Monday, October 26, 2009

Tell Me a Story

Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, was a guest at our church over the weekend for a Baptist Heritage weekend. In a couple of the discussions and over lunch on Sunday, the postmodern question was interjected. Leonard made some comments to the effect that there are fewer metanarratives—grand, all-encompassing stories—that all Christians look to for meaning. In contrast, there are a number of stories that link us to God’s story.

One of the key theological themes to emerge in the 20th century was contextual theology. The idea is that our context and our experiences shape how we talk about God. We see expressions of this in the emergence of black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, and so on. If we consider this carefully, we realize that this makes sense. We each come to the biblical story with our own perspective, one that provides the lens of our understanding.

This is not strictly a personal matter, however. Theology and community are necessarily connected. “Theology” is “a word about God.” Words are used in communication with other individuals. We build community upon written and verbal communication. We may think about God as individuals, but we talk about God as part of a community.

We see this in the gospels, written documents that are the products of worshipping communities. As these early Christians lived their lives and shared their faith, they drew upon the teachings of Christ that strengthened and empowered them. Prompted by God’s Spirit, they recounted, recalled, and applied the appropriate teachings of Jesus to their own community experiences.

Although we can list any number of great theologians—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc.—who labored long and hard to produce eloquent writings about God, ultimately they were accountable to a community of faith that either accepted or rejected their formulations. Theology is not done simply by individuals; it is done within a community context.

This brings me back to the value of the stories that are shared in community. Faith stories are formative for believers but they are embodied in community. Ideally, each story connects with God’s story in its own unique way. Our challenge is to learn to listen to other stories with an openness to learn and to discern if someone else’s story helps us to understand our own. Perhaps we no longer have a metanarrative, but we do have a promising anthology to consider.

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