August 21, 2018

Another Look: The Power of Stories

Rock Creek Canyon. Photo by Ansel Adams

Stories are better than doctrine, at least in the way we have come to state doctrines. Over the course of my ministry, I have constantly fallen into the trap of thinking that being able to state a doctrine means that one has mastered its meaning. It’s great to be able to rattle off what we believe, to explain it, advance it, defend it. To be sure. To have it nailed down.

I don’t really think the more propositional teachings of the Bible are like that. They function more like a snapshot of a majestic mountain range. Doctrine to some extent accurately represents the truth, but stand there before that awesome vista and hold your little picture up against the backdrop and you can see the difference.

However, we tend not to do it that way. We have our doctrinal statements and we think we’ve actually climbed the mountain. We go to school and read a few texts and take tests and graduate and get ordained and think we’re qualified to run the museum at the foot of the mountain, where we teach others everything there is to know about the range. Or, as a lay member in a church, we read a few books, go to Sunday School, listen to sermons, and participate in Bible studies and suddenly we’re confident in our ability to be a mountain guide for others. Sometimes I wonder if any of us could even find the head of the first path.

But this post is not about doctrines, it is about stories and why I like them better.

Alan E. Lewis says it well:

Up to a point, the stories in both our Testaments prove effective because they are so readily understood. Utilizing characters and situations which are familiar, quotidian, and mundane, and events whose sequence can clearly be followed, they communicate with a simplicity and directness which is inevitably sacrificed when the truth they contain is subsequently refined into concepts and propositions — as must, nonetheless, be done, as we shall see below. Yet does not the power of the parables, indeed derivatively of all the biblical narratives, also rest in the fact that they do not understand too much? Stories are extended analogies; and by their very nature and form as stories they openly announce that they are only analogies, merely approximations and pointers to the truth. The directness with which narrative approaches us is matched, therefore, by the indirectness with which it approaches God. In consequence, stories both acknowledge that God is beyond all description and comprehension, and yet demonstrate vividly that God can be known and understood.

Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday

There it is: by their very nature stories admit their limitations, thus making us aware of our limitations and keeping us hungering for more. By them we can know, but by them we also learn that there is much we do not and cannot know.

We can never master the truth, only be more and more mastered by it. As Jacobs says, stories declare “with ‘indirect directness’ the truth of God, announcing the gospel which theology must then elaborate, while indicating the mystery which theology must not then violate.”

That is why stories have priority in the Bible. That is why stories should have priority in the faith formation of our lives and churches.

Keep the snapshot. Put it in an album and pull it out and look at it now and then as a reminder of the general beauty and majesty of the mountain. But don’t ever stop telling the stories, which transport you to the mountain and leave you breathless in the climb.

Comments

  1. Ronald Avra says:

    I’ve struggled to removed myself from a faith that is totally dependent on doctrine for its definition. I still consider correct doctrine, that which has found its place in the common faith through the centuries, to be of immense importance, but doctrine alone provides an empty, cold home for the soul.

    • –> “…doctrine alone provides an empty, cold home for the soul.”

      My analogy might be the difference between the Marvel universe movies and the DC Comics movies. Marvel movies are akin to the stories found in the Bible, fun and thrilling, while DC movies are akin to doctrine, all dour, fussy, and generally humorless. Some people like doctrine, but it’s rather off-putting to most of us.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Very well said.

        And this post made me think of one of my favorite things: finding movie review podcasts. I’ve got Evangelical movie reviewers, lefties [actual, you know, people involved in the Left, distinct for NPR dipsticks], NPR dipsticks, ‘main streams’ [whatever that means], etc… Because it is interesting to listen to **different** people talk about the same story [even when the story isn’t that good]. How they sometimes see different stories in the story, and how they often – surprisingly – overlap; how groups consistently entirely fail to see what someone else sees, or habitually always manage to find the same things in nearly every story.

        Like Tolkien says: the primary purpose of a review is to tell you about the reviewer.

        But like proverbs says: from many councilors comes wisdom.

