Tag Archives: narrative theology

Which God?

In working out what I’ve called here a storied or narrative theology, one invitation I issue repeatedly is to discover the identity of God through the things that God does.

When we talk about God in the classical Christian tradition, it is easy to fly off to heaven, to think deep thoughts about the Trinity, or articulate a list of attributes. But attributes alone don’t actually tell us very much (it would be amusing to do an internet search of all the contradictory claims made under the banner, “God is love”).

I prefer more of a Forrest Gump approach: “God is as God does.”

It seems I need to correct myself already. Flying off to heaven isn’t a bad thing, all told.

Psalm 113 is a song of praise, issuing its calls to celebrate God before claiming that this God, YHWH, will be praised across the whole face of the earth and for all time. In summoning people to join the song, it is inviting us to participate in the future toward which the world is heading.

The God whom the world is to praise is the God who reigns on high, whose glory is above the heavens (Ps 113:4).

But what is she doing there, this God of Israel?

The claim that a god, and our god in particular, is in charge of the cosmos can be, has been, and often still is a dangerous claim. It is a seductive claim, one that can lead us to the exercise of coercive or manipulative power on earth with the idea that the great and powerful God stands behind us.

That’s why the attributes should never be separated from the story.

This God who sits enthroned on high is the God who looks down to “raise the poor from the dust, “to lift the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (Ps 113:7-8).

This God who sits enthroned on high is the God who “gives the barren woman a home” (Ps 113:9).

How do we know the work of God when we see it? How do we know what it looks like to become like God in our engagements with the world God has made? How do we measure whether or not our actions are rightly signaling to the world the identity of the God in whose name we are acting in the world?

The God who reigns on high is seen in the stooping low to exalt the humble.

The God who reigns on high is seen in bypassing the mechanisms of power that are already in place and exalting the helpless to newness of life and flourishing.

This is the God whom the disciples could not bring themselves to follow. This is the God to whom Jesus entrusted himself.

This God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist.

So where power is exploited, we can question whether this is the hand of God. Where advantage is gained through manipulation, we can doubt whether the hand of God is in play.

Where the instinct of self-preservation propels us forward, we always need to stop and ask, “Is this where I am being asked to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus?”

The only reason to ask that question, the only reason to answer such a summons, is if there is a God who not only reigns on high but also raises the poor from the dust.

We can only follow a crucified messiah if there is a God who raises the dead.

On Blowing Up the Narrative of Blowing Things Up

I was talking with a friend today. She relayed a conversation with another friend. The radical, change-the-world kind of friend. The kind of people I like. (Well, most of the time…)

They had been debating the ethics of destruction of property when the target in view is the bad guys: the animal torturers, the people killers.

Why not demonstrate that there is power arrayed against them?

I was reading a book the other day. It embodied a deep critique of male-dominated religious literature. It put starkly before my eyes the ways that the women in the Bible were assumed to be desirous of whatever man they were given to, that they were treated as appendages to stories and commodified for the boys’ power games.

And it put starkly before my eyes the ease with which we can take up the power we’d been excluded from and turn it on our oppressors. It’s easy to retell the story by reassigning the roles in the same script.

I was watching the Syria situation unfold. It was a situation of horror (actually, it has been for quite some time before chemical weapons were used).

Then we decided to get involved. Someone else was killing and torturing with weapons that we’re not allowed to use. Unless you kill and torture people in another hemisphere while seated in the comfort of Nevada, you’re not allowed to act that way.

So we were going to kill and destroy and torment. Not even for the purpose of changing the characters in the script, but only for the purpose of momentarily playing, “More able to kill than thou.” That was the intended message.

In each, the story of imposition of will by show of force was affirmed as the story by which value, virtue, and place are determined. The narrative of “if I can blow you up, destroy you, I will secure my place and the world be better off” seeps into every crevice because it’s the very water of the ocean in which we live.

When Christians place the cross at the front of our sanctuaries, it is supposed to be a reminder of those great words of Jesus:

It Shall Not Be So Among You

The cross was Rome’s little way of saying that it had sufficient force to keep its power.

The resurrection was God’s little way of saying that God has a different story to tell. God has a power story that overthrows the power stories of the world by refusing to retell them in God’s name.

In a beautiful refusal to play the “I can blow you up” game, the earliest Christians created a new standard of power: walking the way of the cross.

