Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Bookblog: The Gospel Blimp and Other Modern Parables

Looking for a lightweight read to rest my mind over recent days, I picked up The Gospel Blimp and Other Modern Parables by Joseph Bayly. Being one not given to idle thinking, I also thought that this might help me to creatively think God's thoughts after Him as I endeavor to teach seven students at Winston-Salem Bible College in the subject of evangelism. Now, having completed the book I confess to having laughed and cried (sometimes without even turning a page), and having misjudged this book by its whimsical cover -- it is no lightweight read. I had heard about The Gospel Blimp at times before, but I was unfamiliar with its author, the late Joseph Bayly. I was not one of the "thousands of people" who "for over twenty years ... looked forward to his monthly column in Eternity magazine" (back cover). Although I have used some of the fine material published by the David C. Cook company, I did not know that Joseph Bayly had been president of that company before he died.

A little less than half of the book is devoted to its title story, "The Gospel Blimp." This story is humorous, painful, convicting and compelling as it chronicles the adventures of a group of well-intentioned but misguided believers who desire to reach their neighbors for Christ. Rather than being personal witnesses to them, they devise the plan for The Gospel Blimp, a flying billboard which spells out the gospel, announced the saving message through loudspeakers, and blankets the city with tracts dropped from the blimp's lofty heights. And thus begins the misadventures of the IGBI -- International Gospel Blimps, Inc. Without giving too much of the story away, let me just say that their capers strike closely to the nerve of evangelicalism's big business parachurch ministries. And it is not without the scandals that often accompany these ventures. In the end, there is fragmentation at the leadership level, which ends up being the best thing that can happen in the reaching of the lost in that city. This story is an encouragement to us to not look for bigger and better ways to do it, but to just be faithful to the simple personal sharing of the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ with our friends, our neighbors, and the strangers brought into our lives by the providence of God.

Not all of the "modern parables" are of equal quality, though I would have missed a blessing by putting the book down after the saga of the blimp. The story of Gooley is one of the most creative and refreshing stories I have read in a long time. Gooley is a young man who learned to fly. Not in an airplane, not with some apparatus -- the guy actually learned to just fly. It soon becomes apparent that this is Bayly's parallel to being saved. But rather than teaching fellow students at his secular university the secrets of his flight, Gooley transferred to an "All Flyers School," where the student body had become bored with flying and some had even begun to doubt the authority of Aerodynamic Theory -- the primary text for flying and flyers. It is a great story for Christians to read to keep the fire of their zeal for Christ burning hot.

Picking up on similar themes of "The Gospel Blimp" are the shorter stories of "A Small Happening At Andover" and "Black Gold". "Mayday" is humorous, and "Rehoboam's Gold Shields" is a heartbreaker for Christians who know people who have drifted away and shipwrecked their faith. "How Silently, How Silently" is a convicting look at how we have croweded Christ out of Christmas. I reflected on this story as I drove to Myrtle Beach this past weekend. Somewhere north of Bennetsville, SC on Highway 38, there is a little family cemetery on the right hand side of the road across from what appears to be an abandoned church. Even at 50 miles per hour or so, I was able to make out the name -- one name on every tombstone in that little burial ground: CHRISTMAS. When I saw that, I reflected on "How Silently, How Silently," and said, "Oh Lord, forgive us. We have killed Christmas, and buried it here in a shallow grave in South Carolina. Please resurrect it in the hearts of your people so that we will treasure Christ more than any of these trappings that we often substitute for Him at what should be a very special time of year for Your people." I will try to post the photo of that cemetery I took on the return trip at a later time.

The most painful story of the collection for me was "The Saving Message." Every preacher needs to read this story. Pressed in the strait between knowing the message that he must preach, and knowing the fallout that will result when he does, the preacher of this story wrestles with the recent news in his town and what his responsibility is before God to address it. The conclusion is shocking, alarming, and convicting, because ALL OF US, even the best of us, have been guilty of the same sin as this preacher in the story at some point.

The final chapter of the book is a very good look at the art of the parable. Bayly does not romanticize parables as some are wont to do. Though I do not think that we need to abandon exposition in exchange for story-telling in our day (that apathetic spiritual anorexia that plagues our churches is the consequence of a century of this), I do think that we could enhance our exposition with some very pointed parables told in the style of Jesus and prophets like Nathan.

On the whole, I would recommend The Gospel Blimp to believers who can tolerate a little bit of self-depricating humor and imaginative storytelling. But beware, these are not lightweight tales. They cut like a knife if we read them with ears to hear the message that underlies the engaging characters and their exploits.

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