By Nathan Wei
Ph.D. Candidate, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University
What is the world’s most epic story? One might argue for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps it’s the Iliad, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. What about Shakespeare? Star Wars? War and Peace? The Marvel Cinematic Universe? As captivating as they are, a Christian perspective might suggest that all of these grand tales are simply faint reflections of the ultimate story of God’s work in the world. In classic Hollywood fashion, this is often framed as a trilogy: creation, fall, and redemption.1
For Christians, this is the most comprehensive story imaginable: it’s God’s story, our story, and the story of the entire course of history, all rolled into one magnificent, massive metanarrative.2 Accordingly, we can get pretty jazzed about the things God is doing on a cosmic scale: singing songs, shouting praises, celebrating holidays. But more often, that bigger picture feels far removed from the mundane routines of daily life: sending emails, attending meetings, doing laundry. Is there a way to bridge the gap? Can we relate our individual stories to God’s big story?
The Concept of Square-Inch Stories
Enter the square-inch story.3 The name draws inspiration from the declaration of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920):
“No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”4
In this powerful proclamation, Kuyper emphatically erases the gap between our activities and God’s plans. While Christ reigns over the entire arc of human history, He also rules over every single square inch we inhabit.5 These square inches include our work, our vocation, our passions, our hobbies, our relationships, our communities, and our worldviews. Kuyper reminds us that Christ cares deeply about each and every one of these areas, as each has an immeasurably important part to play in His story.6
A square-inch story aims to actualize Kuyper’s vision by selecting one particular square inch and seeking to understand how it is connected with God’s greater plan. First, it identifies key patterns, processes, and philosophies within the square inch. It then critically examines these elements in light of the ultimate story, discerning which parts are good (creation), and which parts have been corrupted (fall). Finally, it reimagines these pieces as tools and materials for the building up of God’s kingdom (redemption). A square-inch story thus conveys a domain-specific expression of Christ’s vision for the renewal of all things.
Before we consider how to put together a square-inch story, we should clarify why this complicated endeavor is worth our time. I offer three motivations: personal, ecclesial, and missional.7
First, on a personal level, the process of thinking through our disciplines helps us discover meaning and purpose within the seemingly mundane activities we perform in our square inches. This can strengthen our faith and help us submit all areas of our life to God’s will.8 Secondly, the Church is constantly in need of thoughtful narratives of reconciliation that restore square inches to proper relationship with the Body of Christ. For example, widely circulated stories about the incompatibility of Christian faith with the natural and social sciences have left many Christians suspicious of modern science. What would it look like if instead we told stories of the designated role of science in God’s redemptive plan?9
Finally, square-inch stories are inherently missional, because every story has the potential to connect with people in unique and meaningful ways.10 Since the Body of Christ is by design wonderfully diverse, each Christ-follower inhabits a different set of communities.11 Each of us therefore is uniquely positioned to engage with a particular group of people, as ambassadors of Christ to a particular square inch.12 The square-inch story helps us step into this role, by identifying areas of common ground with our neighbors and colleagues 13 and giving us the framework and vocabulary to tell God’s story in the language of the square inch.14
In accordance with its missional orientation, the structure of a square-inch story will largely be determined by the particular characteristics of the community it addresses. It may lean philosophical or practical, intellectual or relational. It may take the form of a talk, a blog post, a painting, or a composition. The specifics are up to the storyteller, but in all cases, the content is centered on connections between the square inch and the overarching metanarrative.
The Construction of Square-Inch Stories
We thus return to the practical question: how do we put together a square-inch story?
As we have seen, the square-inch story draws substance from the three-part structure of the ultimate story. We can therefore begin thinking through our square inches by looking at their assumptions and practices through the lens of the story of Scripture, or in the words of Dr. Chris Watkin, “letting the Bible set its own table.”15
Creation. As in the ultimate story, we expect to find elements within our square inches that are inherently good and bear the hallmarks of God’s design. These can and should be affirmed and celebrated, such as the beauty of music or the intricacies of DNA. In this sense, the construction of a square-inch story is a process of exploration that leads to awe and worship.16
Fall. However, we should not be surprised to find areas within our square inches that have fallen away from God’s good plan. These often take the form of implicit assumptions embedded in the philosophy of a discipline that only become visible under the spotlight of Scripture. In many cases, these assumptions lie at the roots of systemic blind spots and unjust patterns of thought and action. The construction of a square-inch story is thus a critical endeavor that exposes the brokenness in a square inch and highlights its need for redemption.17
Redemption. With this brokenness as a backdrop, a square-inch story can ask how Christ will redeem the fallen aspects of the square inch and transform it into a place of worship, justice, and human flourishing.18 How can this field glorify God? How can this discipline seek justice and love mercy?19 How is Christ calling this community to serve those in need? There are no easy answers to these questions, but as we wrestle with them, we begin to see how our little square inch fits into God’s grand plan to make all things work together for good.20
The Continuation of Square-Inch Stories
Creating a square-inch story requires a significant investment of thought and reflection, and it is not a project to tackle alone. Kuyper himself, referring to the academic application of square-inch theology, said that this is a “task which surpasses our human strength.”21 It requires wisdom from the Holy Spirit, guidance from Scripture, and support, encouragement, and correction from Christian community. Furthermore, the construction of a square-inch story does not end with the completion of an article or talk. It is a lifelong process that we undertake for every square inch we find ourselves in, and our work is not complete until the whole domain of human existence sits obediently before the throne of God.
