Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Interview & Vid Links: Stanley Hauerwas, "Cross-Shattered Christ"

“This is, moreover, as Pilate insisted, the King of the Jews. That kingship is not delayed by crucifixion; rahter, crucifixion is the way this king rules. Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Jesus on the cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here aborn, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Jesus.”
- Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, Stanley Hauerwas, p. 85

'Why Have You Forsaken Me?'

Interview by Laura Sheahen
Senior Religion Editor at Beliefnet.com
March 2005

Stanley Hauerwas on atonement theology, Mel Gibson's 'Passion,'
and the 'chilling' meaning of Christ's last words

Known for afflicting the comfortable, Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas "has been a thorn in the side of what he takes to be Christian complacency for more than 30 years," according to his fellow theologian Jean Bethke Elshtain. Whether condemning abortion or the war in Iraq, his views challenge believers to see Jesus' message as a radical one. Hauerwas spoke with Beliefnet about his most recent book, "A Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words."

* * * * * * * * * *

In this small but powerful book, renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas offers a moving reflection on Jesus's final words from the cross. Touching in original and surprising ways on subjects such as praying the Psalms and our need to be remembered by Jesus, Hauerwas emphasizes Christ's humanity as well as the sheer "differentness" of God. Ideal for personal devotion during Lent and throughout the church year, this book offers a transformative reading of Jesus's words that goes directly to the heart of the gospel. Now in paperback. - Amazon.com

* * * * * * * * * *

You say in beginning of "A Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words" that you don't want to explain Jesus' seven last words. Are you unsatisfied with past explanations?

Yes. There's an inclination to get on the inside of Jesus' psyche, and I think that's a deep mistake because it assumes that what you have here is someone analogous to us. Of course it is analogous to us-he's fully human-but it oftentimes fails to take into account that this is the Son of God. I tried to exegete the seven last words in a way that does justice to their mystery.

You seem to critique the narcissism of today's Christians, saying "sentimentality is the urge to make the gospel conform to our needs, to make Jesus our 'personal' savior." This seems to echo what happened after the movie 'The Passion.' A lot of people were repeating the well-known profession, "Jesus died for me"-but with quite an emphasis on the 'me.'

That Protestant evangelicals would leave Gibson's movie and say "gee, I didn't know he had to suffer so much for my sins"-quite frankly, that's to make yourself more important than you are. It also underwrites satisfaction theories of the atonement, which fail to do justice to the fact that this is the second person of the Trinity who is suffering.

When you say, "someone had to suffer to reconcile me with an angry Father," you forget: it's not an angry Father who has given the Son to receive our violence. The problem with saying "I didn't know he had to suffer that much for my sins" is it fails to do justice to the Trinitarian character of the Christian faith. What is happening in the cross is a cosmic struggle.

Your book says, "any account that suggests God has to satisfy an abstract theory of justice by sacrificing his Son is clearly wrong."

The problem with those kinds of typologies is they separate the person from the work of Christ. They concentrate on the cross, separate from the life. I think it's a deep mistake. It's one of the problems with Mel Gibson's film.

What did you think of the film?

[It was] an extended exercise in showing how much punishment a human body could take. It didn't help us understand why that punishment was correlative with the kind of life Jesus led. It becomes a kind of sadism that it's not wise to be exposed to.

Can't evangelicals still make an argument that we should think of Jesus as our personal savior, and think of the gospel in terms of how it affects individual people?

I really don't like the word 'personal.' It makes it sound like I have a relationship with Jesus that is unmediated by the church. They have the idea that "I have a personal relationship with Jesus that I go to church to have expressed." But the heart of the gospel is that you don't know Jesus without the witness of the church. It's always mediated.

You quote Bonhoeffer and say Jesus' death and resurrection are not the solution to the problem of death. Many people take it as such.

It's a deep mistake, a pietistic reading of the cross. The idea is that Jesus overcame death through the resurrection. What that does is fail to appreciate the fact that the resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ. It's not like, "Oh, that was just a mistake, now it's over." Jesus continues to suffer from our sins.

I think the assumption is that we all now no longer need to fear death. We no longer need to fear the death that sin perpetrates, but that doesn't mean we're not going to die.

I think some people take the words "Jesus overcame death" to mean they don't have to be afraid of death, as you said.

Well, they certainly have to be afraid of the judgment of God. And that judgment is going to be more frightening than death itself.

Than non-existence would be.


You also say Jesus' death is not that of a martyr.

