Book 2 – True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In

James Choung has undertaken a significant project in this little book:

  1. Redefining the gospel
  2. Providing a new napkin-size summary diagram

The challenge is worth it because James observes that a major obstacle the followers of Jesus face in speaking about Him is that the only message they have doesn’t feel like good news. In fact, most Evangelicals describe the gospel almost exclusively in terms related to heaven after they die. There is little or no relationship to the world they see everyday. No real-world benefit in the face of the profound brokenness of the world.

Not only, he says, is today’s gospel largely devoid of substantial good news, it also shares little in common with the gospel that Jesus himself preached – the one articulated in Mark 1:14-15:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

When’s the last time you read that in a “gospel” tract somebody handed you in the subway station?

If you didn’t get to read the whole book, or if you want to see it in action, you can watch James himself line it out with a Sharpie in a couple of 3- minute videos on YouTube. These are not to be missed. There is also a pocket-sized version from InterVarsity Press cleverly named, Based on a True Story (ha!), that you can give to friends.


1. It took a little getting used to it, but I ended up liking the conversation format in the first part of the book. There were two separate conversation threads and they worked in two different ways:

• Caleb’s conversations with Professor Shalandra Jones provided opportunity for his own doubts as a confused-but-engaged follower of Jesus to surface and be thoughtfully and compassionately addressed.

• Caleb’s conversations with Anna showed how these ideas could be helpful to those most skeptical about following Jesus.

2. I like his drawings. I’m a visual guy so, if you’re gonna take away my bridge illustration, you’ve gotta come back at me with something else.  I’ve tried these a few times and, though I’m in no way as good as James on the videos, I’ve found them helpful. It’s also fun to draw when you’re chatting, right?

3. I like the three movements that this gospel describes and the invitation that follows.

Decision –> Transformation

Individual –> Community

Afterlife –> Mission Life

Understanding and applying those form the key difference in his invitation to embrace Christ and his revolutionary movement.

4. I liked James’s theological riffs – Seeing him put that doctorate from Fuller to work!  A couple stuck in my mind. First, in the run through Genesis (p. 97-8) Shalandra’s comment that Noah must have seen that first rainbow in the midst of falling rain – something that had previously destroyed every living thing. God’s promise and sign meant he would never have to fear the rain again. The second was his comment on the coming together of heaven and earth seen in the Temple, in Jesus’ body and (finally) in the community of believers. It gave me fresh appreciation for our InterVarsity goal to foster and support witnessing communities. “Guess where earth intersects heaven?” he says, “In the community of believers – where heaven shows up on the planet.” Right on!


1. Of course most of you will be surprised to hear me say this… I was put off a little by the progressive political viewpoint assumed by the author and the characters in the story. While the dialogue is somewhat believable in the college campus setting (University of Washington in Seattle), and it may be that we’re in a time in our culture where North Americans automatically assume Jesus and his followers are all white Republicans whose political/social agenda revolves entirely around ending abortion and keeping gays from marrying, I thought James piled it on too thick. My friend Professor Bill Stuntz who died this past winter told me shortly after arriving at Harvard Law School that, though he was a center-right conservative, he “leaned to the left whenever he could.”  There is certainly something to that when so many people want to line Jesus up behind their agendas. I only want to make sure we don’t exclude people because they can’t get past our rhetoric or don’t subscribe to Sojourners.

2. I know that Professor Jones highlights the centrality of Jesus death and resurrection in the the dialogue, but it felt like the power of both was insignificant compared to the role of Jesus’ followers who are, in his language, “Sent together to heal.” It would have helped to have him line out more about how his view of the Atonement – Ransom is one meaning he mentions among others – works to “Restore for better” and “Sent us to heal.” The same could be said for the Holy Spirit.

One last thing. James said that his hope (p.12) is that “this book will provide us a simple tool to share the hope that we have – one worth believing in.” He really has done this for me – now if I can get my friends on campus to learn how to draw those circles…

About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Dad to Zachary, Ezra & Nafisa Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

4 responses to “Book 2 – True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In

  • Mike

    Thanks for the comments, Jeff. And for another solid recommendation.

    What I liked:
    -The diagram – a cool way to communicate the Gospel narrative. I like how he communicated that life on earth is so much bigger than we act like most of the time. Reminded me of Eldredge’s book, Epic.
    -The story was engaging. I loved the interaction between him and Anna. Anna’s skepticism is pretty telling and accurate, I think.

    Not sure about:
    -does the Gospel get too complicated when we have to explain everything surrounding it? He kept saying, “it’s so much more.” I think I liked the Medearis approach of simplicity: it all boils down to Jesus.

    Looking forward to diving in to the next book!

  • David Heitmeyer

    Jeff — thanks for another interesting read on the list and for your observations to start off the discussion.

