This is the fifth post in the Questions I’m Asking Series
We have spoken plenty before about narrative so I do not wish to delve too deeply into the issue here. But for the purpose of this post, let us think of a theological narrative as the stories through which we make sense of our identity and purpose in the world; it’s how we make an account of the deep questions of purpose and meaning which come with being part of the people of God. It may help to think of these as similar to W Paul Jones’ Theological Worlds. These narratives do not encompass all of the Christian story, but they help us to get a handle on it. They become the interpretive framework through which we construct our theology, church practice, and community life.
The reason I bring this up is to say that I think that for too long we have expected Christians and converts to intuit a story without really understanding or wrestling with the questions for themselves. We have forced them to play Christian Jeopardy:
“I’ll take obstacles to following God for $400″
“Evolution is a theory you should not research or try to understand…The answer was, ‘What is the way we preserve our doctrine of inspiration and prevent science from eroding our faith?’”
Those doctrines and themes from scripture most central to us are repeated and rehearsed without context, without remembering why we value these in the first place. We remember the answers but have forgotten the questions.
I would contend that, while there are other and better formulations of these, most of our narratives can be traced back to five basic questions:
1.What needs to be transformed and why?
2. What are the obstacles to this transformation taking place?
3. Where does this process take place?
4. How does this transformation happen?
5. What is the end result or final product desired?
Let me give you some examples of ways we have constructed narratives from these:
I grew up in churches of Christ and we answered them something like this: (1) The church needs to be transformed back into the body of Christ in the world because it has fallen away from its true purpose (2) The traditions and doctrinal squabbles through our history separate us and prevent this restoration (3) This will take place on the level of the single autonomous congregation (4) A recommitment to the Bible over denominational loyalties and through serious analytic reading of said scripture (5) A reemergence of the first century church.
Now, I can’t speak for all other traditions and denominations, but here are a few more of the ways I see these being answered:
“We need more spirit-filled worship so let’s play more popular songs with more professional musicians and try to push people to really embrace the spirit’s presence. That will revitalize the church.”
“There is so much injustice in the world and it isn’t going to be solved in a church building. We should be out in the streets protesting and working for equality and social justice. Then we will really be in the Kingdom of God.”
“We live in a secularist nation that doesn’t follow God’s law. We need to vote for those who represent our faith and beliefs so that the Government will work towards a more moral and Christian nation-state.”
“We are all so isolated and need community. The small atmosphere of the organic-house churches will solve the lack of relationship and the power abuses we feel in the institution and create the kind of intimacy where we can really experience Kingdom-community.”
You see what I mean? These narratives, reductive though they may be, are the foundation of our theology, our church practices, and our community life. These stories we tell shape us. And I wonder how responsible we have been with our questions. Perhaps it is time for more dialogue, a recognition of our mistakes but also of the goodness of diversity. Is there any narrative that is appropriate for all places and all times? Are our’s appropriate for this one? Is it possible to coexist and co-labor with other Christians who have a different narrative? How do we go about determining the answers?
I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think we’re going to find them without asking the questions.
The follow up to this post is Bible and Narrative.