A martyr can never cooperate with death, go to death in a way that they're not trying to escape. Jesus obeyed the Father's will to submit himself to the powers and the powers' ability to dominate our lives because of our fear of death. It's important that that kind of struggle be understood as at the very heart of the cross.

One of the most challenging chapters was the one on the words "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" You say the words "shatter our attempts to understand God in human terms."

It shows that Christ does experience the darkness of being completely alienated from the Father.

So one person of the Trinity could feel completely alienated from the other?

Yes. And that means there is a time when we cannot approach God through Christ, because Christ was completely abandoned. That is a chilling, chilling notion: that there is a time when we cannot reach God through Christ. I think that's what that means.

You say it reveals that "our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make everything turn out all right for us, at least in the long run," is idolatry.

It's idolatry to think that to be a Christian means this is all going to work out well for me. That's not what God is in the business of being God for. The idea that Jesus' whole project was to make sure my life would be OK is a far too narcissistic account of the crucifixion.

It also touches on the age-old theodicy question: Do you believe God is simultaneously all-powerful and all-good?

I believe that whatever it means for God to be all-powerful and all-good "names" the fact that God could not be other than the Father to the Son, who submits himself entirely to sin. You never start with an abstract notion of omnipotence or all-powerful in a way that those words become self-defining separate from Christology.

So we have to accept God first, and not certain words in the language?

That's right. That was what Karl Barth well understood.

You say we try to explain the "why have you forsaken me?" phrase to "protect God from making a fool out of God." Why do we have such a problem with these words?

Because we want God not to be the God we find in Christ. We want God to be the great all-powerful daddy, who makes sure our lives will not have to be lives of suffering. It's an idolatrous position.

So we shouldn't expect God to do anything about our suffering?

We know God has done something about our suffering-it's called the cross. It gives us the resources to have even our suffering be a service to God and God's kingdom.

Stanley Hauerwas On His Evangelical Audience

Considering that Evangelicals have produced some of the realities that Dr. Hauerwas has spent a career resisting (pietism, 'personal relationships with Jesus,' church growth, etc.), he discusses his Evangelical audience with Wunderkammer Magazine..

Nadia Bolz-Weber, "Why I'm Lutheran" (or, "The God who Loves Flawed People Like Me")

"God's grace is freely given - we don't earn it,
we just try to live in response to it."

"God's always coming to us in a series
of death-and-resurrection encounters...
we don't make our way to God,
He makes His way to us."

Wednesday Night Dome Speaker - Nadia Bolz-Weber
The ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, July 2012

Published on Jul 20, 2012 by
"Nadia Bolz-Weber has probably done more than any other pastor in recent times to poke therapeutic fun at the misdemeanors and flaws of overly-churched Christianity and Christians. The passion behind her words, however, is as deeply pastoral as it is God-drenched and liberating....thus the affection as well as the respect that attend her and her work wherever she goes."
- Phylis Tickle author of "The Great Emergence"
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado. She's a leading voice in the emerging church movement and her writing can be found in the Lutheran magazine The Christian Century, Jim Wallis' God's Politics blog, and Patheos.com. She is author of "Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television" (Seabury 2008) and blogs at the Sarcastic Lutheran blog as well as at her own blog, nadiabolzweber.com. Nadia lives in Denver with her family of four where she can be found writing bios in the third person and chasing chickens around the backyard with her kids.
* * * * * * * * *
"We are all simultaneously sinner and saint all the time. We have an
enormous capacity for destruction of ourselves and of other people.
But we have an enormous capacity for kindness too."
"Lutherans were the first people in my life to give
me language  for what I had experienced to be true."
"When visiting Lutheran churches I had to culturally commute from what
I was to what the church was so that over a period of years I felt a call
to pastor people just like me and started 'The House for All Sinners and Saints.'
Now we have a variety of people from all walks of society and it is
Christ that binds us together."
"We are flawed people who are loved in all of our flaws by a God who loves flawed people just like me. Who uses imperfect people. And manifested Himself to flawed people. Who ate with all the wrong people. Spoke with all the wrong people. Who did not condemn flawed people but choose to love flawed people. This God never made sense and we don't need to either. Because this God will use us in all of our brokenness. In all of our failures. In all of our feelings. Because God's strength is perfected in our weaknesses. Our brokenness is God's fertile ground to make something new and beautiful!"
April 23, 2011

