The art of story
When I was in elementary school, I remember seeing another kid walking around the playground, seemingly talking to himself. He walked around the schoolyard with a small stick in his hand sometimes making angry faces and shaking the stick and at other times cowering to some invisible thing, but all the while talking to himself. At one point, he even lay down on the ground, arms and legs straight out and stiff like he was dead. I was curious as to what he was doing but as a kid who got picked on a lot, I didn’t dare walk over and ask.
Later on, a classmate told me the boy was acting out some movie. He was essentially telling himself a story but being a kid, he did it in a rather dramatic fashion, acting it out rather than recounting it in his head. At first, I thought the kid was being kind of weird but the more I thought about what my friend said, the more I remembered sitting in my room playing with toys and doing the same thing, acting out some movie I had seen or story I had read, just not in front the entire playground population of Beulah Elementary School.
Do you ever tell yourself stories? Not just remember something you heard from someone else or perhaps read or saw on television, but something that is born from your own experiences. Have you ever seen a person walking down the street and thought to yourself, “I wonder what their life is like? Do they have a family? What do they do for a living? What do they do in their spare time?” Maybe you found yourself piecing together those things from the way they looked or the kind of car they were driving. Maybe they reminded you of someone you know and you began to relate the story of that someone to the person you saw. Then again, maybe I’m the only nut case wandering around town telling myself stories about people I haven’t met yet.
Postliberal or Narrative Theology: A Definition
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word sermon comes from the Latin word sermo, which means “discourse” or “to have a conversation”.[i] This idea of conversation or the sharing of the story is at the heart of postliberal or narrative theology. Narrative theology was formally defined in the 1970’s by Hans Wilhelm Frei and George Lindbeck and later by Stanly Hauerwas, Garrett Green, and William Placher.[ii] The idea, for these men at least, was that scripture is true in that its truth exists within the words of its narrative or story.[iii] It began as word games about what words and meanings could be used to understand and relate the ideas of Christianity using the ‘word games’ approach of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This eventually evolved into the idea of Christianity having its own unique language and way of speaking about itself to those outside the community. What is meant by this is that the words written down in the first and second centuries, claimed by the early church fathers as having spiritual meaning for guiding followers of Jesus, and used for the teaching of the faith are their own story and their own language. This system has at its core a story, the story of God seeking to redeem the world. This story “…was cast upon the waters of history with one very specific and completely essential and desperately necessary objective – to tell the epic tale of God’s ongoing quest to” restore “his creation.”[iv] As one writer puts it,
“The truth is not simply a doctrine to assent to, nor is it a myth or scientific account of reality. The truth is revealed to us through Christ, the scriptures, the traditions of the church, and human reason – all under the direction of the Holy Spirit…Postliberal theologians typically call people to take up their cross and actually follow Jesus. They insist that faith (pistis) means much more than rational belief, but means believing allegiance and an active life of Christ followership. They would say that the church should gather around the scriptures and the traditions of the church and allow them to define our reality over and against any other story, be it Rationalism, Americanism, Capitalism, Liberalism, conservative/liberal politics, individualism, consumerism, militarism, nationalism, etc. It essentially contends that Jesus is Lord – there is no other Lord, not even doctrines or science.”[v]
Stories, or narratives, are the way we relate ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves. We tell our story and invite others to hear and connect to it and usually, we listen to their stories and find a connection to them. For those of us who share comparable stories this is a fairly easy enterprise and for those with some degree of difference, it may become more difficult. Story, however, is our means of communication with one another, our revelation to the community of people we share our lives with. One theologian writes,
“It is increasingly clear from neurobiology that meaning-making is central to our day-to-day experience, and that we will go to great lengths to construct stories that provide a context for understanding and interpreting what we perceive to be true… Apparently, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human family, when compared with other inhabitants of the earth, is this capacity for and drive toward making sense, storied sense, of our experienced world.”[vi]
I believe this points to the idea that we need story to make sense of the world around us and without it, the world is somewhat confusing. For the Christian, the narrative content or story of our faith is the grammar or the language that we use to tell others about our faith experience.[vii] That said, it is important for us to ask, what stories do we tell? How do we put together our ideas about the past and future to understand the present? What stories from our faith experience as well as our experience outside the faith community shape our perspectives? What stories are we teaching those around us, especially the next generations that they will use to define their own worldview?
“Clearly, “truth claims,” however necessary, are insufficient for vital Christian faith, since these “beliefs,” these “statements,” are quite capable of functioning as raw data in a narrative whose beginning, middle, and end are antithetical to the biblical story.”[viii]
The crux of it is this, for those who practice narrative theology, the story we find in biblical literature and the traditions and stories of the Church are the way we make sense of the world as an alternate narrative to that of the world around us. This storytelling is the means by which we make sense of life and see lives transformed. The goal is to look at the redemption story of the entirety of scripture and find our way of life and being in that story.[ix]
I believe the best way to approach a narrative reading of scripture is to look at the individual story then place it within the ‘book’ of the bible it is found in and then in light of the greater work of the bible. In this, there is one overarching question we have to ask ourselves, “If I listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit as I read these words and understand this story, how does it lead me to be a more mature and active follower of Jesus?