        I have come to think of scripture in much the same way – I want to hear lots of perspectives, and then I’ll sort it out as much as is materially necessary.

        • Like Tolkien says: the primary purpose of a review is to tell you about the reviewer.

          But like proverbs says: from many councilors comes wisdom.

          That’s really all that the Bible is too. A bunch of reviewers trying to describe what they perceive as God, and the events that have unfolded around them.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            Not to make to sweeping a generalization – but that is close to what everything – someone’s observations.

            Scripture is not different, it is part of everything. 🙂 That’s not a bad or devaluing statement.

        • I’ve always enjoyed reading various reviews, too, Adam, and marveling at the differences of opinion on the same movie. One of the movies I remember most for this was Nicholas Cage’s “8mm.” Roger Ebert raved about it while the rest of the world considered it trash. I remember thinking, “Did he see the same movie as everyone else?”

    • You and me both, brother.

  2. Good post.

    Stories vs. Doctrine. I wonder if the difference is like the difference between enjoyable historical movies and ones that, though well-made, fall flat.

    For instance, consider the difference between a movie that shouldn’t work yet does (like “The King’s Speech,” about…are you serious?…a stuttering monarch overcoming his stuttering?), compared to a movie that should work but falls flat due to pacing and maybe trying too hard to “get it right” (like “Darkest Hour,” Churchill’s rise at the beginning of WWII, which, though certainly okay, my wife and I found underwhelming).

    Maybe doctrine tries too hard to “get it right,” thus hurting its cause, while stories turn “getting it right” into something easily understandable, even making it an enjoyable experience.

  3. john barry says:

    Good thoughts, we all learn by Bible “stories” when we are young. David, Samson, Joseph , Moses and of course the Jesus stories. Baby steps at first then we fill in the “stories” with what we learn.
    I am not a Bible verse person who can quote the verses I prefer the story the verses are conveying. History and the Bible are boring to many because they have not been taught or cannot appreciate the “story”. Facts and dates are not stories they are important parts of the story.
    The stories, myths, fables, fairy tales and legends passed down though the ages will determine the direction of that culture. I am not too sure that our Bible stories and secular stories are being passed down to the very young and that may be a problem.. The Boston Tea Party story should lead to learning more about the revolution for example.
    I recently wrote an obit for a dear 93 year friend, rather that the facts, figures and little hints of his life I wrote the “story” of his life . I would like to think he would like it as he appreciated a good story and his life was that.
    I am rambling but certainly appreciate this article and the good thoughts in it. I am obviously not a good story teller and cannot remember verses so I in trouble.

    • –> “I recently wrote an obit for a dear 93 year friend, rather that the facts, figures and little hints of his life I wrote the “story” of his life . I would like to think he would like it as he appreciated a good story and his life was that.”

      Nice. And I imagine the average person who peruses the obituaries might’ve read and enjoyed it, too, as it was “different.”

      –> “I am not too sure that our Bible stories and secular stories are being passed down to the very young and that may be a problem.”

      At one time I would’ve whole-heartedly agreed with you, but more recently I think it’s best that the stories be told WELL or else not told at all. For instance, take some of the Biblical stories told to kids and whether or not they lay down a healthy foundation of their faith. If the Creation story is being told in a manner that “hey, kids…you must believe this or you’re going to Hell,” then maybe that’s not so good. Same with crappy teaching secular stories. How much of it is filled with bias?

      But back to your point…I think one of the reasons Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg did “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” was that those who had lived through those experiences were close to all passing away and they wanted to capture their stories and knowledge before they were gone.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > At one time I would’ve whole-heartedly agreed with you,

        Ditto. This doesn’t worry me [anymore].

        Humans tell stories.
        Just try to stop them from telling stories.
        Those stories are being told; but perhaps who is telling them shifts with time.

  4. Stories are better than doctrine

    Amen.

  5. Stories are very much like symbols, propelling the spirit beyond the immediate. There’s nothing better than watching the faces of little children who are listening to a compelling story. You can tell that they are not even in the same room with you. Their minds are actually ‘seeing’ the story more than the physical space before their eyes. The imagined subsumes the real for a moment and in that moment a connection is made to a larger world.

