Among many Christian scholars, authors, and leaders these days, there is much talk of taking a "narrative" approach to ideas. What does it mean to talk about "narrative theology" or "narrative ethics"? I can't tell you what it means for a theologian or high-profile author, because most of the time, I don't understand their explanations. (I've read a lot of them...still don't quite get it.) But I can tell you what it means for me.
Taking a narrative approach means paying attention to stories, and looking for wisdom, insight, and inspiration in stories. We all tell stories about our lives. Memoirists do the same thing that we all do when we're telling someone about our life, even if big-name authors do so for a larger audience and perhaps a more finessed use of language: We all take the events of our life and weave them into a narrative that has tension, revelation, momentum, and meaning. We emphasize particular experiences as formative or life-changing. Think how boring memoirs (and many of our conversations!) would be if we didn't create stories or narratives like this, if we simply made chronological lists of everything we've done from the day we were born, without focusing on key people and key moments (good or bad) in our lives.
The Bible, of course, is one big story (the story of God in relationship with God's people, always working toward redemption and reconciliation) full of thousands of smaller stories. How we hear, understand, and re-tell those stories provides a window into our personalities, struggles, gifts, and passions.
When the members of St. James's vestry met with Bishop Curry after yesterday's service, he asked each of us to name a favorite story about Jesus, and why it's a favorite. What a wonderful diversity of stories we talked about, and what a vivid picture those stories told about who we are and who we hope to become, individually and together. I was struck by the fact that, in a room full of 20 people, there were 20 different ways of interacting with Biblical stories. We've all read and heard the same stories, and there were common threads in what we each got from our favorite story. Nevertheless, there is no single, absolute way to read, interpret, and internalize a story.
That fact—the unlimited diversity of ways to interact with stories—makes a narrative approach to theology or ethics or anything else tricky. Such an approach requires open-minded listening—something many of us are not so good at. It requires respectful conversation. It requires accepting complexity, nuance, and paradox. Sometimes, we avoid all that hard stuff by oversimplifying stories—our own and others' and those in the Bible. We insist that it's so obvious that a certain Biblical story means we should take a particular stance on a social or political issue. We insist that this person's story clearly shows that X is the right way to be or do, while someone else insists that that person's story clearly shows that Y is the right way to be or do.
In an article I wrote last year for the Christian Century magazine, which was about the stories we tell as individuals and as a culture about illness and disability, I wrote this about Biblical stories:
Christian scriptures are a treasure trove of messy, complicated human stories. We should know better than to cheapen our own stories by recasting them as morality tales, with radiant shafts of light revealing good and bad, right and wrong, hero and villain. In the Bible, the heroes are flawed and the good guys don’t always win. Even stories in which there is a clear message for how to live in the world and with each other are full of complexities and contradictions. We rejoice at the father’s ecstatic embrace of the Prodigal Son—and we feel a little miffed on behalf of the responsible other son. We are in awe of the creator God’s rebuke of Job—and we think that Job had good reason to complain to God (and suspect we would do the same thing). We understand why Jesus said that Mary was doing the better thing—and we wish she and Jesus had just gotten up and helped Martha with the meal. Our scripture also reminds us that we see as in a mirror, dimly. Any story that fails to acknowledge that dimness, that murkiness, is a story I have difficulty trusting. True stories, like biblical stories, are multifaceted. This complexity is inherent in a narrative approach and is what makes the narrative approach so useful. Although naming and accepting the tensions, messiness and complexity of stories is difficult, this type of storytelling leads to compassion, wisdom and ultimately conversion—the choice to risk a new way of seeing the world, ourselves and others and new ways of living in the world and with each other. Stories help us seek a better way while understanding that there is rarely anything so clear as the best way.
What is one of your favorite stories about Jesus? Why?
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.