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mawadda International Aid

The Mawaada International Aid Worldwide

Mawadda international aid is an international humanitarian organization committed to end world suffering, we work in extremely difficult locations to improve the quality of life of people suffering due to armed conflicts, disasters and poverty zones through developing education, local skills and available technologies.We are focused on war zones, newly formed governmental situations in middle east and north Africa and internationally where needed.
Middle East and Africa: Due to the civil unrest and official repression related to the Arab Spring many Arab nations are subjected to crimes and disasters, Mawadda international aid’s main goal right now is to respond to the urgent and immediate needs in North Africa and the Middle East as well as the African region as a whole initially Libya and to supply medical and other essential aids to help the Libyan people survive from massacres and crimes committed against them.With violent unrest arising in Libya, thousands are leaving the country looking for security and stability. The Libyan- Tunisian borders and Libyan- Egyptian borders are flooded with people, desperate to get out of the country. Without sufficient food, water, housing and other necessary resources, the situation could be impossible for many civilians to survive.

Activities On Behalf Of People Affected By War

We are dedicated to respond swiftly and proficiently to humanitarian needs of individuals by providing vital support such as water, food shelter and medical aid whenever a disaster strikes due to armed conflicts, hostilities environments, natural catastrophes or any disastrous situation deemed to require immediate relief. We exert all our efforts to bring hope and solidarity to Oppressed communities, standing side by side to end poverty and injustice.Mawadda International Aid is known as an efficient charity for its capability to deploy speedily into many situations around the world. Our main goal is to support North African countries and follow the situation from our UK head quarters, Tripoli-Libya base and international offices.We are working to raise the standards of humanitarian aid and ensure that the funds raised are spent effectively to finance humanitarian relief and are headed to the right destinations in the aim of delivering effective and timely relief to people most in need and providing equal access to essentials such as clean water, education and healthcare.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

R.E. Slater - Expressing Love (poem)

The quiet beauty of black-lit roses

Expressing Love
by R.E. Slater

From the fullness of the Father,
From the heart of the Son,
From the help of the Spirit,
Comes Love without end.
From the lips of broken hearts,
From the sufferings of torn lives,
From the tears of sin-stained souls,
Comes Love without end.
From the joys each day begets,
From the quiet support of friends,
From the many gifts of grace,
Comes Love without end.
Each day is a new beginning,
Each past a future promise,
Each yesterday my tomorrow,
To Love without end.

R.E. Slater
July 26, 2012

@copyright R.E. Slater Publications
all rights reserved


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Unnecessary Division between Narrative and Literary Theology

The word theology comes from two Greek words: “theos”, meaning “God”, and “logos”, meaning “word”. So theology is "Words about God." When we put to words what we believe about God, we discover that God has been writing a story of hope and redemption for all the world. This story is a movement from creation to new creation, and God has given us a role to play in that story, in the restoration of our relationships with God, each other, ourselves, and creation. Since story is central to our belief about God, our words about God—our theology—exists in the form of a narrative.
- Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, http://marshill.org/believe/

The Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, is running an article on Narrative Theology as an Evangelical response against its popular usage when retelling the stories of the Bible from an emergent, contemporary theology focused on telling God's story, and the story of man, in as clear a manner as possible. When compared to the plethora of divisive systematic doctrines held by any number of Christian traditions, churches, denominations and associations, each fearing loss of their distinctive brand of dogmas, one cannot help but wonder why this synthesization of Christianity and the usage of narrative theology wasn't employed many years earlier.

Upon review I found CT's article unnecessarily nit-picky but in all fairness wanted to include it into our blog so that we might have an appreciation for some of the criticisms Narrative Theology bears by those unfavorably set against it. The main thrust of the article is to recast Narrative Theology as a sub-category of a larger categorical description called Literary Theology. But when done simply dodges the central point by purposely misunderstanding the category of Narrative Theology itself as Field's immediately did in her pithy observation:

"God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law,
exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers."

Now this is all well-and-good as a safe evangelical statement but a narrative theologian will include these genre classifications as part of the description of Narrative Theology. Meaning, that narratives are more than just stories, but stories that will include all forms of communication between people and events in the Bible (as noted above) just as they do today. So to not observe those distinctions is not the intent of Narrative Theology but rather to include these genres as an overall part of narrative story telling. Hence, I find Leslie Field's observations unfairly critical to her imposed imagination and fears of Narrative Theology.

