Listen To Article
“Thank you for a reasoned, unemotional, and thoughtful essay on immigration.” I received this response to an essay that I wrote for The Reformed Journal in 2019.
I was reminded of this comment again when the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod 2022 gathering began discussing human sexuality. The chair asked that delegates “minimize your story-telling and use an economy of words.” Throughout Synod, this request was wielded to raise ‘points of order’ against those who began sharing stories.
Reasoned. Unemotional. Economy of words. These are often the paths to truth most cherished by many of the Christian communities in which I pastor.
And yet, needed reform movements in the North American church’s past have not come through brevity, unemotional data sets, or even refined theology, but rather through stories that shake us awake and invite us to look deeper at God’s will for our lives.
“Scripture is Clear On This”
Throughout the 1900s, “scripture is clear on this” was a common refrain used by white Christians to quell any opposition to anti-segregationists. The fruits of those doctrines manifested in the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, an innocent Black 14-year-old whose murderers were unanimously exonerated.
This would have become just another one of the 6,500 unanswered lynchings between 1877 and 1955 had Emmett Till’s mother not released the photos of her tortured son’s corpse in Jet Magazine. In telling her son’s story, she required that “the whole nation had to bear witness.”
Stories—especially stories of hurt and pain—compel us toward truth, truths we often do not want to hear. Stories open our hearts—as unwilling as they often are—to God’s grace, justice, and mercy. That is perhaps why we try so hard to separate them from our neat and tidy doctrines.
Scripture does no such thing. The Bible is full of story in all its forms: letters and speeches and poems and dreams and parables and apocalyptic allusions. How marvelous are these stories that brought us into the faith? How incredible that the apostle Paul doesn’t write universal guidelines in one universal letter to one universal church, but painstakingly greets people by name, asks two specific women to resolve their differences, pleads for a freed slave to be received warmly. Jesus responds to lawyers with parables. Even the book of Romans—that systematic heavyweight—was written to just one single city at one specific time, and we get to listen in.
Why would God entrust such important news to such rambling narratives, to authors who took precious space in the inspired scriptures to say something as trite as, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23, KJV)
Scripture is full of story because story is how we meet Jesus, and story is how we encounter truth. Jesus himself reminds us that truth is not a set of doctrines, not a comprehensive and air-tight belief system. Truth is the person who entered our world of stories to declare: “I am the way, the life, and the truth.” And if truth is a person, then emotion and story and passion—all the things that connect us with the person of Christ—are means to that truth.
My own love for God, my own love for the LGBTQ people who were silenced on the floor of synod, and my own love for those with whom I disagree, have all grown as I have learned to love scripture as a story-filled book.
And yet, we reduce this gifted book—so relational and poetic and persuasive—to sterile doctrines that determine who stays and who goes.
We’ve Inherited a Mess
Our modern faith has been built on separating our emotions from our arguments, our doctrines from their practical implications, and our hearts from our hands. We have created a hierarchy of understanding entirely absent from the scripture.
From the moment the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, our Christian faith heritage has been wedded to empire, and empire—or rather, power—seeks clear boundaries, explosive growth, and simple answers that are easily enforceable.
Theology valued for its clear, bullet-pointed doctrinal statements and held at arms length from our daily stories has a terrifying heritage. Our body of Christian Reformed churches has three confessional Forms of Unity, drafted in the 1500s and early 1600s, often amid persecution. I learned about their histories concurrent with the barbarities of the Dutch Slave Trade, which stretched from 1660 to 1734, forcibly removing 600,000 Africans for slavery across the Americas. How could a nation so influenced by these confessions begin a slave trade that wrecked the God-given humanity of African and Indigenous families in service of wealth and power?
I sensed an answer when my “Promise of Zion” course at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary left no room for discussion on the modern day oppression of Palestinians living in what is now Israel. When we asked about this, our professor responded, “That would be best reserved for an ethics or a political science course.” Even—perhaps especially—our pastors are trained to ignore the voices crying desperately to be heard until after we’ve completed our Bible exegesis and historical analysis. Only then do we address those cries from our positions of immovable certainty.
South African anti-Apartheid activist Allan Boesak wrote, “The anxieties of the slaves of white Christians, the fears of indigenous peoples decimated by whites. . . the despair of those who were kept in economic and political servitude by systems imposed by white Christians—the plight of these unfortunates was not even considered in Christian theology.”