With this humbling perspective in mind, I shall close in the great academic tradition of pointing to future work. In the square-inch stories that follow in this series, you will see a variety of explorational forays into the Kuyperian enterprise – square-inch seedlings, if you will, putting down roots into their particular disciplines and communities, and stretching themselves upward toward the light of Christ. You will hear from students and scholars who are learning to become better storytellers and translators for their colleagues and contemporaries. And I hope you will be inspired by their testimonies to take a closer look at the domains you engage with – because every square inch has an indispensable role to play in the world’s most epic story.
Many thanks to Andrea Chaikovsky, Carissa Wei, Jonathan Love, Joy Chiew, Katie Ferrick, and Kristel Tjandra for providing feedback on this article, and to the members of the Stanford IVGrad Square-Inch Discussion Group for collectively shaping the vision for this project.
1 Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (2011). Wax adds a fourth and final element, restoration (or consummation), which is ‘beyond the scope of this work.’
2 A metanarrative is an overarching story that serves as a framework for the interpretation of ideas or events.
3 “Square-centimeter story” is scientifically more correct, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely.
4 Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” (1880). Address at the Free University of Amsterdam. Translation available here.
5 Kuyper called these “spheres”, but to be metaphorically and geometrically consistent, I conflate his idea of sphere sovereignty with the square-inch declaration quoted above. The man himself inhabited several of these spheres, as a theologian, journalist, academic, politician, and statesman. See this blog post for a more detailed discussion.
6 This idea did not necessarily originate with Kuyper. For instance, the English bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) is noted for saying with regard to secular work that “God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well” (cf. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom, p. 270).
7 Tish Harrison Warren, in her contribution to Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Timothy Keller and John Inazu, eds.), writes, “This intentional practice of, in the words of Luci Shaw, “telling and retelling the story that weaves together divine transcendence and earthly human experience” shapes us as believers, and it shapes our readers” (p. 80). Her essay underscores the importance of communication: “our words shape our practices, just as practices shape our words” (p. 80).
8 Colossians 3:17. It is also worthwhile to consider reason and critical thinking as spiritual disciplines. Enoch Kuo (who first introduced me to Kuyper) elaborates on this idea in this blog post. He draws from Mike Higton’s A Theology of Higher Education, which is a useful reference for this topic and for Christian engagement in a university context.
9 An excellent example of this kind of story is The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins.
10 An emphasis on stories is increasingly relevant as our society transitions from a postmodernist worldview to a “metamodernist” one, in which meta-narratives are empowered as catalysts for progress and unity. In this philosophical landscape, the square-inch story becomes even more crucial to maintaining an effective Christian witness.
11 Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a renowned climate scientist and outspoken evangelical Christian, frequently emphasizes the influence we can have on the individual communities we find ourselves in. Here, she discusses this in relation to environmental advocacy, but her ideas are readily generalizable.
12 2 Corinthians 5:18-20.
13 Acts 17:22-34.
14 Acts 2:6-12. For a much more comprehensive discussion of the Christian’s role as translator, see John Inazu’s essay in Uncommon Ground.
15 Dr. Chris Watkin was our invited speaker at the annual InterVarsity NorCal Grad Student Winter Conference in January 2020. His talks provided the inspiration, vocabulary, and theological framework for this project. Links to the talks can be found on his blog, “Thinking Through the Bible.”
16 There is great precedent for this in Scripture (e.g. Psalm 19:1-6, Proverbs 30:24-28), as well as in the history of Christian thought. In my own research, I am constantly in awe of the intricate motions of fluid flows and the mathematical concept of chaos, both of which are powerful recurring themes in the Bible.
17 Nicholas Wolterstorff writes that Christians should “nourish critique that is shaped by the hopes and memories of the biblical narrative, including then, ethical critique of the practices of society generally” (Educating for Shalom, p. 130). This critique is driven by “the faces and voices of those suffering in our world”, since “an ethic that does not echo humanity’s lament does not merit humanity’s attention” (p. 133).
18 This perspective of Christian engagement with aspects of secular culture reflects H. Richard Niebuhr’s paradigm of “Christ transforming culture” from his influential book Christ and Culture (1951). In the wise words of Wolterstorff: "To serve God faithfully and to serve humanity effectively, one has to critique the received role [i.e. our square inch] and do what one can to alter the script" (Educating for Shalom, p. 272).
19 Micah 6:8.
20 Ephesians 1:9-10.
21 Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty.”