At the Melbourne Theatre Company last night, I notices they have a series of talks on ‘Conversation, Revelation, Discussion’.
This sounds exactly like what I think theology should be. But the big challenge is: who gets to engage in the conversation, the self-revelation (is it only divine revelation, or only human revelation, or some meeting of both?) and who engages in this discussion?
I find the idea of theology as conversation realling interesting. I think, though, that it is worth including another element and that is story. Conversations usually revolve around and move through the telling of stories, and wihtout them conversation really easily collapses into a monologue or even a little lecture, or just a series of jibes and jokes —which can be fun, for sure, but it won’t last for long.
I teach a class about story in theology, and here are some of the key ideas.
Stephen Crites has written on ‘the narrative quality of experience. ‘The Narrative Quality of Experience’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion XXXIX, 3,(Sept. 1971) 291-311. Reprinted in Stanley Hauerwas & Gregory Jones (ed.) Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, 65-88.
We all tell stories, day by day. Most of our stories are what Crites calls ‘mundane stories’. But among all these mundane stories some stories take on further significance: they become sacred stories.
They are sacred not because they are about gods or god-like happenings, but because of their power influence people’s sense of self and of the world. These stories create who we are, they shape our world and thus we live within these stories.
But in modernity we have developed two very effective ways of breaking the power of story and expelling from our experience the sense of narrative. These two ways are abstraction and contraction.
In the first, experiences are seen as the data for the formation of generalized principles and techniques. We make life into patterns, norms, generalizations: consistent wisdom, reliabilities, predictabilities, etc. We do some science on life itself.
The second tendency runs the opposite (and in most of our lives these two things happen at once) – here we do not focus on the broad sweep of experience, but narrow right down to the immediacy of now, how I feel now, etc.
Both of these tendencies work to destroy the sense of story in our lives.
I think one of the besetting problems of theology is precisely this tendency towards abstraction. Usually we call it ‘doctrine’. But for me the interesting challenge is what we do about it. Of course, there is a place for abstraction. After all, Crites has written about stories, in a very abstract way. But there is now a strong movement to reclaim the power of stories within theology.
Indeed one theologian, Michael Root, has argued that of all areas in theology, soteriology (salvation theology) especially has this narrative character: here especially we are telling a story, the story of our salvation. ( Michael Root, ‘The Narrative Structure of Soteriology‘ Modern Theology 2,2 (Jan. 1986), 145-157. Reprinted, Hauwerwas & Jones, Why Narrative?, 263-278).
Christian proclamation tells the Jesus story. But the Jesus story is in fact two sorts of things at the same time:
– the actual events, depicted in the stories, as they were in the past; and
– the present-ing, the making present, the telling and the hearing, understanding and receiving: something happens to and for the hearer.
Root argues for what he calls a storied relation to the reader: In effect the story and the reader no longer exist in isolation from one another: rather they constitute one world and one story.
In my book Fair Dinkum Ministry, I wrote an essay called ‘Can we please have another story?’ The title comes from something my daughter used to say, at bedtime: and I comment on the words. Can we: the stories we read or tell are communal in nature; have: suggesting that stories are actually experiences; and another story is used to suggest that we – all of us – need to rediscover a different story, or even the story, the story of which we are part. (See my publications list for the details of this book.)
The essay tells a few stories about how I discovered the storied nature of faith: and then it goes on to talk about the nature of stories.
I use the two ideas that stories are open to us and that they open us. They are open to us in that we can actually discover that we are part of the story. We find ourselves in the story. That is why a film or a play or a musical can be tiring, even exhausting: we are actually engaging in it, with it, maybe even wrestling with it. A story gathers us in and carries us along. And with it, we discover many things, many truths.
One of the most interesting challenges in the area of story theology and in the idea of theology as conversation is the question of truth, or the place of truth in this process. What does it mean to be truthful, in story and in conversation, when the story is our own lives and our understanding of faith and life, or God?
Is it something more like being truthful, or authentic, than speaking facts, telling a ‘true story’ as opposed to a false or ‘mythical’ story? Perhaps this idea of facts, and the disparaging idea of ‘myth’, can be challenged by the power of story and of genuine covnersation. Maybe it is here, in this discussion, that ‘revelation’ can really happen for us.