Stories come before theology.
I know it's ironic to begin this post with a propositional statement instead of a narrative, but that's the dogma that's been running through my brain these days as our life has been plunged into upheaval over the past month.
In case you missed the memo: Josh, Marshall, and I gave away most of our furniture and threw the rest of our worldly goods into a UHaul and moved from Chicago to Philadelphia so that I could start my new job at Red Letter Christians. Our life is still packed away in boxes since we won't be moving into a more permanent apartment until the beginning of October. When I packed most of my books, I accidentally packed away my writing pad, too. I see that boxed notepad as a metaphor for my humanity, which has gone into hibernation for a spell. There’s just no time or space to devote to book writing at the moment, and in the absence of my craft, I feel stymied (though writing this blog helps me to breathe a little).
But back to my propositional pontificating on stories.
It's not that stories should come first (though this is probably also true), but stories do come first. Of course, there isn't always a clean line between story and theology, but I think of theology as reflection–the ordering or explanation–that takes place after the dust settles. We had the experience, but missed the meaning. The reflection helps us to make sense of the experience–to explicate its meaning. Our past experiences collide with the present ones, and our theology is what comes when we begin to sort that out. So theology is important, but it doesn't come first.
I used to think that we start (or should start) with theology and view our experiences through those lenses. Now I realize that we begin with stories, plunged from birth into a world of sensations and relationships that we try to make sense of as time passes.
When it comes to the stories of the Bible, we may want to come with a clean slate, but this is not how relationships work, nor does it reflect the reality of Jesus' incarnation. We come with our stories, our histories, our interpretations. As we read the Bible–or encounter the stories of Israel and Jesus through a friend–we begin to see how these collide with our story, and how our story collides with them. They do not erase our story, nor does our story erase the story of Jesus embodied in scripture and the history of God's people. Jesus' story interrupts ours, and our story interrupts his.
I now work as an assistant to man who is, among other things, a professional story-teller. He travels and speaks, and often begins his messages with stories. And as I hear him speak, I realize that what makes him such a good speaker is that the stories he tells are not illustrations for theology. The stories are the message, whether they are stories from scripture or stories from his life or the lives of those around him (often a mix of both). The theology becomes an explication of those stories, an unpacking of the meaning. The stories are not a stepping stone to the theology, but the root of it.
If God had wanted an uninterrupted story or set of unchangeable propositions–a monolithic narrative or unmalleable theology–he would not have made us creative creatures that make decisions and shape the course of history. If he wanted an uninterrupted story, he would have made us machines that work but have no freedom, or he would have made us free and left us to our own devices. He does neither. He insists that this is not just his story nor is it just ours. He creates the human world and enters it–first through creation, then through his dealings with Israel and then–most intimately–through Jesus, God made flesh.
Stories come first. The Gospel–the ‘announcement’ or ‘proclamation’–of Jesus the Christ (‘the Messiah’) is the height of a series of stories that began long ago. The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain some of the earliest traditions about how Jesus’ story collided with the story of Israel and how the experiences of Jesus’ followers collided with Jesus. Although the letters of the Apostle Paul were in circulation before the four Gospels were written, these Gospels are based largely on stories that people were already telling in the community about Jesus. Paul takes the stories of Jesus and begins to unpack them for the new faith communities that are springing up across the Mediterranean world, explaining the narrative and theological significance of Jesus’ life–significance that had only just started coming to light.
Stories come first. Stories should not compete with theology, but be the basis of theological reflection–and then that reflection, in turn, begins to shape and re-shape our stories as the stories are told again and again in new ways and in new communities. Stories are not (primarily) illustrations for theology, but the soil where the seed of experience begins to be nourished by the water and sun of reflection.