In a stunning escape from the “I can blow you up game,” they did not fall in the colonized people’s trap of striving for the same power and means to power but with themselves in charge.

They surrendered that game to Rome, and claimed different rules altogether. They blew up the narrative of blowing things up.

They saw in Christ the inscribing of a new narrative, and called others to join it: in faith, entrust yourself to God, even to the point of death. See our hopes fulfilled by the God who gives life to the dead.

The Christian calling is nothing if not a relearning in every generation how to tell the story of the Crucified in our personal lives, in our life together, and in the public sphere that will always, it seems, strive for its place by the power of the sword.

Conversion of the Imagination

Paul puts it this way: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Richard B. Hays puts it this way: “The conversion of the imagination.”

It’s the practice of so steeping ourselves in a narrative, in an understanding of the world, of in an understanding of how the world actually functions, that we see everything differently.

We name problems differently.

We imagine solutions that we never thought possible.

And we see a path between those problems and those solutions that we never would have entertained before. And, if we have enough faith, we might even walk it.

On the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.s‘ famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s his own participation in the conversion of the collective imagination of the United States that continues to inspire me and stir me to hope:

As a Christian, I am stirred by his ability to weave the biblical vision of a better, more just, future into his vision for America.

In the mess that is the mutually intertwined lives we live where religion and politics are inseparable, the use of Biblical imagery to call, prophetically, to the kings of the earth to stop using their power for tyranny, and to call, prophetically, the citizens of the earth to love one another, models a way of being a Christian in the public sphere that had, and still has, the power to shape us from within to become the kind of people that we know we should be.

Speech is a powerful tool. Its power is readily sidelined for other, more immediately effective powers.

Speech can also be a blunt object. Its power is readily employed by the power that be to keep their power and to keep others away from it. In politics, this is the greatest modern day hindrance to a true MLK heir shaping our vision for a better collective failure. (This is where Obama has by and large failed to live up to his promise.)

The strongest power that the word has to offer is when it gets deep inside us and opens our eyes to a new way of being, and that so vividly depicts the image that we recognize it is a way that has the power to make us more truly and fully human.

To the extent that King’s dream has become a reality, it is because the collective imagination of our country and our world has experienced a deep conversion about what it means to be fully human. To the extent that it has not, our collective conscience, our collective imagination, has failed.

Salt of the Earth

“If you salt the water, you won’t taste the salt. But if you don’t, you’ll know something’s not quite right.”

Sage advice about pasta water from Mr. Richard, one of my friendly cooking gurus.

Image courtesy of pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s the same with the bread we baked up today. If we’d salted it, it wouldn’t have been salty bread, it just would have tasted more like bread. Instead, it was just sort of flat. A floury delivery unit for the dip.

Salt, rightly done, doesn’t make you taste the salt, it makes you taste more of what you’ve added it to.

What if Jesus was after something like this?

“You are the salt of the earth.”

Too often those of us who live on the Evangelical side of the fence envision the message of Jesus as world-denying; or, worse yet, world-escaping.

What’s our job then? To call people out of the world, to get them to leave it behind!

What if, instead, our job as followers of Jesus is to make the world more of what it was supposed to be in the first place?

What if salting the earth isn’t preserving it (just barely!) from destruction at the hands of an angry God, nor being so entirely other in everything we do that people want to suck the salt lick all day?

What if what we’re supposed to do is neither world-denying nor, to be sure, naïvely world-affirming, but instead robustly world-redeeming? What if our calling is to imagine engaging the world so as to make the good things of the world better versions of themselves?

What if the point of shining on the earth wasn’t always to be a beacon to summon people away, but also, and perhaps more basically, to show people who they could truly are, or who we truly could be if we were willing to come in out of the dark?

What if the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus meant not only “losing our life” but entailed a “losing your life for My sake and the Gospel” in order to actually find it?

And what if that “it” was, recognizably, your life?

“You are the salt of the earth.” Might we envision a salty vocation to make the goods of the world with which we come into contact better versions of what they were always meant to be?

Where’s This Manna Coming From?

I imagine that I will continue playing with this manna metaphor (see here and here) for a little bit. It’s really another way of attacking the “Storied Theology” project: a way of articulating the idea that our shared Christian story has defining, definitive moments that determine the shape of our current life, to a certain degree, while yet needing to be reborn in our own times and places.

Manna is a pliable metaphor, as is the narrative metaphor for Christianity and theology. It’s a way of getting my mind around what breathes new life into Christianity wherever that’s found. In other words, this is not a theological model whose goal is to control a certain content.

