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Posted by on Jul 23, 2015 | 5 comments

Christian Theology Needs Good Stories



I am at the very beginning stages of a long journey in dissertation writing. In my usual meandering and often frustrating mode, I am beginning this journey with an intuitive kernel and then working towards a substantial and convincing argument. My intuitive kernel is this: stories do something important for theology. No, more than that: Christian theology in some way needs good stories. The grounding for this is pretty easy to point to: Christians are storied people. Our Hebraic roots are in stories of God calling forth order from chaos, a guy from Ur to establish a nation in a land flowing with milk and honey, stories of identity formation and personal failings, stories of a people struggling to do right and stories of a frustrated and long-suffering God. The climax of this storied history comes via four story-tellers, the four Gospel accounts proclaiming God become incarnate and the tearing of the veil between heaven and earth.

Of course, these stories contain and give rise to important dogmatic claims. Claims that establish both the core and the boundaries of our faith. Important claims that protect the full divinity and humanity of Christ and the Triune identity of the Godhead. These claims have extended over history to take the shape (and the baggage) of various denominations identifying all kinds of propositions about living the Christian moral life, prayer, the purpose of coming to the Table, the structure of the church, the role of church to state, etc. These claims are both inevitable and important for the lived Christian identity.

But, there are some things that a declarative proposition cannot do and this is where the importance, nay necessity of stories comes in.

A good story demands not only the reader’s attention, but involvement in meaning-making. In fact, as Wolfgang Iser in his seminal work The Implied Reader notes, reading does not simply lead to formulating meaning but to being formed by the text:

In the act of reading, having to think something that we have not yet experienced does not mean only being in a position to conceive or even understand it; it also means that such acts of conception are possible and successful to the degree that they lead to something being formulated in us.[1]

The reading of stories demands something unique of us. Unlike reading theological treatise or a book on spiritual formation, stories both ask us to suspend something of ourselves to allow room for the story to unfold before us much like we physically sit back in a darkened room at the start of a movie and involve ourselves in a way that puts us at risk of being caught unawares in our own hypocrisy, shame, apathy, or spite.

Some Christians must write good stories and all should read them. The best Christian stories, I would argue (and no offense intended to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series) are not allegories that equate elements of the original Christian story with one-to-one correspondence in the new story’s characters and events. Good Christian stories—the one’s that put us at risk to be implicated and transformed—subvert what we think we know but calling us into something “we have not yet experienced.”

This subversive quality is what gives power to JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth where the great hero turns out to be the simple gardener who tags along as a loyal friend on another’s great adventure, to Flannery O’Connor’s characters receiving moments of clarity amidst or quickly following the grotesque, to Walker Percy’s protagonist who reveals the perversity of disordered desires.

Take up and read. Read novels written by some of the great twentieth-century Christian novelists. Read great works of fantasy and science fiction that lead us to the final act of our age of consumerism. Read the stories from our older testament that stretch, challenge and frustrate our sensibilities. And brace yourself for what comes next…

[1] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 294.

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Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • Dave Perry

    Very interesting post, Rachel. Well spotted getting Sam Gamgee into the discussion! On a similar note (the Christian value of stories) do you know Richard Hays’ new book, “Reading Backwards”?

    • Dave, I only know the bare bones of Hays’ new book, but I am pretty well acquainted with the sort of argument he is making. How do you see discussions of figural reading play into this conversation? Would love to know your thoughts.

      • Dave Perry

        The “figural” approach does a couple things. It highlights the two-way links between — for example — OT theophanies (YHWH walking on the sea in Job 9:8 and Jesus doing the same thing. So the synoptic Jesus (along with the incarnate Logs of John) is the embodiment of God. But Hays’ approach also shows how the Bible uses narrative. The new book (following Rowan Williams) asks which is more potent: A bullet-point statement like “Jesus has authority over all things” or a story about him walking on the sea?

  • This post reminds me of an article I read in First Things: Faith in Fiction by Randy Boyagoda.

    The article starts out with an opinion about some of the writers you have cited, but that is (for me, for now) neither here nor there. The germane portion is where he talks about the corollary to your intuitive idea: that a purely atheist aesthetic entails abandoning fiction:

    The second reason we must abandon our faith in fiction, according to Shields: It serves as troubling evidence of a malingering crypto-faith in God, insofar as we depend upon the novelist’s capacities to conjure a whole world, complete with morally legible figures and recurring norms of right and wrong, good and evil, all of which is governed by an omniscient intelligence. This dependence needs to be overcome so that we can at last be free to find writings (like Reality Hunger itself) that, compared to the opiate authority of novels, better help us reckon with the barren basic truth of every human life, as he has it: “The final orbit is oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?”

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  • Tim

    Great post Rachel!