My earliest attraction to Christianity was how seemingly defined it all was. I grew up in a quasi-fundamentalist, evangelical tradition. There was great comfort in a worldview that went something like this:
1. The Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God.
2. Therefore it contains all truth for all time.
3. Correct interpretation of the Bible (i.e.—our way) answers all of life’s questions.
4. Therefore, if one knows the Bible then one knows all the answers.
5. So there is a “Biblical answer” (correct answer) to every question.
There are parts of the above 5 tenants that I still believe, but I think it breaks down. It doesn’t break down because there is something wrong with the Bible. It breaks down because there is something wrong with us. I am now convicted that many Christians—myself included—have used the Bible incorrectly. Or at least not optimally.
My current relationship with the Bible goes something like this:
1. The Bible is the invaluable, dynamic, often enigmatic story of my God and my people.
2. Therefore it contains deep truths essential for my (our) faith.
3. All these truths are narrative (i.e. they are either told as a story or within a larger story).
4. Narrative truth is fundamentally different than having all the right answers. In fact, narrative truth disrupts this kind of thinking.
5. Narrative truth isn’t ashamed of contradiction, paradox and disagreement.
6. The purpose of narrative truth is to create a deeper understanding and conversation around important matters.
7. The goal is not having the right answers, but having the right analogies from which to discuss truths that are most often too rich for mere words.
I call this kind of thinking “Narrative Christianity.” It’s the only way I’ve been able to maintain a faith in God that actually works for me in any real way. The first view of the Bible presented above is exhausting for two reasons. First, it demands the explaining away of all contradiction and mystery. I think this way of thinking causes a lot of anxiety for people. We become God’s PR department, trying to make everything fit into neat and tidy systems for his benefit. The Bible, as it turns out, is far too dynamic to be systematized.
The second stressor in the first view is that it, by default, leads to trite answers to immeasurably complicated questions. Though some people may enjoy having all the answers to life’s mysteries in Hallmark-card-sized sound bites, most of us do not. It’s not all black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. Sometimes it’s both. Or neither. Or maddeningly complicated.
That’s where stories come in. Take the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. We can reduce it, as many do, to a lesson teaching that God must mean more to us than anything or anyone else. We can see it solely, as many Christians try to do, as a precursor to the Christ sacrifice. But then, I think, we miss the point. An honest hearer of that story may respond a dozen different ways, but none of them particularly easy.
-Does God toy with our emotions on purpose?
-Does a good father really kill his son because God asks?
-Does a good God really tell a man to kill his son?
-Did Abraham really know the deal whole the time?
-In light of this story, what is faith—really?
-What about that poor ram in the wrong place at the wrong time? (Read the story.)
You get it. The story is there not just to give us answers, but to pound us with questions. Only stories can answer one question while spawning a million others. We wade through these stories year after year. They seem to change as we grow older, but in reality they are changing us. We don’t have to defend them, explain them or categorize them. We get to interact with them. To borrow some language from C.S. Lewis, we dance with them. And in that dance—in the reflection of our partner’s eyes—we see ourselves. And what we see is as mysterious, beautiful and enigmatic as the stories themselves.
Join me here weekly as we explore what a Narrative Christianity looks like in the day-to-day. Each week I will present a story from the Bible and leave you with more questions than answers. For many of us, that may be the very thing that can save us.
Photo (Flickr CC) by [AndreasS]