In fact, the art of speech itself must use all of the above qualities and even more, should it desire to communicate the various ideas and expressions humans wish to present to one another. We are not machines speaking in binary code to one another, but emotional human beings using the full range of ourselves to express ideas to one another whether it is through music, poetry, silence, physical motion, the arts, and so forth. Narrative Theology taps into the polyphonic uniqueness of diverse and multicultural societies to derive meaning from literary ambiguity and metaphorical expressions to create clearer (amazingly!) communication and understanding between such diverse populations regionally, nationally and globally. This is Narrative Theology's strength. It is not intended as a mathematical expression of language and ideological restatement between communities and people, as was predominantly expressed in the later 19th and 20th Enlightened and Modernistic societies of Western Civilization. But nor does Narrative Theology ignore the many genres of mankind. Rather it utilizes it to the full and insists upon its recognition and employment. Which is why I find Field's observation to be unfairly critical and simply an expression of Evangelical theology's religious concerns and fears.

Consequently, I do not see the need to re-specify an inclusive narrative story into its literary parts (much like a grammarian would unnecessarily parse a sentence into grammatical diagrams when speaking conversationally). No, there is a time and place for this sort of narrative de-construction. However, generally a narrative theologian will include all parts of that story's genre when wishing to avoid de-limiting the biblical story unnecessarily by under-describing it. In other instances that theologian may forego those efforts by incorporating all literary elements into the narrative storyline without distinction. It depends upon the focus and the intent of discussion. For myself, I've seen it used both ways, and by the same person (the infamous Rob Bell), and done successfully. For example, if we're reading through the Psalms of David it is not uncommon to hear exhortation in one set of stanzas, prayers in another section, and perhaps a quotation of the law or a proverb in yet a third. Is it necessary for the theologian to stop to describe each classification of genre or may s/he bind all together into a story form that can speak of each and still carry the larger meaning forward? I think we can.

Which then gets around Leslie Field's complaints about Narrative Theology and more about her refusal to adopt the Emergent Christian practice of postmodernistic communication in contemporary theology than it does about the usage of narrative itself. A criticism which we've noted time-and-again by Evangelical Theology as a major sub-branch of Christianity wishing to exclude any other competing theological schools-of-thought from questioning its ascendancy and dominant brand of biblical interpretation. However, those "other" non-evangelic schools of thought are beginning to compete quite effectively with that of Evangelicalism's more traditional schools of dogma as Leslie Fields has noted in her many references. Which is not something an evangelic would like to admit to, and yet, if they are honest, would find these newer fields of study and interpretation helpful and revolutionary to Evangelical doctrine as it sits right now. Especially if it would help the Christian message be better heard and understood.

Consequently, I noted criticism thrown at Rob Bell and Brian McLaren along with a few other Emergents so that Narrative Theology is placed into a negative light rather than the helpful light that it presents itself as to those of us searching for a biblical wholism unreduced by the statism of revered systematic doctrines of yesteryear. The Christian message has become lost in a wilderness of its own making that many postmodern, narrative theologians now seek to reclaim by narrating the major themes of the Bible for general public consumption. Rather than quoting chapter-and-verse in modernistic reductionisms the Emergent Christian movement focuses on describing God's revelation to the world through the telling of stories using main character development, plot lines, protagonists, conflict, and resolution. As such, many of the older dogmatic views of the church become lost by this methodology to the irritation of the old-guard. But, I think, if done well, actually will present a much broader, more interesting response to God's revelation that has conversely become lost in the many conflicting words and dogmatic statements being preached from today's Evangelical pulpits.

And so, please read Leslie's well-written article below. But bear in mind that she has an end purpose in view. And that purpose seems to me to hold on to the past and not releasing us unto the future beauty-and-promise of today's postmodernistic, Emergent theologies. Theologies which seek to earnestly reach out to today's societies searching for God but having become too easily entangled in the dogmatic and doctrinal baggage of the past imperiling the message of the Gospel for today's audiences. Emergents, however, are learning to speak this message better (and I submit, more biblically!) by re-reading the Scripture's tone and import. Something Jesus did quite well in His day. And something that caused the religious theologians of His day consternation and anxiety to the point of cruelly misjudging the early Christians as godless unbelievers because they followed Jesus' teachings and not their own private misinterpretations. Let us not repeat their grievous mistake. Let us be better hearers of the Word, and better followers of God, by joining together in a unified front allowing for the rapidly expanding multipluralism within the Church, and the conscious latency of multivocality found within the many passages of the Bible's narratives.