It is, instead, a posture of life and theology that can function within any number of theological worlds.

The manna idea is coming from an accidental collision.

First, I was doing my Deaconal service and listening to the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. Somehow those guys got Barry Taylor and Peter Rollins into the same episode (warning: Rated R for language), and it was mind-blowing. Barry Taylor

The journey that those guys want you to take in exploring the world of ever-new faithfulness to God is exhilarating and frightening.

But I also realized that their world isn’t mine. I recognize that Barry T. was being provocative when he said this, but as an example, here’s how his description of the Lord’s Supper went down. Taylor said that “remembering” had nothing to do with what happened 2,000 years ago, it has to do with being the people who live now the life of light and love that Jesus himself lived.

Of course, in saying that, Barry indicated that we have to remember what happened 2,000 years ago if we’re going to get today right.

He’s absolutely right that receiving Christ has as its goal the creation of persons and a community that look like Jesus now. But in order to get that story right, we have to know what Jesus looked like then.

That’s when manna came in…

Second, at some point I remember not when, I was part of overhearing a story of manna being told to kids (maybe as a debrief of my kids’ Sunday lessons?).

That’s when I started to put this thing together.

I need the both/and. I need the definitive, defining moment of what God did in Christ 2,000 years ago to provide the determining narrative, the definitive shape, of who God is and how God is at work in the world.

I cannot say that 2,000 years ago is rubbish, but I do want to say, with Barry, “nostalgia smalgia”–desire to live off of nostalgic notions of faith and faithfulness to God are a longing for a world that never existed. Those longings will never lead us to life. They will create communities of death.

I cannot say, as it seems to me Rollins is saying, that the experience itself is the thing, and we’re just calling “God” some human experience that we rediscover in new ways. But the notion that the true and living God who is not us must be rediscovered rings true.

So that’s where the manna’s coming from. It’s (as Barry T. says at one point in an interview) honoring your grandfather by having grandchildren rather than honoring him by wearing his hat.

It’s honoring God by trusting that God can be Father to a new generation within the same family, and not merely noted as a great-grandfather on their family tree.

From Faith to Follow

I keep coming back to Confessions of Faith. As I dance around this (repeatedly) there’s one major thing I’m trying go get to: we as Christians have regularly created the impression that being a Christian is defined by thinking/believing the right things.

Thinking the right things isn’t bad. At some level it’s necessary. But I don’t want to say with, say, Philip Schaff, that belief in the content of the creeds is “necessary and sufficient” for salvation.

So what if our recitations of our shared narrative began with a phrase other than, “I believe,” a phrase that was was self-involving in a different way?

What if we recited together, instead, something like this?

I worship God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought us up out of the house of bondage, the God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all and raised him from the dead;

And I follow Jesus the Messiah, his only begotten son, who was anointed son of God by the Spirit, taught us with authority, healed the sick, fed the hungry, embraced the outcast and the sinner, cast out demons, beckoned us to follow, took up his cross, loved me and gave himself for me, reconciled the world to God, was raised from the dead and enthroned as Lord and King, and sent his followers and Spirit out into the world;

I receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, given by Christ that I might walk in faithfulness, receive forgiveness, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and receive a share in Jesus’ own sonship, speak in God’s name, extend forgiveness, make peace among people, heal the sick, feed the hungry, embrace the outcast and sinner, cast out demons, take up the cross and pour myself out in self-giving love for the good of my neighbor, be raised to newness of life, and thus live and reign with him forever.

That’s what I’m getting at. There are lots of good, true things in our statements. But how do we talk and think about who we are such that we are always remembering that our statements are self-involving? Not merely involving of our minds, or our “hearts,” or our beliefs, but summoning us to participate in the narrative of the coming reign of God?

Thoughts?

Authority Redux

[beginning of throat clearing] The bad thing about leaving no thought unpublished is that sometimes you get one out there that’s just flat or half-baked. The nice thing about thinking out loud in public, however, is that people can show you where you’re being half-baked or ill-reasoned.

Or, sometimes, you have thoughts that are going in the right direction, but you haven’t quite found the right way of laying out what’s going on. The conversation helps there, too.

It’s been that kind of week at Storied Theology. I’ll return to the creed versus narrative thing a bit later, I’m sure. [end of throat clearing]

But for today I want to revisit yesterday’s discussion of authority.

