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Finding your place in God’s story

Posted by Melissa Lauber on


Seminary offers insights into narrative theology

By Melissa Lauber
UMConnection Staff

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.

The Asides

During the course, Dr. Sondra Wheeler shared lessons that extended beyond Theology and Story.

+ A rabbi once told his student that he might only preach for as long as he could stand on one foot. … What would be your one sentence that tells the story of the Gospel?

+ Of course, the story is true, although it might not have happened that way.

+ One scholar’s definition of history: “It’s just one damn thing after another.”

+ The history of the church is really the history of a conversation of who said what and who responded how.

+ Pastors: It’s your job to be eloquent. God has to be evoked by the beauty of what you say. Your calling is to speak of the Gospel in words that get people to fall in love.

+ “What is going on here,” is the most basic question that a philosophy, a faith, or even a church, can ask.

+ Be careful what you pray for. We only learn patience when we’re irritated.

+ Wanting to be transformed without change is like wanting to be a duck without getting wet.

+ Memory is the foundation of hope. Hope cannot depend on you diverting your gaze.

+ Truth is the gateway to any possibility.

+ If we have to look good to go to worship, then woe to the lost and broken.

+ The church needs to reclaim its biblical tradition of lament and protest, including protests against God, and come to see them as confessions of faith.

+ The difference between believers and non-believers is that we know who to holler at, and to whom to take our deepest despair.

+ It’s not what you’re free from, it’s what you’re free for.

+ I have a friend who talks about the difference between prayer and giving God advice.

+ Sometimes, tears and silence may be what ministry looks like.

+ Every life inhabits a story.

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.

Three points and prayer

  • Experience is not what happens, experience is the story we tell ourselves about what happens. We are makers of story. Every culture makes sense of itself through music, language and story.
  • Bible stories can are often best read in the first person. When we join a community, its history becomes our history, its stories, ours. That is why, during Passover, a Jewish boy living in Washington, D.C. can claim “I was a wandering Aramean.”
  • Christian creeds and doctrines are stories, set among an understanding of a God who acts in history. We must wrestle with the biblical stories and grapple with their meaning and status in a world full of stories.

Lord, help me to live the story I say I believe. Amen.

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.”

Three more points and a prayer

  • There is a sacred story that cannot be narrated, but is enacted. The sacred story is God’s; it is the source of the world. Myth and the stories of the Bible mediate the space between the sacred story and the stories of our lives.
  • Memory and anticipation shape the present. The complex relationship between the past, present and future is the source of drama.
  • Story can be looked at as a means of grace. It is one of the ways God communicates God’s self to us. How we interpret that story is essential. Three different cancer patients can see the reasons for their disease differently and, as a result, respond to their illness differently.

Story-teller God, let us be certain that you hold our lives. Amen.

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.

Three final points and closing prayer

  • Through liturgy, God’s story is inscribed onto people. It is not enough for the story to be read, it must be conjured into the world. In the end, theology is not what we say; ultimately, it’s what we do.
  • Tradition is more than a shared text, more than a common storied world; it is a communally authorized reading (and continual re-reading) of that story and a communally authored and affirmed performance of it in ritual and action.
  • The church not only tells the story of Jesus Christ, it continues it. The book of Acts goes on through the lived lives of the church in community.

Dearest God, help me to live so that others may enter your story. Amen.

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.”