Truly, Narrative Theology does then indeed represent the "plurivocal, polyphonic, multilinear anthologies of so magnificent and irreducible a book" we call the Bible. A book that wishes to reveal God and His gracious revelation to mankind. And it is with solidarity that all narrative theologians would stand with Leslie Field in her apprisal that we no less diminish the Word of God by speaking of it simplistically when saying to her that we no longer wish to restrict it either by reducing it into systematized statements (described below as "the traditional formulations of the Christian faith: apologetics, doctrine, systematic theology, propositional truths.")  But together encourage the utilization of Narrative Theology along with Biblical Theology in its many forms to effectively create a balanced apology for the dissemination of the fullness of God's revelation coursing through the fluidity of humanity's grander story. This is the hope of a true, Emergent, postmodernistic, Christianity.

R.E. Slater
July 24, 2012

The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony

The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony

Story is all the rage. Everyone pants to tell their personal narrative
or to give the Bible a simpler and more relevant plot.
Maybe all this isn't such a good idea.

Leslie Leyland Fields
posted 7/16/2012 12:00AM

I am halfway through a new version of the Bible, a much-hyped story version that's streamlined to highlight the overall plot: God's story of redemption. I'm so busy trying to follow the narrative, I hardly miss the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and all the non-narrative books that have been largely excised.

But as a university teacher of narrative, I find the plot too slow and convoluted.

I'm disappointed until I remember: Oh yes! There are already novelized versions! Many of their narratives are better!

Just 18 years ago, Robert Weathers noted that most evangelicals were "baffled" by the growing literary interest in the Bible. The bafflement is over. Journals are abuzz with narrative theology. Church mission statements are increasingly presented as "narratives."

In the past ten years, especially in the past five, dozens of authors have called for readers to see the Scriptures as narrative and particularly to read the Bible as a single story. Their books include The Story, The Heart of the Story, The Bible in Brief: The Story from Adam to Armageddon, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, and many others. A growing number of pastors and theologians attack doctrinal and propositional readings of Scripture. Derek Flood, in his 2011 Huffington Post article "Why Faith Is a Story, Not Doctrine," sums up for many the new slant on Christianity: "Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God's grace become our story and shape our lives."

How have we traveled so far and so fast into narrative, from bafflement to bestsellers, to urgent call, and to replacing doctrine? What's behind the sudden and unprecedented swoon into narrative? And, most important: Will the church survive it?

A Baptized Imagination

I will not retract my enthusiasm for narrative entirely. It is about time that Christians value "Once upon a time …." For generations, many Christians viewed story and its various forms—fairy tale, novel, myth, legend—as contrivance at best, products of the fallen imagination at worst. In our recent past, Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton among others have rescued the church from its suspicion of "pagan" stories. They have dissolved the great divide between sacred and secular narratives. All our human stories of heroes, monsters, journeys, and sacrifice give voice to our universal quest for identity, purpose, and deliverance. Instead of competing with God's story, these stories gesture toward it. Writer Frederick Buechner presents the gospel story itself as fairy tale, comedy, tragedy, as "a tale that is too good not to be true." Or, in Lewis's words, "In the story of Christ … all the other stories have somehow come true."

We are story creatures who live in a God-made "story-shaped world" that itself began with the words, "In the beginning." Thus, writing narrative—and reading it—is an act of faith that places us in time and space, locating us in a chronology that suggests by its very order both the cause and meaning of our lives. Narrative affirms that the felt randomness of our lives is not the final word. Instead, beneath and among it all is a coherence, a unity, a "mattering."

I've watched people write stories from their lives where they discover patterns and designs and meanings they had not seen in living them. "Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home," writes Scott Russell Sanders in his essay "The Most Human Art." We in the church have done this for generations: We stand and give our testimonies, narratives of God's presence in our lives. And in the telling, we are safely placed within God's and our own story.

But the evangelical church's discovery of narrative has a more direct and immediate source: our narrative age. Our culture is saturated with "the power of story." The phrase and approach have penetrated nearly every discipline and discourse, from architecture to zoology. In the book The Triumph of Narrative, journalist Robert Fulford says storytelling stands at the very heart of civilized life. Narrative, he says, is how we explain, teach, and entertain ourselves (and often how we do all three at once). Story has unquestionably become the dominant means of understanding our world, ourselves, and each other. When neighbors and strangers meet today, they often ask not, "What do you do?" but "What is your story?"

