Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Spiritual Formation by Story Telling

We are all stories tellers. Stories have an important role in stimulating our imagination and our sense of wonder. Jesus uses parable or stories to teach important lessons. Other religious traditions also use stories to teach. Some stories teach “straight forward” moral lessons. Others are cryptic that leads one deeper into the spiritual life such as the koans of Zen Buddhism. Stories have the power to bypass the filters of our mental models to reach our subconscious and evoke responses. Hence stories are powerful tools for the spiritual life.

First, the Bible contains the greatest story of all, a metanarrative that tells of the love of God for man and of his redemptive plan to redeem the whole of creation. Brian McLaren calls this a “redemptive metanarrative” because unlike other metanarratives, it does not wipe out other narratives and impose itself as the only one. What it does is allow other narratives to come alongside and join it. The story or Christian meta-narrative is an important part of our faith journey. It gives us a sense of identity of who we are as ourselves and as children of God, and where we are going. The telling and retelling of the exodus narrative is an example of the principle of using stories to educate in the Old Testament. The exodus narrative tells of God’s faithfulness, deliverance, protection and guidance like in Exodus 3-20.

Loren Stuckenbruck from the University of Durham proposes that the Gospel of Mark was written specially for believers and for their spiritual formation as “it (Gospel of Mark) draws the church into an experience of trust in God who is very much alive." This biblical metanarrative on the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians and subsequent history of the nation of Israel being under the influence of other stronger nations with their dominant religious systems should resonate with Malaysian Christians who were once colonised by the Europeans so they know what it is like to be politically oppressed.

Second, the metanarrative is also called the Christian Story. Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, used the highlight of the Christian Story as the chapters of his book of the same name; “Creation, Fall, Covenant, Jesus Christ, Church, Salvation, Consummation, with their Prologue and Epilogue, God.”

Susanne Johnson from Perkins School of Theology, Southern mehodist University emphasis the idea that language and understanding culture plays an important role in realising our stories or narratives and how our stories fit into the Christian Story. In Malaysia, a positive post colonial legacy is the English language. This language allows Malaysian Christians to enter into a wider English speaking world where there are so much resources in that language. The Chinese emphasis on education also means that, more and more Chinese are being fluent in English. This is an important factor in effective communication.

Third, Johnson developed a model of spiritual formation based on the Christian Story. Spiritual growth was when we recognize that we each have our own stories and that we need to link our stories to that of the Christian Story. The Christian Story forms the context while the stories of the local congregation forms and informs our formation. The key to this formation is participation in worship, praxis and instruction, using the means of grace. Johnson calls this involvement of the church as “Steps in the Divine Dance of Redemption”

(1) Consciousness raising – is in sharing our own stories. As we share, we will realise that we are not alone, that others have similar stories to tell.
(2) Historical-contextual investigation – relating our story to the story told in the Bible.
(2) Theological. reflection - helps to look for answers that our stories raises in the Bible
(3) Norm clarification – our conclusions from our reflections help us to decide what are the normative values and responses we need to make.
(4) Strategic options for action – we then take positive steps.
(5) Annunciation and celebration – here, we act as a church to affirm the decision and action.
(6) Reorientation and re-entry – moving on in our stories, we continue the dance.

This is one example on why using our own stories and relating it to the Christian Story helps members of the communities of faith to grow spiritually. It implies trust and opening of “sacred spaces” where we can share without fear of being judged or condemned. The telling of the stories of the Malaysian Christians and linking it into the Christian Story offers and gives hope in living in Malaysia.

Finally, story telling is a very effective way of communication that cuts through our mental models. Mental models or worldviews are filters which our mind has formed concerning our perception of reality. We only perceive what our mental model allows us to. That is why what the mind does not know, the eyes do not see. A story has the power to bypass the safeguards of our mental models and reach our minds. A story can be a powerful tool for teaching. Jesus uses parables which are a form of stories.

Simon Chan from Trinity Theological College comments,
“There is a joke among English-speaking pastors that Chinese preachers don't preach; they tell stories. But without either of them knowing it, the Chinese preachers may have had the last laugh. In conveying the gospel through story-telling, they have in fact come closer to the biblical narrative tradition than their Western-educated counterparts.”

Again this highlights the differences between the English educated preachers and the Chinese educated preachers. English educated preachers usually received a Western style theological education which is based on Greek philosophy. It is normally strongly propositional in its argument. The Chinese educated preachers’ training is strongly influenced by Confucian ethics and pedagogy and may be considered pre-propositional in its argument. Hence their masterful use of stories.

Story Telling is an effective component of our spiritual formation.

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Blogger Paul said...

Amen to story telling where Christ is seen. I love narrative preaching among other things .. tough to tell a story well but so rewarding.

4:47 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi paul,

I know what you mean. It is difficult to tell a good story but very rewarding when you see your audience's eyes light up when comprehension dawns on them.

And people tend to remember stories better.

BTW, how do you prepare your narrative sermons?

12:54 PM  

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