First of all, there’s one thing I said that I meant, and that continues to grow in significance to me as I think about authority in the church:

Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can relax about authority.

Jesus has all authority, and while he may or may not choose to delegate that to certain persons at certain times or places, denying that any particular earthly manifestation of that authority is not an authority to which we should bow is not going to cause the Christian faith to come unglued.

Second, folks yesterday made an apt appeal to other first-generation Christians, including Paul. Well done.

Here’s the place where I find Paul compelling as a figure with authority: he returned, repeatedly, to a couple of dynamic indications that he was imbued with authority to speak for God:

  1. The experience of the Spirit in the people to whom he preached.
  2. His own embodiment of the suffering of Christ in the course of his ministry.
  3. The experience of the cross in the people to whom he preached.

Authority is important.

And, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to the Resurrected Crucified.

And, the Resurrected Crucified can give his authority to whomever he will.

Or not, as he will.

The problem with enshrining authority in a person or an institution is that it is virtually impossible to institutionalize cruciformity. The legitimation of a Christian’s authority coming from Christ is found in the renarration of the Christ story in the life of the person or community.

In the Gospels we do read of the disciples being charged to continue and extend the ministry of Jesus. Mark envisions that the Jesus community will replace the Temple as the house of prayer and place in which forgiveness is realized on earth. This is a manifestation of the presence and authority of Christ.

Similarly, Matthew’s locating of the authority of keys in (I’d say) the community is inseparable from the promises of Jesus to be present where two or more or gathered, to be “with you, always, until the end of the age.”

But that “with you,” itself, is not something that we can formalize or institutionalize. None of us wants to affirm that everything done in Christ’s name has had the Resurrected One’s authoritative approval.

There is safety and comfort to be found in giving authority to a fixed entity on earth: an office, a confession, a church.

But I question whether this is the safety and comfort that we’ve been promised: the safety of the firm hand of Christ holding us, the comfort of the presence of the Spirit who will, itself, lead us into all truth, comfort us in Jesus’ absence, work in us the work of the cross.

From Faith to Faith

What makes us Christians? What defines us as a people?

“I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, our Lord…”

That’s one way of doing it. We are articulate what we believe. In an upward gesture, we define ourselves by a common set of postures toward God, Jesus, and Spirit.

What makes us who we are, what saves us, is our faith.

But, as I’ve argued here before, we need to be careful how we identify ourselves. We need to exercise care because how we define who we are will determine what we think faithful action looks like.

Ethics and identity are inseparable.

I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to reconstrue our identity and our ethics in narrative terms. We need to loosen our grip on statements of faith, and move toward more fully living into the story of the narrative of the faithful Christ.

It strikes me that what I’m arguing for is a wholesale transformation of our way of understanding Christian faith that corresponds to a shift in the way many Paul scholars are reading the phrase, “the faith of Christ” (πίστις χριστοῦ).

This phrase can be read one of two ways.

  1. Christ can be seen as the object of faith (thus the phrase “objective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “[our] faith in Christ.”
  2. Christ can be seen as the subject of faith (thus the phrase “subjective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “Christ’s faithfulness.”

At bottom, what is Paul after? By what are we justified in the sight of God? Is it our faith in Jesus? Or is it Jesus’ faithfulness in going to death on the cross?

The idea that we’re justified by our own faith in Christ is part of a larger way of construing Christian identity in terms of believing the right things about God.

When Richard Hays renewed the argument for the subjective genitive (“Christ’s faithfulness”) reading of Paul, the subtitle of his work was this: “The narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.”

The point is not simply that we translate a phrase in one particular way. The larger point is that this translation reflects a deeper structure in Pauline theology.

Paul is a narrative theologian. He tells the saving story of Jesus. And he invites his congregations into it.

It might be that Hays was onto something even larger than his own initial project caught sight of (or, at least, articulated): by decentering our faithful response, the faithfulness of God in Christ can return to center stage. We can being to creatively reimagine what it means to be the faithful people of God, not as those who believe a certain list in a shared statement of belief, but those who are active participants in the saving story of the crucified Christ.

Not only might we make room for a storied theology, we might make room for a storied identity that gives rise to a faithful, storied ethic.

Story of God, God of the Story

The Bible is the story of God at work in the world.

The Bible is the story of people responding to (or ignoring) God at work in the world.

