Essay

“Complicated Narratives”

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In talking with many of my church-raised students, I’ve often heard them complain about how they heard the same handful of Bible stories again and again in their childhoods. Mostly, the “nice” stories—or if not exactly “nice” in reality, presented as defanged of any real problems or power as possible. Typically, we conclude these discussions with much wise nodding and sage remarkings on our preference for “complicated narratives.”

That’s exactly right, of course. But I’ve found that our theoretical love for the “complicated narrative” is never quite as vigorous when we’re actually faced with one. In real life, they’re hard to tell, hard to interpret, hard to hear.

And seldom is that truer, especially for the literature professor in me, than when I’m the storyteller once a month to a large group of Sunday School kids who range from kindergarten to 5th grade. That’s already a challengingly wide age range with whom to communicate. But this year, my church changed its curriculum to cover the whole Bible in-depth over a three-year period. Initially (see attitude above), I was pretty pleased: finally something grittier and more honest. No cotton-ball lambs allowed here.

Until I started to get all the hard stories.

Seriously—I got Job. The whole book. Take that, Dr. Complicated Narrative.

I also got the story from Numbers where Moses sends the 12 spies into Canaan to assess it before the Israelites are supposed to go in and conquer it. Except that 10 of the spies come back and tell about the fortified cities and the giants (along with the amazingly massive grapes), the people get freaked out and don’t want to go in despite Moses’ urging from God, and so most of that generation of people have to die by wandering in the desert for 40 more years. Good times.

Now, I’m always down with a spy story (and who doesn’t love giant grapes), but what do you do with the rest of it?

I don’t think the answer is as important initially as the hermeneutical method—in other words, how do we learn to be better interpreters? I’ve begun to ask myself:

  • Why does this story seem hard to me?
  • What makes it hard? What makes me uncomfortable?
  • What does that discomfort reveal about my actual theology (instead of my professed one?)
  • Does my theology need an adjustment? Or is this a tension I need to embrace more fully?
  • What is at the essence of this story? More specifically, what is the take-away for me today? Is this something I can share with the kids?

My moral obligation to teach these stories well means I have to come to at least provisional terms with them myself (or discover why I can’t): not just asking why the Israelites were afraid in this situation, but why am I afraid? What are the giants and fortifications that face me and that face the children I’m teaching? Surely, we understand that fear, that hesitancy, even as we ourselves are told of God’s providence. What parts of ourselves need to die in the purifying wilderness before we can move more fully into God’s promises? Are there ways that our attitudes (particularly perhaps our generational ones) are holding others back? Am I keeping folks in the desert because I’m too afraid to move forward in faith? I wonder.

And what of our interpretation of our lives? Whatever the storyline we’re currently in, I wonder how we can be more generous readers every day? What would it take to not automatically assign motives to the characters who inhabit the story with us? What would it take to be empathetic, not so quick to always identify villains? What would it take to not flatten our lives’ plotlines into easy goods and bads? What would it change if we were protagonist, not hero/heroine?

I’m not sure, but I’m teaching Sunday school again soon, and maybe I’ll get a hard story.

On second thought, they’re all hard stories.

Thanks be to the author and finisher of all of our complicated narratives.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

4 Comments

  • Esther Bos says:

    I’m with you, Jennifer! Remember all those cute nursery pictures and plaques of Noah’s ark? I have a hard time telling that story to kids these days because I am seeing a picture of all those drowning people! Somehow we knew they were wicked, but never thought about them as desperate. So many others that I see differently today. Thanks for your thoughts on communicating the stories and reconciling them within yourself.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Jennifer, Thank you for inviting us to “wonder” about complicated narratives, biblical and our own. It’s been a refreshing challenge to wonder with children, even if it leaves adults vulnerable to questions which beg further reflection on the meaning(s) of biblical stories as well as on our own life stories. I agree that we have a “moral obligation to teach these stories well, which means I have to come to at least provisional terms with them myself.” Your K-5th grade Sunday School opportunity recalls my first exposure to Young Children and Worship (1989), by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman. As a biblical storyteller (Network of Biblical Storytellers), I began to ask “wondering questions” after telling biblical stories to my congregation as well as to my own children and grandchildren. And, it was a more than a bit threatening, I think, for adult worshippers to begin to “wonder” aloud about a biblical story just told. It was a privilege to have a small part in developing the Children’s Worship model for congregations in the early ’90’s. You remind me to continue to learn to trust the author and finisher of all of our complicated narratives.

  • John Vs says:

    Perhaps the death of the church is partially because the church is not telling the whole truth. My elder, when I was in the church, told me that if the truth came out people would be hurt, and he was guarding the truth all the way. I left the church because I did not want to be part of a church that hides the truth. Since joining a non-denominational organization that teaches Biblical truth my eyes have been opened. There are many amazing stories in the Bible that have now a whole new meaning, and my spiritual life has grown. I say, hurt me, tell me the truth, I will grow!!!

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    Jennifer, how can I get into that young class? Maybe a CALL class?
    My kids heard the same-same stories every year; I wonder if that is part of their lack of interest today. Boring children with safe stories with predictable endings ensure the questions they encounter later will be much harder. If you didn’t tell us the truth before why should we listen now? How many other things I was taught are now in need of explanation?
    Agreed not all stories need full details, but I like your attempt. Maybe you could submit one here?

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