Monday, March 17, 2008

What is Christian Spirituality - Part 4 - Re-Member the Story

One of the fundamental components of human existence is the quest to answer the enigma of “Who Am I” and “What am I to do.” The answers to these questions are inseparable from one’s personal experiences, environmental shaping, as well as one’s understanding of the world in which he or she lives. For a Christian, this understanding is fundamentally embedded in the story of God’s dealing with and relating to humanity found in the Biblical narrative of Scripture.

Lamentably, the Bible has often been earmarked merely as a theological treatise, a rulebook and manual for daily living. It may be able to be utilized as any or all of these on various occasions, but is that the primary purpose of the biblical narrative? “Before the theologian,” Stevens points out, “there was the storyteller.”[1] These storytellers captured God’s interactions with humanity. It is in these chronicled narratives, as a plot of a great novel, that they paint a picture of God’s intentions in the earth, heart towards humanity and aspirations for the future. It is through these stories that we see God not only as the director of this great drama, but also the narrator and main character. At other times, it seems, God is present, but not overtly active. Perhaps He’s simply a member of the audience at large patiently waiting to see how humanity will respond and act. Nonetheless, there is a divine plot and plan to this narrative. It has movement. This story is anything, but stagnate. The power of this story isn’t merely that it happened, but that it is still happening.

Stories are living and active. If a picture or image is worth a thousand words, than what must a story be worth? Stories are multiple layered images in motion, bursting with emotion, passion, knowledge, insight, even obscure clues detectable only by the wise and discerning. God cannot be chased into a linear holding pen by the sheepdog of systematic theology, nor can He be held hostage by bullet point(s) on a spreadsheet. God cannot be captured in a photograph or some cheap biographical sketch. Stories on the other hand, though still ultimately incomplete, bring us closer to the flame, by touching the core of our humanity, exposing the very essence of who we are, while disclosing the very depths of God’s nature. Stories are ripe with metaphor, tension, conflict and climax. It is as we immerse ourselves in the narrative of Scripture that we begin to discover who we are and who we are becoming.

Christian Spirituality has suffered greatly at the hands of well-intended men and women who have attempted to dissect the sacred Scriptures on the hermeneutical operating table like some amphibian in a tenth grade biology class. Biblical hermeneutics and rigorous study do have their place within biblical spirituality, but it is imperative that we don’t ultimately dismember the story in our quest to understand the text at hand. When Scripture is treated as a systematic treatise and a guide for moral orientation, it is typically done so at the altar of sacrifice, rendering the overarching story and meta-narrative of God’s narrative splintered, segmented, with the dissected limbs left on the lab table permanently detached. For example, my five-year-old son may learn the valuable lesson of faith and courage through David’s exploits against the formidable foe Goliath. There are many such morals and faith-lessons to be extracted from Scripture. The question becomes, when we’ve stitched together all these moral extracts quaint for eulogizing, sermonizing, even chronological liturgical readings, have we done so at the expense of stripping out the very narrative threads seaming the very essence of our professed spirituality? We must remember the storyline of this sacred narrative. Remember, not as some form of cognitive calisthenics of the mind, rather a comprehensive pulling together of the various dissected pieces back into a whole. It is only as we re-member God’s story back together that our spirituality will have the holistic dimension desperately needed.

I believe it is largely this re-membering of the larger story that Stevens & Green and Bowe are endeavoring to recover. Stevens & Green, more than Bowe, capture the ethos and passion of the storyline, brilliantly making room for the humanness of us all to be seen. However, it is Bowe, who sees the story of Scripture not merely as something that happened, rather as something that is still happening. As such, she intentionally invites the reader to find his or her place in the story. She also invites the reader to find where the place(s) of the story and characters thereof may find their place within the reader, as in the case of Pharaoh.[2]

Stevens & Green vividly paint the picture of how the people of God partner with Him as active characters in this great unfolding drama. Humanity has a part to play, we are response-able, we are on a mission. “Biblical spirituality is a mission spirituality… God goes before us. God goes through us. God goes in us.”[3] Bowe on the other hand, illustrates the progressive nature of transformation and the cyclical tendencies of humanity.[4]

True Christian Spirituality must be rooted in the biblical narrative. It is incomplete without the vivid and generous expressions of God’s nature and character presented in simile and metaphor. It is made up of many parts, but insufficient without the coming together of the whole. We must mine Scripture as a pirate looking for buried treasure beneath the layers of each verse, while like a skilled seamstress or tailor weaving each thread carefully together to make one breath taking peace of art. The biblical narrative of the past, is the foundation in which our Christian spirituality is firmly rooted, while at the same time, it is very much the ongoing story in which we find ourselves in.

[1] Paul Stevens & Michael Green, Living the Story, 47.
[2] Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, 63, 66.

[3] Stevens, Living the Story, 55.

[4] Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, 63. (Israel was liberated from oppression only to later oppress others and so forth.)

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