The story in John chapter five is a story that takes place in Jerusalem. The story is about a man who has been sick for thirty-eight years, a man who is hoping for a miracle. He comes to the pool at Bethsaida along the north city wall where the lame, blind, sick, and paralyzed come to and wait for the Spirit of God to move on the waters of the pool and heal those who can get into the pool. The man, unfortunately, cannot get into the pool by himself because of his illness and is forced to watch as others go in ahead of him and are healed. Jesus comes along and sees the situation and asks the man if he wants to be healed to which the man replies yes, of course, I do but I can’t get into the pool in time. Jesus looks at the man and tells him to get up and walk and the man feels his body being healed, he listens to Jesus and believes him, and walks away.
At this point in the story, what we see is a simple miracle story. A man who cannot walk seeks to be healed and cannot by the means provided to him. Jesus comes into his life and he receives healing and begins to walk as a new man with a new life. At this point, he doesn’t even know Jesus name because Jesus had slipped away in the crowd of gawkers who were watching but the more important part of the story is that a man who was physically broken is now healed of his brokenness.
The story from there goes to a confrontation, first between the healed man and the Jewish leaders, then between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. The issue at stake here is lawful behavior on the Sabbath. The man was found walking with his mat and carrying something like that on the Sabbath was work according to the strict interpretation of the Jewish leaders, violating the Sabbath. Eventually, they find out that Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath and then at the end of the story call himself God by saying, “My Father is still working and I am working too.” The claim of God as father had connotations of making one seem like part of the family of the gods in ancient culture and therefore, in the eyes of the Jewish leaders, Jesus was claiming to a god.
This creates a conflict in the story and forces some questions: who is the Sabbath for? What is it for? Who is God and what does it mean to be God? If we back out further into the entire chapter we see the writer of John making assertions about Jesus being the Messiah, the anointed one but also assertions about Jesus being like God. Backing out further into the gospel of John we see that Jesus performs such miracles and makes such claims throughout the ministry portion of the gospel (John 2-12) and again in the Last Supper/crucifixion/resurrection part of the narrative. In this context, the writer of John claims that Jesus becomes Messiah by virtue of God works through him (healing, miracles, etc.) and God’s work with him (crucifixion and resurrection).
If we take it one step further and place this in the overall story of the Bible itself, we have a micro-redemption story in the life of the healed man that mirrors the redemption story of God’s people throughout the whole of scripture. Here was a man who was physically and emotionally broken, unable to redeem himself by his own means who was miraculously delivered by God through one sent from God. Throughout the story of Jewish scripture, God redeemed his people over and again through patriarchs, prophets, and kings and not always the good ones. In this story, we see Jesus as redeemer revealing God to one who is without hope and in need of deliverance.
Truly a story we would all like to live into and hopefully share with the world around us.
Adiprasetya, J. (2005). Lindbeck, George. Retrieved Oct 11, 2017, from The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/mwt_themes_862_lindbeck.htm
Dorrien, G. J. (2001, Jul 18). Truth Claims: The Future of Postliberal Theology. The Christian Century, 118(21), 22-29.
Downey, M. E. (2012). A perspective on narrative theology: its purpose, particularity, and centrality. Theoforum, 43(3), 291-307.
Green, J. B., & Pasquerello III, M. (2003). Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching: Reuniting New Testament Interpretation and Proclamation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Gustafson, J. M. (1999, Mar 24). Just what is ‘postliberal’ theology? The Christian Century, 116(10), 353-355.
Hauerwas, S., & Willimon, W. H. (1989). Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Lindbeck, G. (1984). The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Marshall, B. D. (Ed.). (1990). Theology and Dialogue: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press.
Placher, W. C. (1985, Jul 1). Revisionist and Postliberal Theologies and the Public Character of Theology. Thomist : a Speculative Quarterly Review, 49(3), 392-416.
Placher, W. C. (1987, Oct). Paul Ricoeur and postliberal theology: a conflict of interpretations. Modern Theology, 4(1), 35-52.
Richter, S. L. (2008). The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press.
Suttle, T. (2011, May 5). Paperback Theology – Postliberal Theology for Dummies (like me). Retrieved Oct 11, 2017, from Patheos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2011/05/postliberal-theology-for-dummies-like-me.html
[ii] (Dorrien, 2001, p. 22)
[iv] (Richter, 2008, p. 15)
[v] (Suttle, 2011)
[vi] (Green & Pasquerello III, 2003, p. 4)
[vii] (Green & Pasquerello III, 2003, p. 3)
[viii] (Green & Pasquerello III, 2003, p. 6)
[ix] (Green & Pasquerello III, 2003, p. 6)