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December 2011

Current Volume 4

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“It was a dark and stormy night…” We hear these words and find ourselves intrigued. We want to know what happened on that “dark and stormy night” and so we read on and enter more fully into the story. In fact, a good story invites and entices us to enter into and become part of it. Still, one might ask just how capable are we of truly hearing a good story – let alone “the grand story” – in this fast-passed, harried, technological age where tweets tell the tale? (140 characters, really?)

Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argues that we have created our technology and now it is creating us, or at the very least it is greatly affecting the way we think. In his words: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to.  Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements” (Carr, 47). Or as Shane Hipps succinctly states; “The tools we use to think actually shape the way we think” (Hipps, Flickering Pixels, How Technology Shapes Your Faith, 45). Carr would concur and contends that “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (Carr, 116). In light of these comments, and their implications, one faces the question: Are we to conclude that the day of the story-teller is over?

Getting Back in Touch

It is important to state, before addressing this question, that this article has not been written by some radical neo-luddite. Some of the technological advancements that we are exposed to are truly amazing, and let no one deny me of my techy toys! However, technology pales in comparison to what a story can, and continues to do, for us. Stated differently, my grandfather was a big and powerful man but his stories were even bigger than he was and have had a far more powerful effect on me than any “app” on my iPad. My grandfather died many years ago but his stories continue to live on and have their impact on me. Stories do that; they live beyond the experience of when they occurred. They have the power to make us sad, angry, disappointed, and joyful. Stories can make us weep or laugh, and they can deflate or inspire us. Yes, stories must be told, and if told well they can still be heard. Eugene Peterson states it this way:

“Telling and listening to a story is the primary verbal way of accounting for life the way we live it in actual day-by-day reality. There are no (or few) abstractions in a story.  A story is immediate, concrete, plotted, relational, personal.  And so when we lose touch with our lives, with our souls—our moral, spiritual, embodied God-personal lives—story is the best verbal way of getting us back in touch again.” (Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, 42)

Can we even imagine a world without stories? What kind of world would it be like? Where would one find the poetry without the prose? Where would one find the meaning without the message of a story? How empty would this world be, and our lives, if we only communicated through gestures, statements, and commands?  Yes, one could say that even in such a world there would at least be one collective story of a people who only knew about such limited expression, but would not such a world and its collective story be a tragedy? Our world, our lives, becomes smaller and empty without stories. Fredrick Buechner would concur:

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” (Buechner, Telling  Secrets, 30)

Buechner offers an important message about life; namely, that God is actively involved in our lives and helps us to write each chapter in our story, and yes, without that understanding we are “profoundly impoverished.” He is also making an important assumption; in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “if there is a story there must be a story-teller” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 61).

The Bible as Story

The Bible supports these conclusions. The Bible is not just the law, or just an historical document or theological treatise—it is a story about the grand narrative. The Bible is the telling of the story of God and his creation, or at least the early chapters of this amazing relationship. The many stories about sin and redemption, rebellion and worship, bondage and deliverance, despair and hope, death and resurrection, inevitably reveal volumes about the author, God. 

The stories, and collectively the story that is the Bible, also introduce the characters that God allows to be part of his grand-narrative. Prophets, priests, shepherds, farmers, fisherman, outcasts, widows and warriors, treasures and thieves, the foolish and the wise, the haughty and the humble are all part of his story. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words the Bible is “…an encyclopaedia of human life on earth, with a few saints but far more scoundrels who lied and cheated their ways into the annals of sacred history” (Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, 52). Further, she concludes:

“The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.” (Brown Taylor, 52)

When we begin to understand the grand-narrative and learn that the theme of salvation is the thread that holds the whole story together, we can know God more intimately and have a deeper understanding of our lives as part of his story. Peterson states it this way:

When we submit our lives to what we read in scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s.” (Peterson, 44)

Jesus, who Serene Jones refers to as the “Word Event,” demonstrated this consistently in the way he introduced the good news of his kingdom (Jones, in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Faith, 56). Jesus told his listeners (and continues to tell us) through parable after parable that it is not our story; it is God’s story, and by his grace, we have been allowed to become a part of it.

According to Jesus, we can learn about God’s kingdom from eccentric landowners, dishonest managers, idiots who build condos on quick sand, demon-possessed do-gooders, a warm loaf of bread, a field full of weeds, and a little kid tugging at your pants legs asking you to come outside and play. The kingdom of heaven unfurled from his lips in story after story after story (James, Story: Recapture the Mystery, 83).

Followers of Christ are people of the story and as Stanley Hauerwas points out the church should be viewed as a story-formed community (Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, 71). The implications of such a position are profound. The Church is, as a story-formed community, created, sustained, and finds its meaning and purpose in God’s story, and by grace becomes a key element in the story. This “story-formed community” is called to share in the telling of the story.

Telling the Story

Christians, members of this story-formed community, should therefore be story-tellers as we tell the story that includes both the individual and a people in light of the grand narrative. The calling upon Christ followers is to tell the story that involves intrigue, adventure, guilt and grace, peace and light, a story that allows for those “dark and stormy nights” but offers the hope that “joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 NLT).

It is tragic when the Christian story is told and lived out as if it were some sort of bad sit-com (with laugh track thrown in). Instead, Christ Followers must be great story-tellers! In order for this to happen, however, we must understand the power of the story that we are called to share—a story of death and resurrection, redemption and restoration, repentance and salvation—the ultimate love story of God’s grace. In addition, we may need to learn new vocabulary and new metaphors that will, while not altering the story, allow us to share it in such a way that it will be heard in this post-Christian era. In fact it can be argued that this renewed creativity in sharing the story is also a part of the grand-narrative.

The Missio Dei, the mission of God, proclaims that as the Author and Sustainer of Life, God has, is, and always will be involved with/in his creation. Further, as the Creator of the story, he crafts his narrative with poetry and prose, with comedy and tragedy, good and evil, life and death, despair and hope. Therefore, as Steven James astutely states:

When Christianity becomes something other than entering into and living out the story of God, it becomes something other than Christianity. God’s story isn’t over; it’s still being told today. Each one of us has the potential to become both a chapter of history and his story. (James, 84)

The call is clear: tell the story and tell it well because it is a story that must be told, must be heard, must be lived…, and so, “There was once a man who had two sons and ….”

Bibliography

  • Brown Taylor, Barbara. The Preaching Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley, 1993.
  • Buechner, Fredrick. Telling Secrets. San Francisco, Ca.: Harper, 1992.
  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York, NY.: Norton, 2010.
  • Chesterton. G.K. Orthodoxy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990.
  • Hauerwas, Stanley, The Hauerwas Reader. Edited by John Berkman & Michael Cartwright. Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Hipps, Shane. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.
  • James, Steven, Story: Recapture the Mystery. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 2006.
  • Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Jones, Serene, in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. Edited by Mirsoslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2004.

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