. It speaks of the resilience of Christian witness, the relentlessness of the followers of Christ, the impermanence of buildings but the steadfastness of God.
It says, “God exists” and he’ll never leave nor forsake you.
In saying this, I’m not suggesting that buildings are the only sign of God’s presence in our world. The church is the community of redeemed ones. We are to be (as Lesslie Newbigin put it) a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the coming kingdom. The church’s role is to help people reorient their lives around the mission of God and the incarnation of Jesus so that we can actually be good news people who alert others to the reality of the reign of God.
In a nation where the fastest growing religious category is “None” we need to erect a massive sign for a forgetful people, one that screams “God exists.” I believe we do that by unleashing a wave of ordinary believers to infiltrate every nook and cranny of society to be a trailer, a foretaste, of the good, peaceable, joyous, just world to come, the world in which God exists and Jesus is king.