Our failure to hear stories alongside and within our scripture marks our failure to see truth, to see Christ. Our theologies emerge devoid of emotion, our gatherings lofty, and our faith absent of love.
We know where this leads. So what will we do? Now that—as Mamie Till wrote—“We have borne witness.”
Perfectly stated! Amen! The body synod may have acted, but Christ’s story and his loved one’s stories will continue to be told.
When the Apostle Peter had to defend himself before the Council for his eating (communing) with uncircumcised Italian soldiers, he told the full story of what had happened, and they all listened.
Interesting, yes! It would be fascinating to see how many times the apostles, disciples, and Jesus responded to a question or rebuke with a story; and of course, the prophets.
Ja, imagine if the Apostle James had said, “Keep it short, Pete, and stick to principles. The scripture texts are very clear.”
In your Detroit cohort, did you grow up in some part of your life in the first Christian reformed church of Detroit?
O Nathan, I so resonate with your point of view.
You have described our Calvinist heritage so accurately: head divorced from heart; reason devoid of emotions; precepts before practices. Of course, it isn’t quite as monolithic as all that. There have been cracks in our “perfect” systematic theologies.
Loved your reference to oppressed people: African Americans and our friends in Israel/Palestine, to say nothing about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Jesus’ stories were meant, not to convey doctrine, but to provoke questions and reexamination of settled positions. And “repent” of sins of commission and omission. Start anew. New wine and all of that.
We have a long history of “making peace with Empire” and of preserving our wealth and power over “others.” God has a way of upending that cozyness. As is happening here. And Now. Bless you, my friend.
The power of “Story” is indeed transformative. Thanks for wanting to live it out as well as preach it!
We see similar dynamics at play in how staunch, rocked-ribbed, 19th Calvinists like Charles Hodge and R. L. Dabney could write well reasoned Reformed theological treatises and a classic book on preaching that we still value today while at he same time failing to vociferously (or even mildly) oppose the evil of slavery. Dabney even served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. History has proved them wrong. Have to wonder what history will say of us—let alone the Almighty.
You wrote exactly how I feel. Thank you!
Thank you for this, Nathan. And of course the Jerusalem council was rooted in the telling of stories. I would also suggest that reading Romans as a “systematic heavyweight” – even if written to a particular group in a particular city at a particular time – still might miss the storied character of that epistle. Paul references the whole story of Israel in this epistle – Abraham, Adam, exodus, exile, lament – reinterpreted in light of the story of Jesus, in contrast to the hegemonic narrative of the empire, within the context of the conflicted stories of this struggling community of the Way at the heart of the empire.
I think we also need to note that this Synod was still rooted in story. It is the story that Kirstin Kobes de Mez so powerfully (and painfully) tells in “Jesus and John Wayne. Yes, there was a prohibition on story telling at Synod, but that was because there was another story driving the agenda. Sadly, that is an idolatrous story that has lead so many in the CRC and beyond into apostasy.
Brian, I really appreciate these additions. After I wrote this, the thought occurred to me: everyone came to synod with stories and narratives that shaped what happened on the floor, some unacknowledged. Thank you for these thoughts, perhaps provoking for a next post.
I appreciate your replies Nathan, as my family and I grew up on the West Coast in an area where disregard for “traditional” sexual mores had detrimental effects on many of our close friends and family members. We found those in GR with a progressive political or theological bent were not interested in those stories.
So you had the opportunity to experience what “those with a progressive political or theological bent” had been experiencing all along! God was gracious to give you that pain, that feeling of being ignored and dismissed, that dispair that your story doesn’t count. Doesn’t that argue for listening to each other all the more?
Fascinating…there’s that “A” word again. I’d draw your attention to Scott Hoezee’s earlier comment under the post “Status Confessionis”…ironically addressing that comment to someone on the *exact opposite* side of the debate:
“The mere and sad fact that you poisoned the well by throwing in the term “apostasy” shows how shrill and out of control this whole debate has become. To apostasize means to reject an entire religious faith. For a Reformed church to do that, it would have to renounce the Apostles’ and Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the whole content of all three of the Reformed confessions, and any idea that the Bible is in any sense ever reliable as a source of revelation. At MOST in the debates surrounding the core issue in the HSR there is disagreement about a handful of Bible texts as well as disagreement on pastoral approaches. For you to say that this one issue–or one word among the thousands we all affirm in the three Reformed Confessions–is tantamount to wholesale apostasy is so over the top I almost feel bad dignifying this with a comment. Almost. Not to mention the hyper-judgmentalism this conveys that anyone who disagrees with you on this one issue is an apostate and not even a true child of God saved by grace and in union with Christ. Pretty sure Jesus recommended not going around in life and doing that to people who follow him.”