And why not? In the broadest terms, narrative—specifically personal narrative, "this-is-my-story" that is its prime expression—restores the value of the personal in the face of impersonal science and technology, as well as the gods of our age, which privilege reason and fact over the personal and experiential. Narrative is quintessentially democratic. It insists that everyone has a story and that all are valued.

Who will Narrate the World?

Yet the rise of narrative in our culture and our churches, for all its good, has a dark understory.

At the risk of oversimplifying what is both familiar and hopelessly complex, here's a thumbnail: Our culture's love affair with story corresponds to its dismissal of the One Story. Western society has rejected both the God of the Scriptures and his master narrative. In the absence of a universal storyline, we must make one up. No, we must make many up, because no single story can contain all that is real and true for all people, or so it's believed. Language and narrative now are used not to discover meaning imbedded in creation by an omnipotent Creator. Instead, they are used to create personal and subjective meanings in the face of non-meaning.

The church, then, is faced with a plethora of narratives that oppose and compete with God's story. Which story or stories will believers choose and follow? Too many believers are choosing the wrong one, say theologians Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Goheen, and Edith Humphrey, among others. Christians are increasingly accommodating the culture's counterstories, its plots of consumerism, idolatry, and self-fulfillment. And they're doing it largely because they don't know God's master story.

Hauerwas recalls asking a classroom of theology students, most of whom had grown up in the church, "What is the story of the Bible?" He was met by blank stares. Goheen, professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University, found his students could neither relate the story of the Bible nor explain why it was important. Goheen has become one of the most vocal and urgent advocates of "reading the Bible as One Story." Robert Webber, a pioneer in narrative, continued his wake-up call to the church with the book Who Gets to Narrate the World?: Contending for the Christian Story in a Age of Rivals.

Apologists have issued the same warning. Lesslie Newbigin, one of the most prominent missiologists of the 20th century, argued that Christians cannot effectively speak the gospel to our culture without "a sense of the Scriptures as a canonical whole, as the story which provides the true context for our understanding of the meaning of our lives."

These are serious charges, yet they ring true. How have believers failed to grasp and articulate the overarching story of Scripture, God's redemptive plan from Eden to the New Jerusalem? Some throw stones at the Sunday school movement, which teaches kids the Bible piecemeal, rarely attempting to contextualize baby Moses in the Nile, brave Daniel in the lions' den, and the annual parade of other fragmented and fatigued Bible characters into the whole gospel story. Others blame a catechetical and moralistic approach, which turns real characters and stories into abstract, lifeless doctrine or ethical "lessons."

These practices are part of a deeper tension identified in Hans Frei's groundbreaking book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in 18th and 19th Century Hermeneutics (1980), generally considered to signal the narrative turn in theology. Frei argues that our willingness to read texts out of context goes back to the Enlightenment and Newtonian science, which sought knowledge by breaking everything into its smallest pieces. The historical-critical method, the grammatical method, higher criticism, and systematic theology became the dominant means of interpreting Scripture. All of these methods intellectualized and subdivided the texts, and located their meaning outside the text. Frei contends that any interpretation of the Scriptures that discounts the realistic, historical narrative will result in distortion.

Since Frei's book, others, such as literary scholars Leland Ryken and Robert Alter, have awakened us to the significance and artistry of the biblical narratives as well as the other genres present. One of the exciting gains of narrative theology is its potential to heal the divide between doctrine and application—how we actually live our lives. Critics of the doctrinal approach to Christianity charge it with cultural irrelevance and a disembodied intellectualism, and embrace the return to biblical narratives of flawed blood-and-flesh men and women like us. As we identify with their stories, reading them holistically with our minds, hearts, and spirits, we are encouraged to live out God's story in our own.

Many theologians have celebrated this turn. The Promise of Narrative Theology was not only a book but also a phrase spoken by many. Its influence upon the church can hardly be overstated. But narrative—even a larger literary approach—cannot right all ills. It's past time to identify what narrative cannot and should not do. This enterprise, still new, is already in danger. The camel that will carry us across the desert is overloaded and stumbling.

Losing the Story in Narrative

Back to my own Bible reading: I never made it through that one-story version of the Bible, despite the removal and/or abridgment of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and all those other non-story parts, such as the lists of genealogies and laws. I confess to impatience—whether with God or the editors, I am not sure. If this is Story, why is it so long and convoluted? Why is the plot so twisted?

