Tell Stories

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A couple of weeks ago, I spent my Wednesday lunch hour listening to Irish theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins–described by my friend David Dark who put together the event as “redemptively provocative”–talk to the small group assembled around the tables in a private dining room at the Vanderbilt Divinity School about his three books, How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.

ragmanThe crux of his talk can be summed up by this quote: “We are practical unbelievers and theoretical believers.” That is, we say we believe in and understand God, but more often than not we live as if there is no God in the way we treat our neighbors and the little decisions we make every day. Another point he made was that “everyone is allowed to doubt in a church, except for the pastor.” We are prone to put our trust in the pastor’s statements about God, the doctrines he is best able to defend, in place of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” and looking for echos of the holy in our everyday lives.

Later that afternoon, as Pete’s words were swirling around in my brain, challenging my assumptions and forcing me to think about what and why I believe, I was reading Walter Wangerin’s Ragman and Other Cries of Faith and came across his essay on preaching. Wangerin, whose writing I was first exposed to here in the Rabbit Room, had this to say:

“It is not insignificant that my first apprehension of the love of God was granted in an experience with my father. Nor is it generally uncommon that God is apprehended in experience. Nor, in fact, can the divine and human meeting happen any other way. God is not a God of the pulpit, though the pulpit proclaim him. He is a God in and of the histories of humankind.”

“Despite what we may think, and despite the freedoms we experience in so many areas of our culture, we remain, where religion is concerned, a people of the priest. By those singled out for the office we meet and perceive our God: the meeting is a conscious desire; the perception is an unconscious shaping; the consequence, except the priest be careful, is the contraction of God and then God’s abstraction from the whole of life… Therefore, the shape of preaching most shapes our God. And what is the shape of so much preaching today? Why, it is the shape of the classroom: teaching. And teaching is always (in our consideration) one step removed from experience and from the “real.” It is an activity of the mind. It prepares for what will be; or it interprets what has been; it is separated from both. The God who is met in doctrines, who is apprehended in the catechesis, who is true so long as our statements about him are truly stated, who is communicated in propositions, premise-premise-conclusion, who leaps not from the streets, nor even from scriptural texts, but from the interpretation of the scriptural texts – that God is an abstract, has been abstracted from the rest of the Christian experience.”

“[W]hat, for heaven’s sake, is the incarnation, if it doesn’t announce God’s personal immersion in the events, the bloody events, the insignificant and humble common events, the physical and social and painful and peaceful and daily and epochal events of the lives of the people? In their experience? And isn’t the coming of the Holy Spirit the setting free of that immersion, so that it be not restricted to any sole place, time, or people, but breathes through all experience and temples in every faithful breast?

Of course. Of course. It is not hard to argue the immanence of God. Why, it is one of our doctrines.

One of our doctrines. There’s the sticking point. So long as it remains a doctrine alone, a truth to be taught, immanence itself continues an abstraction – and is not immanent. God abides not only in the church, but in the books in the church, and in the minds that explain the books, and in the intellect.

What then, Priests? Preachers, what shall we do that the people’s perception of God not be so much less than God himself?

Make something more of our preaching. Allow the preaching itself a human – and then a divine – wholeness: that the whole of the preacher be presently active in proclamation, the whole of the hearer invited to attend, and God will be seen as God of the Whole.

Or, to rush the point: tell stories.”

So, as Frederick Buechner cautions us under the entry “Stories” in Whistling in the Dark:

“If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up.

It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is not present in those stories, then you might as well give up the whole business.”


20 Comments

  1. Andrew C

    Thanks for this, Stephen.

    I think that all that has been stated here calls each of us to take a next step into the pursuit of deep relationship with God. I’ve been struck so intensely with how persistently God pursues relationship with us (which as you stated here, we so easily relegate to another doctrine – rather than a beautiful and dynamic way of life). And it’s in this constant growth of relationship (not a task to be completed but a continuous progression of “further in and further up”) that I have learned I really begin to know Jesus. And it is from this flowing river that I can love my neighbor.

