Stories of Grace and Ethan Richardson’s This American Gospel

In an article from The Atlantic, Cody C. Delistraty writes about the psychological comforts of […]

Charlotte Donlon / 10.24.17

In an article from The Atlantic, Cody C. Delistraty writes about the psychological comforts of storytelling. He writes, “Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness.” He also says stories can impact and form our emotional lives. Storytelling pulls back the curtain on others’ minds so we can see how people operate and think. This process can validate and challenge our own beliefs. Another reason we tell stories is that we all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be engaged with a shared history.

All of this helps explain why Mockingbird is so story-heavy. Movies, books, TV shows, stories from Scripture, and our own personal narratives help us process, understand, and notice God’s grace. We need to read and hear these tales. And we need to share them with each other.

Ethan Richardson harnesses the power of good storytelling in his book This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. He uses episodes from Ira Glass’s beloved This American Life radio show to examine where real life intersects with the Gospel of grace. Each chapter or act of the book focuses on a different act from various This American Life episodes.

Two of my favorite acts from This American Gospel are “Our Eternal Home” and “Renamed.” In “Our Eternal Home,” Richardson uses Act Three, “Gin Rummy,” from the “Know When to Fold ‘Em” episode of This American Life to explore issues related to addiction, recovery, sadness, and eternity.

Richardson writes, “Act Three of ‘Know When to Fold ’Em’  tells the story of a ‘wet house’ for alcoholics who have lost everything, who have thus come to themselves and yet, cannot change themselves. But they have a place they call home.” Those who live in this wet house are alcoholics who have been unable to overcome their addiction. The man who runs this wet house, Bill Hockenberger, is also a recovering addict. He works and lives for the home’s residents, and he doesn’t require them to be in recovery to be a member of the community. He, like Jesus, is concerned with those who are sick, not those who don’t need a physician.

Richardson writes:

There’s a recurrent philosophical fallacy, Bill seems to be saying, that once we understand what we need to do to get back on our feet, we will be able to ascend to that lifestyle. Bill is saying that this is simply not true for the men in his care. And while he may be talking about a home for alcoholics, those enveloped in an addiction, his point blurs the line between what can be said about addicts exclusively and what can be said of people in general. This philosophical fallacy—that if we understand it, believe it, then we can achieve it—is one we see fall flat every day. We assent to and vote for change that doesn’t happen, we buy things we never use, the self-help section at Barnes & Noble is eventually going to engross the entire store—for what? Knowledge is not enough to change a person. We cannot shake who we are.

The questions at the end of this act help readers think through Bill’s motives, their own “recovery” experiences, the role of sadness in the face of brokenness, and what it means to show up for someone.

Richardson responds to Act One of the “Long Shot” episode, “Hasta La Vista, Maybe,” in his “Re-named” chapter. He writes about Don Cronk, a convicted murderer who was sentenced to life in prison with the chance for parole. He says, “Cronk has lived a spotless existence in prison—earning a degree, serving as a chaplain, never smoking a cigarette—so that he might earn his parole.” Cronk’s journey through the parole process is full of ups and downs, heartache, and joy. Richardson uses Cronk’s experiences to look at issues of power and powerlessness, law, guilt, grace, and freedom.

He writes about sanctification saying,

In short, sanctification happens. Sanctification is not achieved—instead, the Spirit commandeers our will. Is there a reincarnated use of moral law after Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf? If so, wouldn’t that eradicate the efficacy of his coming to begin with?!… No, sanctification is predicated entirely on the Spirit’s work in a person’s life… We wait on the Lord as Don waits on his parole decision, except in the good faith that we wait upon at Advocate and not an Accuser.

The questions at the end of this act assist the readers in thinking through their history, their views of the law and gospel distinction, and their own guilt and need for imputation.

This American Gospel proves Delistraty’s views on the power of storytelling above. It is a great resource for anyone who wants to engage great stories and their underlying threads of Gospel truths. The book is also perfect for a small group or Bible study. Richardson offers insights with playfulness and wit, the format is easy to follow, and thoughtful discussion questions are included. What more do you need?