Who’s Story Are We Telling, and How?

Posted: November 18, 2011 in Hermeneutics
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Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...

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Each Sunday millions of self-proclaimed Christians gather in adorned buildings to sing songs, hear scripture read, and hear it expounded upon to one degree or another. For many this is what it entails to be a Christian. But does this mean that those who practice this are really following Jesus? Is being a Christian really about gathering, talking, praying, singing, and serving or is there more to it? What about the substance of those stories we tell and their practices? As I have been reading the scriptures and early church fathers what I find is that living as a follower of Jesus led down a particular path which starkly contrasts my cultural experience of church.

In the midst of the postmodern culture’s affection for empty spirituality that focuses upon the self for the benefit of the self, I sense a movement of the contemporary church toward this postmodernist self-centrism concerned more about the look and feel of the church in which following Jesus becomes just a tag line. It seems to me that we in the church are so concerned about assimilating to society and its preponderance for pleasure that we have forgotten what it means to live differently. It’s easy to talk about being a contrast community, but when it gets right down to it we never ask and answer the question, “what am I willing to sacrifice to live such a way?” Consequently, in our pursuit of pleasure we have created a system of perception that qualifies pleasure as a fundamental right to be pursued. As such it has become integral to the very identity that we claim.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as this even. Our hermeneutical lenses are shaped by the metanarrative of western modernity in such a way that the story we claim as the core of who we are is supplanted to a secondary position (in some cases it is removed completely). Examples of this reveal themselves in the way we define success and our focus upon the numerical bottom line. Our congregations are governed by budgets that look more like business spreadsheets and savings accounts than the common purse of Jesus’ disciples. We invest our money in a market (which includes large banks) that has created and sustains poverty and injustice with great prejudice. Rather than evangelism we market our churches and our faith. We spend money to place an out of context passage of scripture on a bill board from the safety of our offices without ever having to meet those who might read it. It’s just business.

A most unfortunate consequence of this is how we have changed the way we read scripture. For the Church of the Brethren this has been evidenced in a conspicuous manner. As I was rereading the 1979 Annual Conference paper on the authority of scripture it became increasingly clear the degree to which the metanarrative of modernity (and now post-modernity) has affected the Brethren community. The evidence to this is that the arguments of both Christian “liberalism” and “fundamentalism (now moderated into evangelicalism)” are represented in this paper with terms and methods such as “inerrancy and historical critical methodology” having prevalent centrality in the issue of scriptural authority. Ironically both of these schools of thought (liberalism and fundamentalism) share the same philosophical parents (Descartes, Locke and Hume)[1] all of which represent the philosophical foundations of modernity.

What this means is that Brethren have supplanted God’s metanarrative (what we call the Bible) with modernity’s metanarrative (and its children, e.g., consumerism, capitalism, western democracy, etc.). “Why is this significant?” one might ask. By accepting the premises of modernity’s metanarrative as legitimate over and against God’s metanarrative, from a hermeneutical perspective it is modernity and its systems that now serve as the primary interpretive lens used by the believing community. In other words, rather than our perception of reality (our surrounding universe) being shaped by God’s metanarrative, instead it is shaped by a cynical story that begins with doubt rather than faith (think about how modernity has written off the resurrection because it is seemingly incomprehensible according to the systems of analogy). Modernity’s story, while cynical, is one of progress and affluence. It tells a story of optimism claiming the ability to solve the world’s problems and achieve prosperity. However, the underlying story of modernity entails utilitarianism and capitalism and the story that there is a cost for progress, hence, vast regions of poverty and injustice.  Someone has to pay for progress. Not everyone can benefit from it.

To be clear, I am not saying that the church should deny the story of modernity (for surely the computer upon which I am writing this is a benefit of modernity’s story). What I am saying is that God’s metanarrative is the church’s metanarrative (in that the church is part of God’s telling of the great story). And as such, the church with its hermeneutical lens in place should (and ought to) engage modernity and post-modernity in conversation holding them to account in much the same way they have attempted to hold the church to account. Rather than allowing modernity and post-modernity to frame the conversation with their presuppositions, the church should tell the story of God (which is the story of the cross) holding these stories in tension. It is only in the midst of such tension that the prophetic message of the gospel is proclaimed. While there is certainly much to be gleaned from these conversations, the church’s telling of God’s story offers a contrasting perspective on the world, its inhabitants and their origins. It tells of a story of creation that is struggling in its separation from its creator, yet through miraculous grace it tells of the Creator pursuing the creation in love. It tells the story of a God who is about setting all the wrongs to right. It tells a story of hope and not optimism, of faith and not cynicism, of love and not apathy. And yet it is a story that is told in such a way that it requires the listener to let go of everything held as “true” so as to apprehend “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Modernity and post-modernity mock such stories as infantile fantasies. However, it is in the contrast of telling (living) God’s story that his light truly shines.

[1] This shared origin was convincingly argued by Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).

  1. Joshua Brockway says:

    Nice summary. And I like how you bring in the early church….but then of course I am biased!

    One thing I think Christian leaders who have celebrated Post-Modernity miss is that within the Post-Modern frame is the rejection of Metanarratives. As I read many of the post-structuralists and deconstruction writers it is clear they have identified the totalizing function of these over-arching stories. Yet, I am not one to set aside Metanarratives for that reason. Rather, I think it presses persons of faith to be clear that we have adopted a particular metanarrative. In other words, we take on a metanarrative as our own story, or a story of which we are a part.

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