  2. Mike

    How many have left the church because they couldn’t reconcile their lives with the god of the pulpit? It has been and continues to be a message of fear and condemnation. We have left the Jesus of the prostitute and the downtrodden to the fringe. I get so tired of hearing “well they just reject God” when in fact they have rejected a caricature of Jesus.

  3. Sharon

    As I was reading, the song “Be Near” by Shane Barnard started running through my mind, especially the line “to know much more than a page.” I think this sums up our cry as humans.

    Be Near
    by Shane Barnard

    You are all, big and small
    Beautiful
    And wonderful to trust in grace through faith
    But i’m asking to taste…

    For dark is light to You
    Depths are height to You
    Far is near
    But Lord, I need to hear from You

    Be near, oh God
    Be near, oh God of us
    Your nearness is to us our good
    Be near, oh God
    Be near, oh God of us
    Your nearness is to us our good, our good

    Your fullness is mine, revelation divine
    But, O, to taste
    To know much more than a page
    To feel Your embrace…

    For dark is light to You
    The depths are height to You
    Far is near, but Lord
    I need to hear from You

    Be near, oh God
    Be near, oh God of us
    Your nearness is to us our good
    Be near, oh God
    Be near, oh God of us
    Your nearness is to us our good, our good

    (psalms 73:28; 139)

  4. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    “that God is an abstract, has been abstracted from the rest of the Christian experience.”

    That is what frustrated me about my own life in the early nineties, just before I learned (or began to learn) my real Identity. It was incredibly frustrating to read about a God who says He came to save us from our sins, and then watch myself keep doing the same damned, lame sins day in and day out for year after year. It was only after I made the leap from abstraction to a daily trusting that I began to see real life change.

    It is just as frustrating sometimes for me now to see so many in the Church stuck in the same trap. Those in the worst place accept the trap as “normal.” “Forgiveness of sins” is the Gospel to them; really it’s only the foyer of the Mansion. Those in the best spot, the spot where more revelation can be given, are at the desperation stage like I was; they’re ready to get out of the foyer (as elegant and gorgeously crafted as it is) and move on into the other rooms of the House.

    We’re called to holiness: we are called to embody and express the love of Christ in our human forms. If we are not progressively loving God and others more and more, we need to check and see if we are trusting in God Himself or merely relying on doctrines about Him.

  5. Mike

    Ron,
    They need to move from the foyer to the living room, dining room, bedroom, but they are running out the door and into the fields where some sense of life can at least be experienced. I love the Church but I believe that there is a fundamental flaw in what we call church. Its a place of law with very little real love.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    Thanks bro as this is a timely post for some folks in my story. Scott and Pam Hamilton have been an integral part of the work and worship at Perimeter Church for that past decade or more. Pam has recorded a few albums and would be a kindred spirit to the folks who inhabit this cyberspace. Scott has been an active part of one of our worship teams for many years. They are a dear family in our local body of believers.

    Scott has a rare neurological disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD (related to Mad Cow Disease). This is a recent diagnosis, please pray for this family and check out the rest of the story here:
    http://www.caringbridge.org/cb/viewMyStory.do?method=executeInit

    Its been said by many that history is “His story.” Those of us who have “eyes to see and ears to hear” should take it up to read and share the Gospel, that “old, old story” as often as we have a chance to do so. In keeping with the follow up postings I’ll close with a quote I heard a while back, can’t recall at the moment who said it: “Share the gospel often, use words if necessary.”

    P.S. Here is a great link on the old hymn “I Love To Tell The Story”: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/l/ilttts.htm

    The lyrics for this hymn apparently were derived from a poem on the life of Jesus. According to this article it is a poem divided into two parts. The first part is “The Story Wanted” and the second part is “The Story Told.” That seems to me a fitting piece of trivia for this post.

  7. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    Church, at least the biblical concept, is a people, not a place. It is vital that we gather together as the people of God locally. It is equally important that in those gatherings we speak the truth in love. If that is not happening in your local church ask the Spirit to make you an agent of change. That may not seem likely where you are today, but the love of Christ can move mountains even the ecclesiastical ones.