Others, apparently, have had the same response. The two editors of this version created their own spinoffs (both using the word story in the title). Both paperbacks condense the Scripture's story yet further and rely on the authors' own stories to illustrate the Bible's stories.

I went on to read the 100 Minute Bible, written for "people who want an easy access into the central Christian story." (Shockingly, Joseph's portion, a page and a half, omits the theme of forgiveness and God's sovereignty.) I tried a novelized form of the Bible and a few other books named earlier. Some enterprising people have even condensed the Bible's story into a three-minute video. Astoundingly, in all but the most cryptic and badly written versions, I am still moved by God's audacious love for humankind. But I do not mistake much of this storytelling for God's words.

It's depressingly ironic. Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible's language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through—poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophecy.

Writing a 'Better Story'

Despite what I hope are good intentions, some of the one-story Bibles are in danger of committing the same reductionistic error mentioned above. Using Peter Leithart's metaphor, many of these story versions treat the language of Scripture as simply a "husk" that can be disposed of to access the "kernel" of meaning. Whether the kernel is a point of theology, a poetic image of God, or an event that does indeed advance the narrative, the language and figures of speech God inspired appear to be dispensable. In his brilliant book Deep Exegesis, Leithart warns that "Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency."

Somehow, in pursuit of the larger story, we've empowered ourselves to reorganize, distill, edit, and rewrite the actual Scriptures. We have failed to recognize that each of these activities not only interprets but also reduces Scripture.

In pursuit of Story, we've abridged the Bible. We've edited out the non-narrative parts. We've reworded the text. We in the church have been committing such acts of revision comfortably for some time. And for postmodern churches and pastors who are calling for a "new kind of Christianity," this is not enough. Some high-profile pastors are forming a Christianity defined purely by Story. "Story" is a near-exclusive category that rejects traditional formulations of the Christian faith: apologetics, doctrine, systematic theology, propositional truths. The Christian faith is first, last, and always a story. And we've not been telling the story right, say Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and other leaders in the emergent church. All are looking to tell a "better story" than the one they accuse evangelicals of telling.

"[T]elling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn't do, or say, or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn't a very good story," Bell complains in Love Wins. Bell defines even hell in terms of story: "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." McLaren calls the church's message "the six-line Greco-Roman narrative (Eden, Fall, condemnation, salvation, heaven, hell)," which is rooted in Plato and Aristotle rather than Jesus, he claims. Reading McLaren's three-book fable series fleshing out his new vision of the Christian life, many complain that original sin, creation-fall-redemption, the deity of Christ, God's holiness, God's sovereignty, the offense of the Cross, worship, justification, and divine inspiration of the Bible—among other elements—are nowhere to be found. The worst enemy in these stories, as in every creative writing class, is dogma, moralizing, and certainty.

McLaren's and Bell's stories end appealingly without wrath, judgment, or any unpleasant inequality, with "everyone enjoying God's good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right." This is "a better story," says Bell, not because it is more biblically accurate, but because it is "bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes."

And why wouldn't we choose the better story? In the postmodern view, stories are not fixed or absolute. They are fluid, changing shape and form with each teller, shifting in the mind of each listener. Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, writes, "What we [Christians] believe is not 'timeless.'" Theology will be "ever-changing," thus "complex understandings meant for all people, in all places, for all times, are simply not possible."

Fascinated with Ourselves

Even among evangelicals, unfortunately, we find unsettling parallels in our embrace of Story. The emphasis on understanding God's meta-narrative and placing our story within God's story has so affirmed our own stories, we've begun to displace the scriptural narratives with our own "better stories." Christianity has always had a taste for sensational testimonies. But a recent string of books from Christian publishers, all best-selling—Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back; 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life; 23 Minutes in Hell; and, a more recent addition to the new genre of children-going-to-heaven stories, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven—should give us pause. The heaven books, two of which sold more than 1.5 million in less than a year, have launched ministries and speaking careers in conservative, Bible-proclaiming churches where the authors share their "testimonies." Yet each book makes claims that conflict, often significantly, with the Bible's account of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. [Here previously reviewed - Piper's "90 Minutes in Heaven?" or Wiese's "23 Minutes in Hell?" True or Not? - res]

Nor do we require stories about God and the afterlife to be true. The Shack, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time, is a fictional narrative that doesn't claim experiential truth—"this happened to me"—but does claim to teach truth about God and the Christian life. Numerous churches and Christians have embraced William Paul Young's portrait of God as a chuckling African American woman and Jesus as a perky, flannel-clad carpenter. One Christian television interviewer gushed to the author, "God has used you to shatter the preconceptions a lot of us have about God." [The Shack is a personal favorite of mine! - res]

Many of our "preconceptions," of course, are formed by God's Word itself. When pastor Todd Putney convened an enthusiastic community discussion of The Shack, it didn't go as he had hoped. "I thought that book would be a bridge to the God of the Scriptures, but it wasn't. No one wanted to go there. They preferred the story and the god of The Shack over the God of the Scriptures."

