Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
A curious mixture of old and new is apparent in the materials: a strip of leather cord looped through a set of plastic beads. The first part is functional, and has a history that goes back far enough to guarantee that its existence would not have surprised Christ in his own time as a lava lamp or battery-powered alarm clock would have. The second part is decorative, and while beads certainly have their own important cultural history, cast plastic beads—tiny, with an almost imperceptible weight in the palm, ringed with a thin center seam and made of colors brighter than most that occur in nature—do not strike me as the sorts of things that can actually have a “history,” even when they do.
Christ the Word is hidden in these plastic rings, his work parceled into color-coded units and translated into a wordless language. These components come together to form the Plan of Salvation Bead Bracelet, ostensibly a tool intended to aid children in sharing the gospel message with their friends and acquaintances. Each bead in the sequence on the bracelet has a different color, and each color corresponds to a different stage in the Plan of Salvation. If the child forgets which stage in the Plan he’s got pinched between his forefinger and thumb, he can use his other hand (the one with the bracelet on it) to reach into his pocket and retrieve the Plan of Salvation card, which indexes the stages in the Plan to the colored beads of the bracelet. It is evangelism in an age of mechanical reproduction.
The second part of this bracelet is not, of course, only decorative. In fact, the beads are the load-bearing part of the bracelet’s architecture, containing in their lurid hues a map of the stages along life’s way for the soul who seeks after the Lord.
Black is where the sequence starts. Black as night, black as space, black as the pupil in your eye, black as the tumultuous void upon which the Spirit of God walked before giving form to the world. Black gets a bad rap in the world of evangelical signifiers because its semiotic stock is so often exhausted on sin and evil. Important to remember is the dark night of the soul—black as the harrowing undergone in the presence of the Lord whose being is infinitely too much for the forms and shapes that allow for us to catch sight of him. Black is darn close to a color we might use to signify God’s peculiar sort of presence in this world. But here it means sin, our starting point in the Plan.
What’s next for the child holding her wrist out to her unsaved friend? Red: the color of strawberries, tomatoes, and blood that never dries. The red of this innocent bead refers these children to brutal torture Christ endured before and during his crucifixion. If we can imagine a beaded Jesus, we have to picture hundreds of these beads pouring out of his wounds, dangling on strips of leather or threads of human hair. In the Plan of Salvation, this blood is forever interposed, forever being shed, forever staying slick and bright and wet.
Sliding the red bead into the past, the child arrives at blue. It’s blue like a postcard of the ocean, or the rigid liner of an above-ground pool. Baptism is the referent here. Seeing as Christ’s blood has washed away sin, perhaps the water may wash away the rivulets of remaining blood? It’s curious to me that baptism is a stage in the Plan, as evangelicals don’t take baptism to have an expiating function. But it’s there.
The white bead follows the blue. It is a page from a new coloring book, a puddle of melted vanilla ice cream, a stack of Styrofoam cups, and the scar that bears witness to an old burn. It represents the imputed righteousness of Christ, the foreign purity we receive, a spiritual bleach to remove an inherited metaphysical stain. It is a blankness we put on.
Forest-green is for growth—“in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” in the explanatory verse on the Plan of Salvation card. Green for grass and trees, vegetables, and a certain variety of snot; green like an empty Mountain Dew bottle next to a cold pizza box in the church kitchen.
Our last bead: yellow. Yellow for the gold of the crowns being cast down around the also-golden sea in the presence of God himself; yellow for the heaven that is for real. Yellow for unwanted Starburst, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the sun in a cartoon.
Together, these beads evoke the progress of saints and pilgrims towards God as God’s grace does its work in them. Presumably the child with wrist outstretched has now shared the gospel message with her friend, the variegated column forming new color associations in her friend’s mind. White is no coconut jellybean. It’s the righteousness of God himself. Black isn’t a ninja’s costume; it’s my sin. I should probably ask this person where she got this bracelet, because it has all the colors of eternal life.
Christ the Word is hidden in these plastic rings, his work parceled into color-coded units and translated into a wordless language. Evangelicals know that without human worship even the stones would cry out; perhaps we anticipate our ebbs in spiritual enthusiasm and preempt them by designing plastic rocks to silently cry out from our bodies even when our mouths are silent.
Old and new; ancient and ephemeral; a strip of leather and a row of polymer baubles. Disposable colored beads, so much molten plastic shot through mechanical jets into dappled molds, colors that will remain as bright as the sky even after our own bodies have decomposed, quietly repurposing the visible world for the invisible Lord.
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