Perhaps both sides should refrain from using such language altogether.
I guess it all depends on how seriously you take Kirstin Kobe du Mez’s telling of the story. Was the church, in all of its orthodoxy, guilty of apostasy in Nazi Germany? Didn’t we discern that the narrative at the foundation of apartheid in South Africa was a heresy? I don’t mean to be shrill. As a convert to Christian faith, and also to a reformed worldview, I write with deep grief.
Is it the traditionalists or the revisionists on the LGBT issue who are compromising the faith? “Oh”, says everyone “that is easy, my side is the one standing with Corrie Ten Boom and Desmond Tutu, you know the good people”. The problem is both sides make that claim.
As Pastor Jason preached on Sunday, when “the expert” asked what he must do to inherit life, Jesus quoted the law, then told a story.
Scriptures, verses, we have memorized—but the narratives, the stories, the parables we _know_ and remember.
Thank you, Nathan. I am trained to lead children in worship with a brevity of words because they are developing in their language skills. Alas, has the church failed to grow up? We all have a story within us needing to be shared.
Thank you for this excellent piece. I would hope that, when the “point of order” was raised at the CRC Synod, there were voices to point out that a request is not order. I would hope that, but I suspect not. At the RCA Synod, it’s the two-minutes-to-speak rule.
Our own story has to be confronted, acknowledged, repented, lamented, and occasionally celebrated for us to grow into the future faithfully following God. How are we to do that when reading, learning, and thinking are considered elitist and even storytelling is outlawed?
So often stories are met with judgment, which leads to shame. Why can’t all of our stories be met with empathy, curiosity, acceptance and grace?
When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” we know his response. He acted out a story that led from his trial to a hill and a cross. Truth isn’t just telling a story, it is acting a story consistent with the gospel. I was struck this past week, when I used the form for installation of a pastor, that two times in that form pastors are called to weep with those who weep and suffer with those who suffer. Those are the stories we were silencing on the floor of synod. Our basic pastoral calling.
This struck me as rather confused conceptually. The emphasis on the individual story maps well our own culture, with its individualism and grounding in Romantic and Enlightenment ideals. That is, it is thoroughly Western, something time- and culture-bound, something prioritizing the individual frame. Yet any time we tell a story of any kind, make an argument (another sort of storytelling), or even advance a doctrinal statement we do so in the context of a community. To the extent that the story invites a listener, it summons up a community, either explicit as in a dispute, or tacit in terms of ‘what we hold in common.’
The individual story cannot dismiss this larger communal project, but can enrich it—this is the common path of the Talmud, of the ancient church and indeed of non -western cultures.
As a missionary and preacher in several different cultures for 50 plus years, I have never “preached” a sermon that didn’t include at least 2 or 3 stories. The nearly unanimous response from those who listened was “Thank you for your stories. They helped us understand the good news.”
Jesus was a story teller, not a systematic theologian, not a church order guru setting guidelines for worship and meetings., which is why had such a following in Galilee. He had time to listen, time to understand the needs of the 1000’s of people who gathered on hillsides to listen to him. Where would the Good Samaritan be if it were not for Jesus’ story? Still in the ditch alongside the path bleeding from his wounds?
He said, “Follow me” and when people asked him questions he never answered, “Make it short and to the point”. He simply listened and then told a story. Synod 2022 of the CRCNA seemed to have have missed the biblical message here.
The First Nations Version of the NT translates Matthew 13:10-11 quite differently from the NIV that I grew up with:
The ones who walked the road with him (Creator Sets Free) came to him and asked, “Wisdom-Keeper, tell us why you use stories to teach the people.”
He answered them, “To you the honor has been given to understand about the mysterious ways of Creator’s good road from above. This honor is not given to those who are not ready for it.”
Jesus uses stories to draw us into the mystery of the kingdom, and hearing these stories is an honor.I’d like to honor honor fellow travelers on the road by hearing their stories, too.
Thanks for the emphasis on “story telling” by Jesus and others in the NT. It is stories of real life that both trouble me and help me understand.