The Bible is particular people wrestling with the particular ways God is at work at their moment in time, telling their part of the story, writing their part of the human response, as people who want to lead their communities into a certain way of response.

The Bible is dynamic in this sense. Not merely breathed by God, but written by prophets who were eagerly searching out the things about which they were writing.

The people had to respond.

God was at work.

God was warning.

God was at work.

God was to be celebrated.

God was at work.

God was to be obeyed.

There is a compulsion to the writing, a compulsion inspired by God. There is a compulsion to the writing drawing people forward: to the coming Christ and then to the Christ who will come again.

This is a story of a God who exalts the humble. This is the story of a God who determined that before a people could have a king who would rule the earth, it must first be a people who were landless, rootless. Slaves.

This is the story of a God who creates out of nothing–a world for life to flourish, the feeding of five thousand off of five meager loaves, the resurrection of the dead.

This is the story of a God who is wise beyond all earthly telling–a God whose wisdom is made manifest in the foolishness of a cross, a God whose great moment of weakness overthrows the power of the cosmos.

So when I say, this week, that I am not interested in clinging to an inerrant Bible, I am sacrificing that claim about the Bible on the altar of this story: that scripture has a role to play, a narrative to tell. It is the story of a God who is at work in a way that surprises us. It is the story of a God who wants us to discover the cross.

Again and again.

It surprises us even though we know what the ending of the story is.

It surprises us because we cannot help ourselves–we construct systems of control, systems of power, philosophies of wisdom.

And so the cross must reappear. It must wrest our systems from our hands. It must grant us fresh forgiveness.

This Bible that I love with all its foibles? It has a purpose: “To give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through the faithfulness which is in Christ Jesus.”

Yes, that’s the part in 2 Timothy that comes before the celebrated, “All scripture is God-breathed.”

God-breathed tells us, not about an abstract property of the words, but about a wind that blows in a certain direction. It tells us that there is profit, that there is instruction–if we will walk in the way of wisdom.

And the way of wisdom is the way of Christ.

And the way of Christ is the way of the cross.

This is the life-giving narrative of the Bible. This is the life-giving God of the Bible: the One who knows that our world is a place of death, the One who conquered it on Easter Sunday, the One who invites us to trust that if we, too, will lay down our life then we, too, will find it.

A Great, and Complicated, Narrative

Every now and then we circle back around to whether it’s all that helpful to think about the Bible in terms of “narrative” when so much of what we read there does not fit into the narrative genre.

I, of course, say yes. The Lord of the Rings is no less a story because Tom Bombadil sings his random song.

In his Theology of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann hits just the right note:

…it is clear that story in the Old Testament has some special privilege as a governing genre. To be sure, much of the Old Testament is not in narrative form. But in other genres such as commandment, song, and oracle, I suggest that the same claims of narrative reality are operative, albeit one step removed from narrative rendering. Thus the great hymns of Israel (Exodus 15; Judges 5; Deuteronomy 33) operate with a narrative framework. The commandments are regularly embedded in the stories of Exodus and sojourn. Prophetic oracles characteristically tell what Yahweh has done and will do. (p. 66)

There is a narrative reality to the life of Israel. Its story of God provides shape to the entirety of its religious life, even those parts that are not story telling per se.

Another question about narrative arrives from a different quarter. It is sometimes asserted that the level of discontinuity from one scene to the next, particularly with the advent of Christ, undermines the “story” idea altogether.

I’m not buying that one.

Even when a character arrives on the scene in a way that the focused story does not give rise to on its own, even when the hero is imported from CTU or the CIA or Heaven, the disruption the character makes into the otherwise smooth-flowing story line does not undermine the story’s narratival character.

Here’s what Brueggemann has to say about the diversity of expression in the biblical story (in particular the OT, in this case):

The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon upon a narrative which at times is most disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. (p. 89)

Of course, any statement that begins, “The Bible insists” is already a faith statement: the idea that there is “a” Bible, equivalent to certain canonical texts and not others, is a claim of people of faith.

And, willingness to see a unity in that book is, itself, an act of faith, one that many critical scholars have spurned. Though one that people who have little or not faith can accept in order to see the world created by our sacred text.

But once we have done so, once we have said, “This Bible,” then the draw of the story, in all its complexity, is the route ahead for reading the book as a unified whole.

Reading as a story is the means by which we have our imaginations infused with the new world of glorious possibility that God is bringing to bear in the midst of the old.