The group, A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, wisely recognized in its fifth tenet that "spirituality, made independent from God's story, is often characterized by … an overly therapeutic culture … and a narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience." As Eugene Peterson has observed, "the 'text' that seems to be most in favor on the American landscape today is the sovereign self."

As a writer and creative-writing teacher, I see a parallel movement in the halls of memoir, a genre plagued by scandals. As writers recount events from their lives, they hear the siren call to craft a "better story" than the one actually lived. Many answer the call. Some of the most egregious deceptions (he wasn't a Native American orphan but a middle-aged white guy; she wasn't raised by a gang in L.A., and so forth) are explained by a thirst for fame and fortune. But some are undoubtedly the consequence of the postmodern shrug toward truth. The text, and truth itself, is forever malleable by the supreme authorial self. Narcissism and solipsism abound in our literature. Patricia Hampl, one of the seminal contemporary writers and critics of memoir, advises writers to overcome their egocentrism. The purpose of memoir, she reminds us, is not "the fulfillment of the self, or its aggrandizing, but the deft insertion of the self into an over-whelming design." But in a time when the possibility of objective truth is a fiction, the writer-storyteller sees the self as the overwhelming design. We don't submit to a larger story because we are the larger story.

Literary Theology

Before we knew the terms "narrative theology" or "emergent church" or "postmodernism," we knew the stories and events: "In the beginning was the Word …"; "Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah …"; "A farmer went out in his field …"; "The rich man died and was there in Abraham's bosom …"; "There was a man who had two sons …"; "So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross …"; "And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth …."

We must return to these stories and events to remember not just the Bible stories, but the story that contains them all—the One Story of God's incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name. Here in its pages appear fierce and unlikely heroes, terrifying battles, pilloried prophets, resistant saints, miraculous healings, a foot-washing King, a bloodied God on a cross, a hollow tomb, the final wrath and glory judgment, and a denouement that ends more miraculously than anything we could imagine: the coming of a new city with open gates and a purified people now called sons and daughters who, needing no other light, will enter and walk by the light of the Lamb.

Not everyone will be there. It is not a safe or simple story. Yet the story is for all of us to hear and to heed. We are invited into these pages, not as editors with red pens in hand, but as supplicants seeking understanding and truth. We are invited to live into this narrative, but not to rewrite it, either to gut it of its offense or to reshape it for short attention spans and better sales.

When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures' narrative unity to resist our culture's counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story. God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers. Man lives by every word that proceeds from God's mouth. All Scripture makes us wise unto salvation. We need to say, with the apostle Paul, that "we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word" (2 Cor. 4:2, ESV).

For reasons we will likely never know, God, who could have placed in our hands any kind of book he wanted, chose to give us a plurivocal, polyphonic, multilinear anthology, a magnificently irreducible book that contains as many rhetorical forms and voices as we have temperaments and experience. God knew—of course!—that we need them all. It's time, then, to replace the term "narrative theology" with "literary theology" to include all the literary genres God chose to speak through.

Clearly, God's truths are both propositional and incarnational, both theological and experiential. Each is necessary to the other. Each interprets the other. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Mark Noll reminds us that doctrinal creeds are needed now more than ever because they "concentrate with fearsome energy on the themes that define the heart of Christianity." Doctrine can do what Bible stories alone cannot: take us beyond the time-and-place limits of human events to encompass the full scope of God's magnificent redemption.

Finally, following the concern of Edith Humphrey, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: All of us must examine ourselves, that our human love for God's story does not obscure the God of the Story, that our love for the written word does not displace our love for the Word of God himself. We can be so distracted and dazzled by narrative theology that we neglect the living, indwelling presence within and beyond the story. "We don't participate in a story," she writes, "we participate in him."

It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.

Leslie Leyland Fields has taught creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts Program, and she'll be returning to Covenant College this fall as writer-in-residence. Her memoir is titled Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America.

Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "The Gospel Is More Than a Story," a Bible study based on this article.

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