Finding your place in God’s story
February 12, 2016
Seminary offers insights into narrative theology
By Melissa Lauber
Dr. Sondra Wheeler grew up knowing Scripture by heart. Today, she helps her students know the heart of Scripture.
In 1974, Wheeler was in college and took a course with Stephen Crites, a well-known theologian. Later in her life, while caring for children and an aging father-in-law, she got the urge to go back to school for a Master’s Degree. The closest schools would give her degrees in either forestry or theology. Allergic to bees, she opted for studying religion.
Upon graduating, she found she still had questions, and so went on to pursue a doctorate.
During the course of her academic pursuits, she studied with about a third of the scholars from “the Yale School,” who contributed strands of thought to what would become known as narrative theology.
“It was like attending Sunday school with the apostles,” she said.
On her bookshelf, she still has a copy of Hans Frei’s “The Eclipse of Narrative,” which she calls a “world-changing tome.”
In January, Wheeler taught the seven Doctor of Ministry (DMin) students in Wesley Seminary’s Spirituality and Story program. While her academic specialty is as a Christian ethicist, her love of language, story and thought made for a lively week-long class, providing a foundation in narrative theology to enrich the faith and practice of pastors.
During the course, the students read essays by Crites, Frei, H. Richard Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, David Ford, Johann Metz, and Gerard Laughlin and more. At the core of the reading was the understanding that up until the 16th century, the Bible was considered the framework through which life and culture was measured.
People read the Bible, Wheeler said, as “a story within which human beings found and interpreted their own stories,” and as “a narrative arc within which the world-story had its place.” However, with evolving science, philosophy, economies and politics, they began reading the Bible either as history, which could be true or false, or as religion, which might be meaningful or not to modern people.
Canon literally means “measure,” she explained. The biblical canon was the measure of all things. Today, people tend to read the biblical story according to how it fits the story humanity is telling about itself. There is a tendency to fit our story into God’s story, instead of the other way around.
Narrative theology challenges Christians to recover the Bible’s narrative character and the interpretation of the text and to find themselves reflected in, and shaped by, God’s story.
As a seminary, in the heart of the nation’s capital, Wesley draws students from a variety of faith traditions. In the Theology as Story class, there was only one United Methodist pastor, Rebecca Collison, who serves Wesley UMC in Georgetown, Del. The mother of four sons, “thing one, thing two, thing three and four,” she jokes, she is “the Mother of all Things.”
This was only their second class together. But as is the case with most of the DMin cohorts, the group of clergy bonded quickly. They included a visual artist with a heart for mission who once worked for the U.S. State Department; a dancer who writes and revels in thoughts of the glory of God; a former soldier and police officer who is a devoted father to a young boy; a pastor with deep passions who was struggling with how to heal a damaged congregation; a pastoral counselor with a love for literature; and an Episcopal priest from India who had moved to the United States only months ago.
One afternoon, seated in a circle, the members of the groups each memorized a segment of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The text came to life in new ways, as they told it to one another, and the students began to see themselves and their lives woven in among the characters of the story.
Later, they mined the psalms of lament, finding their story interwoven with the ancient poetry.
“Story is an invitation to find yourself as a character, or to see yourself in a way you might not have expected,” Wheeler said. “Stories are powerful. Stories are truth-bearing. Be a critical interpreter of the story and of your life in light of the story.”
At Wesley Seminary, there is a refectory where the doctoral students share lunch each day. On most days, the school’s president, the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, is present. He finds satisfaction in the way the seminary creates an atmosphere, and shapes pastors in ways where deep and profound learning is connected and adheres to mission and ministry in the world.
Inscribed into one of the seminary’s cornerstones is a quote from John Wesley, Methodism’s founder. It says, “Let us unite the two so long divided, knowledge and vital piety.”
At Wesley, both the thoughts and the faith are profound, and when asked about this, McAllister-Wilson finds himself thinking about Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
He leaves it at that.
As the course drew to a close, members of the class shared stories with one another. Summarizing it all wasn’t easy. Together, they had learned that “the many threads of narrative theology highlight the way in which human experience and the witness of the church are fundamentally storied and that to recover and inhabit this tradition of received narrative is to enter into the story that can makes sense of our lives together.”
In short, they began to understand that story offers the possibility of a new horizon. It is a doorway into an understanding of the divine, a gateway into the Kingdom of God. But it is not just story for story’s sake, Wheeler said. “The point of being in God’s story is that we can carry it on and invite others into it.”
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