    If you are looking for a good thought provoking read on this topic, I’d recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”.

  8. Mike

    Tony, I go to a great church. I simply meant that church in general have let people down. They are leaving in droves. I do want to visit Perimeter however. I would like to get out there to hear Steve Brown.

  9. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Mike, yes – many times people are not going deeper into Christ, but back into the Nature-al life, back into the world. The answers to all our desires are found in Christ if we will just go in. But like the first generation of Israelites through unbelief lost the Promised Land (though they were forgiven), so many believers never experience abundant life and the rivers of living water that were promised to us.

    The Church, and by that I mean the people that comprise it, is a totally necessary thing to our growth as individual believers. I have come to see this more and more as I have become connected in a more complete way to other Christians. We need fellowship, and so often our brothers and sisters in Christ are the very means of grace He offers to us. The problems in the body are caused largely by unrenewed thinking prompted by the world, flesh, and especially the Devil.

    We are called to much more than abstract theology, intellectual assent to ideas about God, and being forgiven of our sins. We are called to Life – real Life. We can catch that calling, or we can miss it to our eternal regret. Though our sins will be forgiven, we will have missed out on the main reason Jesus came: To bring about a universe of nearly infinite variations of personality yet each variation has the same Heart and Spirit – loving God and loving others.

  10. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Mike, I think that’s a good point (re: your first comment). Listening to different definitions of “the church” can be illuminating. Some think the Church is defined by the presence of those who (seemingly) have it all together. My favorite definition at the moment comes from Will Campbell and his book Brother to a Dragonfly. He writes about a friend of his who, using the coarse language you would expect from a southern backwoods preacher, defined the church of Jesus Christ as “one cat in one ditch and one nobody of a son of a bitch trying to pull her out.”

  11. Katy Bowser

    Ron, Katy dares you to write the song from the cat in a ditch line.

    For my part, when I have heard Jesus preached as beautiful and believable, it is often because I have heard it as a story. It’s lovely to me that our own stories are threads in the grand one, and it’s so encouraging when this is made clear.

    Looking forward to going back and reading The Ragman- I just finished The Book of the Dun Cow- phew. I need more stories like that.

  12. Mike

    Ron said:

    “We are called to Life – real Life”

    Narrow is the gate that leads to LIFE. I no longer believe that this means heaven but the abundant life you speak of here.

    Stephen and Ron. I have been one or the other but mostly the cat trying to claw my way out of the ditch.

  13. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    Thanks for the clarification. I almost jumped in the car to head up to N. GA. 🙂

    Steve Brown will be at Perimeter this week-end. We have a Saturday night service at 6:00PM. My wife and daughter are retreating with some of their girlfriends up at Lake Lanier this week-end. So, if you want to come down Saturday night, I’ll be glad to host you. Since I’m going to miss the Jason Gray show it would be a great chance to meet up (love you JGray, but Florida with the family trumps your show every day of the week and twice on Sunday).

    Or join me on Sunday which is going to be another interesting chapter in the Heringer family story. We are hosting Benyamin Cohen as our guest in first service and then have a meet and greet with him in our church bookstore.

    Benyamin is the author of “My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders The Bible Belt In Search Of His Own Faith” (for more info. on Ben go here: http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/my-jesus-year-benyamin-cohen-on-sbe/) This is one of those “what have I gotten myself into now” encounters.

    I’m currently reading the book, a loan from our wonderful bookstore manager, in order to appreciate his point of view. So far it is a pretty funny and insightful read.

  14. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    I’m planning on getting a review up here of David Dark’s new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, before or around the release date in a couple weeks, so we’ll at least have that.

  15. Mike

    Tony, thanks for the invite. I would love to come but there’s something about a prom dress that I have to be involved in. Prom Dress Shopping. Nausea creeping in, must lie down, need a cool rag…………………………..thud (head hitting keyboard)

  16. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    You are a good dad! That will be a special memory for you and your daughter — just find a big hunk of red meat after its over and you’ll be fine 🙂

    I’ll let you know when Steve’s back around again.

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