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.
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.