It was the great Karl Barth, theologian of the ‘Word of God, who lamented that the reformers had left us nothing in our churches, no images, no symbols. no visual helps, as we try to pray, nothing except words.
At least in some places, people are bringing back banners, candles, cloths and other symbols, as ways of expressing our emotions, our experiences, out life in worship.
All this I think is part of our protest against a religion of words and ideas alone. We have had a long time of trying to extract doctrines, from the bible, and formulating sets of words, which we tell people they have to believe – and we call all that talk ‘faith’.
We take key experiences of God and turn them into what we call
doctrines – a form of faith and theology that is so hung up on words,
and so easily loses the life itself that gave rise to those doctrines
Frankly I think a lot of that is counter-productive to faith, and it misses so much of what the Bible is really about.
I believe that the most effective way most of us can read the bible and participate in some authentic faith is by rediscovering the basic medium through which not only the faith but almost everything in our lives is mediated to us, and that is through story.
Bring back story …
We need a theology not of words and doctrines, but a theology of story.
It is through a theology of story that our faith – and we – can live.
I went once to the ancient town of Angers, in France, where they
have restored the chapel of the old castle: and within this chapel are
preserved a magnificent compendium of theology: there are 28 enormous
tapestries, originally rich in colours, each tapestry almost the size
of a room.
We can’t imagine how long it took people to design and make these
things: but what is clear is that this is how people understood and
lived their faith.
Each tapestry tells a story, a part of the story of faith: there you
see something about the creation of the world, and the first human
beings; later the stories of the exodus, and the land of promise, of
David, and later of Jesus, some of his stories, and the cross,
resurrection, ascension; and the church, the coming of the Spirit, and
what to seem to us rather weird presentation of judgement and the life
Ancient churches had windows and paintings and tapestries to tell their
stories – it was only when the printing press came that people could
even imagine they could have faith without the windows and the
tapestries: But they did not only lose the art work: they also lost a
sense of the stories: of faith and life as story.
When you walk along, looking at these things, you pass along the
stories – and it gives you a sense of where you have been and where you
Very many cultures and religions around the world use stories like this
to shape their daily lives. Our stories help us to be, to know who we
are and where we belong.
Jesus was a great story-teller: and the stories Jesus told are part of
a much greater story, which includes Jesus himself: a story which we
can tell – at least we can tell part of it, but like all great stories,
we find that in the telling, we discover that we are part of it: we tell
the stories and we find some orientation, some direction, some
As we tell the story we discover that God, the story, is including us
in the story: our life together is rekindled: we come alive again.
John chapter 3 is an excellent example of biblical story theology.
It’s a great story. It has a lot of the basic ingredients of a good
story: it begins with the dark, mysterious stranger – we don’t know who
he is, except he is a Pharisee, a religious leader, who comes to Jesus
at night. Why does he come at night – cloke-and-dagger like … we do
But the mystery just gets worse, not better: the plot thickens, because
the teacher is now cast in a different light: he does not understand.
Jesus talks of a different birth, and the teacher asks how it is
possible to be born again.
Then comes the great word play, as the idea of Spirit and wind – the
same word, both in Hebrew and in greek – is played with: the wind blows
here and there, and so too does the spirit –
can you catch it – now you can, now you can’t;
can you see it – now you can, now you can’t;
And so the play on words and images and new possibilities opens out… things of earth, things of heaven,
and images of a life lifted up, in execution, and another life, coming from above…
and as you follow it — not understanding it all, not as words and
ideas, but just following it as dialogue in a story, suddenly you
realize that what is supposed to be a private consultation between
Jesus and Nicodemus is somehow now a public talk: Jesus is presented as
making pronouncements about God:
and so we come to this great declaration that God has so much loved
all the world, that God has sent Jesus, so that everyone who trusts in
him might have life.
Then, with this, other sayings too: which invite us to
determine where we are up to in the story, where we belong: whether we
want to trust, or whether we find the light a bit much for us, and
choose to remain in the night, in the darkness…
and suddenly we see that Nicodemus has disappeared altogether.
The Nicodemus story has opened out, opened up to include us: it’s
us now, coming in from the night, or trying to work out whether we
prefer the darkness.