    I too liked the illustration. Choung’s “the Big Story” illustration does a great job of explaining the gospel and inviting all hearers to place themselves in it — all within the confines of a napkin. With the emphasis on “transformation, community, and mission life,” this illustration is helpful in engaging everyone to consider our response to the gospel — even those of us who have already “decided” to follow Jesus.

    The progressive political viewpoint was certainly there — given the context of the characters, this was understandable — but for me did get a bit in the way at times. While I did enjoy the conversation format of the book and following Caleb through his journey, at points I felt like “just enough” of the characters and theology were revealed to continue on with the story — so at times I found myself wanting more of both. I found that the time-shifted conversation threads (Caleb/Anna, Caleb/Shalandra, Caleb/Jeff & friends) did work well to give a sense of the process, change, and struggle for Caleb.

    Thanks to James Choung for the good book and the Big Story illustration, and thanks to Jeff for putting “True Story” on my reading list.

  • genepierce208

    I liked the three circles, too, but will have to unlearn the bridge diagram. That will take time and many restaurant napkins.

    if i can, I’d like to offer a comment based on a blend of the two books. From True Story, the reward of eternal life showed no appeal to my Chinese grad student friend in a weekly bible study. He said he’d rather just fade into nothingness as hid reward (like his Buddhist home milieu would encourage). But like Medearis’ insight, Jesus is the lure that keeps him engaged, asking questions and growing. We’ll get back to eternal life at an appropriate time.

    Also, the left agenda is not just appropriate for Seattle and Sojourners, it has pervaded everywhere in the 20 Something and younger demographic. Not sure how essential its specifics are to new faith, but we must be fair to all sides.

    Although, getting back to my Chinese seeker friend, a political agenda doesn’t come up very often when we talk about faith. We are going into the basics of understanding on a fresh, open canvas without many negative pre-suppositions of North American campuses. Christianity is the baseline faith of world progress as they see it and they are ok with that.

    On to the next book. Quite a cram course we have going here.

  • James Choung

    Hi Jeff and his online (and hopefully offline as well!) friends —

    Thanks for taking the time to read the book, and sharing your comments on this blog. It’s always a treat to see how people are interacting with what you’ve written!

    And thanks for the encouraging comments —

    I’m struck how this community was more sensitive to the progressive politics. I actually haven’t heard much push back in this area (though I’ve received it plenty in other areas), so it’s interesting to see it here in this thread. If I can pull back the curtains a little bit: I actually don’t have a (strong) political agenda, and don’t have a political affiliation anymore. Both the government and the markets will let you down — so neither the Left or Right really satisfy. =)

    When I wrote the book, we were in the tail end of the Bush administration, and the perceived agenda of the Religious Right often got in the way of being understood as a believer. It came up a lot where I live (in Southern California for the past nine years.) I felt like I had to debunk a lot of misperception about my politics in order to be trusted about my faith. Perhaps three years into the Obama administration, the Right feels more under siege. (Actually, it seems that both sides feel like they’re under siege, and act like a little brother crying without power and lashing out — when both sides have a great deal of weight in this country.) So the progressive politics of the characters oozes out of a need to debunk stereotypes more than push a particular agenda — but I can see how it might seem that I’m pushing one. (Perhaps you may think I don’t own enough of my viewpoints, a la John Stewart. =p)

    Other comments about wanting more on the characters, Atonement or the Holy Spirit are very, very fair. It’s not a true fiction (in that the story would stand on its own for art), but a teaching fiction (or as McLaren puts it, a “creative nonfiction.”) — so those wanting deep character development will be sorely disappointed.

    I do regret not pressing into the atonement metaphors and Holy Spirit more. For the Holy Spirit, I hoped that the story and Caleb’s interactions with God would at least give a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit could work in someone’s life — but I hope to tackle that much, much more in the second book (if I ever get a proposal for the sequel out of the door — two young kids makes it really, really difficult). Much of my spiritual heritage is from the Vineyard, and if I can pull back the curtains even further, the outward arrows in the fourth circle represents the Holy Spirit for me.

    As for atonement, I thought that if I did a little hand-waving, that people would use their more cherished metaphor in lieu of me pushing one. I wanted to give space and be flexible here — particularly since Atonement theories isn’t really at the forefront of an unbelievers’ mind. Most of fine with my language of “in a mystery of faith, all things wrong die with Him. And three days later, all things good rise with Him — a new life and a new world is possible because of what Jesus did on the Cross and through his Resurrection.” (Though you can hear hints of a particular atonement metaphor ringing through, can’t ya?) But now I wish I had delved into a few of them, gave more room for more of them, to show how many metaphors are needed to talk about what Jesus did on the Cross, instead of landing exclusively on one.

    Ok — that’s my first volley of thoughts. I’m open to more, if you like. Thanks again for reading!

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