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.