IVP - Strangely Dim - Behind the Booklet: The Parable of the Unexpected Guest

August 12, 2011

Behind the Booklet: The Parable of the Unexpected Guest

PUG cover.jpgJust this month I released my latest publication, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. I wrote it on a lark, and then IVP agreed to publish it. Darn decent of them-I-mean-us. IVP publishes lots of booklets such as this one, and has done so for lots of years, starting in the 1950s and continuing to today. IVP booklets generally run about five thousand words; mine originally ran about six thousand, one thousand of which were an admittedly self-indulgent pulling back of the curtain on the writing process. My editor wouldn't let me leave it in, but he very insightfully suggested I post it to my admittedly self-indulgent blog. So here it is. Read it and retweet.


Once upon a time I was bored, so I decided to write something. I had been reading Frank Viola's From Eternity to Here, in which the author suggests that all of history is three interwoven stories: God searching for a home, Jesus searching for a bride, the Holy Spirit searching for a body. Or something like that; it's been a while now since I read that book.

   Anyway, the bride and the home stuff reminded me of a little booklet that has been in print more than half a century. Published by my employer, InterVarsity Press, My Heart--Christ's Home by Robert Boyd Munger goes through the occasional new iteration or refreshed design every few years or so. But the basic story remains the same: Jesus shows up at the narrator's door, moves in to the narrator's house, changes the narrator's life. I suppose you might say my booklet is an homage to that booklet, a reminder that of all the ways we might think of a relationship with God, one of the most endearing (and most intimidating) is welcoming him as a guest into our everyday experience.

   As much of a fan of My Heart--Christ's Home as I've been over the years, the story has shown itself over time to be an artifact of its era. The home described there sounds like the home you might see on the blackest-and-whitest shows on TV Land or Nick At Night. How we inhabit our personal space and occupy our time has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. So with all due respect to My Heart--Christ's Home, I set out trying to write an artifact of my own era, a story that presents Jesus as our current context might best understand him, how we might most likely be endeared and intimidated by him. What if, I wondered, Jesus wasn't in our heart but in our face?

   For me, that meant, among other things, confronting the sense of isolationism that in many ways characterizes contemporary Western culture. I wrote about it in my earlier book Deliver Us from Me-Ville; it's something we're born into and swept along by, and only an intervention by a savior with a broader vision for us can deliver us--often kicking and screaming--into a fuller life now and forever.

   That's my contention anyway. The result was The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, a "thought experiment" for evangelism and discipleship. (I should acknowledge here that I stole the idea of a "thought experiment" from Scott Adams, best known for his comic strip Dilbert but who also speculated about the origins of pain and suffering in the world in his book God's Debris. My friend Dan turned me on to that book, and it's stuck in my head since. "Thought experiment" is a good characterization of the purpose for that book and my booklet.)

   Some might flip through The Parable of the Unexpected Guest and wonder, "Where's the atonement?" They're right to ask: Jesus' redemptive act to contend with our sinfulness and restore us to wholeness is the heart of Jesus' story. Jesus without atonement is just a guru, one might argue. And Jesus is no mere guru; the history of the world has borne that out. That being said, there is no central atoning act in this story. In my defense I'd only argue that there's a tone of atonement that pervades. "Jesus honors us and threatens us with his visit," I wrote in Deliver Us from Me-Ville, a play on a concept by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Jesus is both our deliverer and our judge at one and the same time. The intersection of Jesus and our world is thus inherently cruciform--cross-shaped. So ask me where the cross is in this story and I'll tell you: it starts at the beginning and ends at the end.

   The beauty of My Heart--Christ's Home is that it showcases simple disciplines that a Christian could put into practice that would more consistently align their heart to God's purposes: Bible study, devotional time, prayer, avoiding strong drink, stuff like that. (I may have made that last part up; I did, however, once see a dramatic interpretation of My Heart--Christ's Home in which the main character got drunk, and then Jesus made him feel bad about it.) Sadly, those clear suggested practices are only hinted at in The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. My main goal has been to present the Christian life as an embodied faith--one that is not characterized solely or even primarily by extremely private, internal practices (the just-me-and-Jesus sort of disciplines) but by relationship--with Jesus (through conversation, which is essentially prayer, and through wrestling with the Word of God, which is essentially Bible study), with those we work with and neighbor (through acts of compassion and willful engagement), with the strangers among us (through Christ, our brothers and sisters).

   In this regard, I find the motto of the Benedictine Confederation to be a helpful summation of the Christian life: ora et labora, or, "worship and work." Jesus himself characterized it this way: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. By the grace of God, this is life to the full. To the degree that this parable has given light and texture to that idea, it has served its purpose. To the degree it falls short, well, I'll just have to live with that.

   A lot of people are asking me about my "nom de plume," which is different from how I've referred to myself in previous books. Some wonder whether I'm paying homage to scholar D. A. Carson. Others wonder if by writing a story I'm thinking I'm something special, like C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien. Some may even wonder if I'm trying to create distance between this publication and other stuff I've written. The reason is far more simple: the main character, the narrator, of the parable is a girl, and I'm a boy, and that was confusing for some of my friends who read early drafts. So it's my act of sacrificial service to you, dear reader, that I'm willing to let you imagine "Doris Avery Zimmerman" or "Deanna Anna Zimmerman" as the author instead of me. You're welcome.

   That's it. I hope you enjoy the parable. As for what to do once you've read it, I can only suggest that when there's a knock at your door, you answer it. By the grace of God, may you live happily ever after.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at August 12, 2011 9:55 AM Bookmark and Share


Oh, and please buy a copy for everyone you know. Makes a great stocking stuffer, and fits conveniently under windshield wipers.

Comment by: Dave at August 13, 2011 9:31 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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