  6. Christiane says:

    I always loved C.S. Lewis’ idea, this:

    ““I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ?

    I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.

    But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” (C.S. Lewis)

    I think he was right.

    Our human love of ‘story’ and ‘myth’ may emerge from something deeply primal within us. The Jewish people have a love of ‘stories’ and often children are taught through simple stories, rather like those parables in the sacred Scriptures . . . . ‘illustrations’ of teachings in story-form of something profoundly deep in meaning but told at a level that can be grasped . . . . . there is something wonderful about this, yes

    • He explores this pretty heavily in the Pilgrim’s Regress, especially what religion appeared to him in childhood.

      • Christiane says:

        Thanks, Tokah
        I will check that out. Hope you are well . . . . we didn’t hear from you for a while. God Bless!

        • Good comment, Christiane…and Tokah, I’ll have to check it out, too!

        • I’m doing pretty well, just been an odd environment around here lately. I’ve been through a lot, but come out strong. =)

  7. Richard Rohr today:

    The Living Word of God
    Wednesday, January 17, 2018

    Fundamentalism is a growing phenomenon, not only in Islam and other religions, but within Christianity as well. Fundamentalism refuses to listen to the deep levels of mythic, metaphorical, and mystical meaning. It is obsessed with literalism and exclusion. The egoic need for clarity and certitude leads fundamentalists to use sacred writings in a mechanical, closed-ended, and quite authoritarian manner. The ego rarely asks real questions and mostly gives quick answers. This invariably leaves ego-driven, fundamentalist minds and groups utterly trapped in their own cultural moment in history. Thus they miss the Gospel’s liberating message along with the deepest challenges and consolations of Scripture.
    There is an especially telling passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus becomes angry with his disciples, who are unable to understand his clearly metaphorical language. He tells them to watch out for “the leaven” of the Pharisees and “the leaven” of Herod. Taking him literally, they began looking quizzically at one another because they did not have any bread (see Mark 8:14-16). Is Herod Bread a new brand that they had not heard about? Is Pharisee pumpernickel something to be avoided?
    I can imagine Jesus responding with a bit of impatience and frustration: “Do you think I am talking about bread? You’re still not using your heads, are you? You still don’t get the point, do you? Though you have ears, you still don’t hear; though you have eyes, you still don’t see!” (see Mark 8:17-18). They do not yet know that the only way to talk about transcendent things is through metaphor! But early stage religious people are invariably literalists, and not yet poets and mystics. It takes inner experience of the Holy, and your own attempts to describe it, to finally move you toward a necessary reliance upon symbolic language.
    Jesus consistently uses stories and images to describe spiritual things. Religion has always needed the language of metaphor, simile, symbol, and analogy to point to the Reign of God. Note how frequently Jesus begins teaching with the phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .” There is no other way to speak of the ineffable. Against conventional wisdom, this simple, seemingly childlike approach actually demands more of us—not just more of our thinking mind, but more of our heart and body’s attunement. Maybe that is why we so consistently avoid sacred story in favor of mere mechanical readings that we can limit and control.
    The final and full Word of God is that spiritual authority lies not just in ancient texts but in the living Christ of history, church, community, creation, and our own experience confirming its truth. The mystery is “Christ among you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)—this is the living Bible! Keep one foot in both camps—the historical text and the present moment—and in your fullest moments you will find yourself also saying “it is like. . . .” Words are fingers pointing to the moon, but words are never the moon itself. Not knowing this has kept much religion infantile, arrogant, and even dangerous.

  8. There is the power of stories. And then there is the power of interpretation. Stories beg for interpretation, and are incomplete without interpretations. It seems to me that doctrine at its worst is interpretation metastasized: closed, one-dimensional, limiting, dead and deadening. At its best, doctrine is a fairly stable but still open body of interpretation of story in which the community shares, and to which it contributes by extending those interpretations from out of its experience of the interface between the sacred stories and life.