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A PILGRIM PEOPLE
Learning Through the Church Year
By John H. Westerhoff III
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 John H. Westerhoff III
All rights reserved.
GOD'S STORY AS OUR STORY
The ability to sustain a narrative that defines its life is one of the crucial elements of viable community. We become a people, a community, as we acquire a story. And we remain a community so long as we retell that story. Our identity is dependent on having a story that tells us who we are; our understanding of life's meaning and purpose is dependent on having a story that tells us what the world is like and where we are going. To be a community of faith, we must be a people with a story: a common memory and vision, common rituals or symbolic actions expressive of our community's memory and vision, and a common life together that manifests our community's memory and vision.
The church is a story-formed community. Baptism is our adoption into a story, God's recreative story, which is recorded in the community's story book (the Holy Scriptures), incarnate in the community's life, and made present through its sacramental rituals, especially the Holy Eucharist. Each of us also has a story. To each community Eucharist we bring our stories and reenact God's story so that God's story and our stories may be made one story. In the context of our liturgies we are initiated into God's story and we appropriate its significance for our lives so that it might influence our common life day by day. And as we journey through history and traverse life-cycle passages, the retelling of God's story sustains us and moves us on.
Our most important and fundamental task as Christians is to learn God's story. All our Christian beliefs, experiences, and actions are dependent upon our internalization of God's story, that is, making God's story our story. This explains why for a number of years I have described the first aim of catechesis as the acquisition and appropriation of God's recreative story, through participation in the church's rituals and through reflection on the intersection of our life stories and God's story, so that we individually and corporately may more faithfully manifest God's story in our lives.
All of this may seem obvious, but it has not been normative in the church's life and learning. I am continually surprised at how few people in the church know God's story or are able to express how their stories and God's story touch and inform each other. More important perhaps, I have discovered that even those who claim interest in God's story as found in the church's story book, the Holy Scriptures, are more interested in doctrine than sacred story. The temptation of theology is to interpret the foundational stories of the Christian faith and then treat the interpretations as if they were that which was originally given. Theology is founded on thoughts and concepts that, if taken overseriously, will replace with dogma and institutions the stories that make faith and community possible. Indeed, the vast majority of books on the church year turn out to be books primarily on doctrine, as do the majority of so-called "Bible-centered" curriculum resources.
Have you ever tried to discuss the Bible with a literalist? For literalists there is no story, no poetry, no imagination, only doctrinal truths to be believed, that is, to be asserted intellectually as true. The Bible for them becomes a collection of proof texts for doctrine, ideas about God to be believed rather than a story book to be dramatized and lived out within a story-formed community. Indeed, to say that the Bible is essentially myth or sacred story (true story)—that is, history but much more—is offensive to many. Sacred story, or God's story as found in the Holy Scriptures, embraces history but is not merely history. Sacred stories are destroyed when taken literally, for their function is to point beyond themselves to God and to bring the experience of God into our present.
The stories were not collected by the church as a theology textbook. Nothing can replace a story. Stories resist definitive interpretation and invite commentary. Theology is abstract but not story; story invites participation. We discuss theology but experience story. Theological speculation limits and divides; story frees and unites. Only adults can engage in meaningful theological reflection. Stories are for all ages. "Tell me a story" is the request of every child. At the heart of the Christian faith is story, not dogma.
The major roles in Peter Shaffer's play Equus are an adolescent boy and his psychiatrist. The young man has blinded a number of horses after being seduced by a woman employee of the stable. The psychiatrist's task is to analyze the cause of this psychotic behavior and free the young man for productive life. What is unveiled in the drama is the mental torment of a patient and the story he developed to make it tolerable. The psychiatrist comments, "We need a story to see in the dark." We all need such a story. Stories are the means by which we see reality. Without a story it would appear as if we lived in an unreal world. Without a story we cannot live. Without a story we cannot have community. In the beginning is a story that provides us with both a memory linking us meaningfully with the past and a vision calling us to a purposeful future. Without a story life makes no sense. The story that is foundational to our life provides us with the basis for our perceptions and for our faith. Faith is manifested in story; story communicates faith. Anyone familiar with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will remember that the pilgrims told stories on the way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. Stories are the imaginative way of ordering our experience. The pilgrimage of life requires a story.
The gospel began as a narrative including stories, sayings, songs, and interpretations remembered by those who had experienced life with Jesus of Nazareth and had concluded that he was the Christ. Later these were collected and arranged for various purposes (Matthew as a catechism for Jewish Christians and Luke as a catechism Gentile Christians, Mark as a spiritual journal, and John as a witness to sacrament), written down, and in the end authorized for inclusion in the church's canon. Christianity is based upon and arises out of that story; the church's faith and life are first communicated by and later conceptualized through its story. Still it remains a story handed down from generation to generation as a symbolic narrative that forms and transforms our perceptions, evokes images, fires our imaginations, and thereby turns daily life into holy history.
Stories are concrete and particular. They are not expressions of doctrine or universal truth. Stories are open-ended. They are not to be read literally; as a matter of fact, stories give the storyteller freedom in their retelling. Stories stimulate the imagination. There is not only one interpretation of a story; indeed, the listener is encouraged to listen freely and discover personal meaning. Stories are experiential. They are told by a participant, and they are to be participated in. Stories are the bottom line of human communal life: Nothing else is ultimately needed.
The Bible is a storybook. Basically, it is a love story between God and humanity; it is a story of a covenant made, broken, and renewed, again and again. God as creator, redeemer, and perfecter loves each creature, personally and as members of the whole human community. In return, we are expected to love God, ourselves, and each other.
The Bible is a book of faith: that is, the Bible presents a way to perceive life in general and our lives in particular. The Bible is a book of revelation: that is, the Bible unveils those intimate relationships with God experienced by others so that we might share in them. The Bible is a book of vocation: that is, the Bible gives us a vision of how we ought to live our lives with God and each other day by day.
We need to enlarge our grasp of this love story—to learn it more completely, to understand it more deeply, to possess it more personally, and to live it more fully. This is a lifelong task. But the place to begin is always the same: We need to learn to tell the story as our story. And the purpose of our learning to do so is always the same: to transform individual and social life so that God's will might be done and God's reign might come.
As a storybook, the Bible is made up of various kinds of stories. They are myths, apologies, narratives, and parables, to name four. Each serves a different and unique function.
The function of myth is to establish our world. Myths explain that this is the way life really is, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Myths are not false stories. In fact, as the Pawnee Indians were wise to point out, it is history that is composed of false stories. Myths are true stories, because they are about God; they are more than history in that they point beyond history to its meaning. The stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection are myths. They explain the meaning and purpose of life. They are true stories, in the most important sense of those words, for they explain our world. Everyone lives by some collection of myths. No one finds meaning or purpose in life without them.
Apologetic stories defend our myths. They are primarily biographical, for what better defense is there for a particular way of envisioning life than the lives of those who believe it and live by it? It is difficult to argue with the person who is willing to suffer and die for a particular way of understanding life and its meaning. That is why the stories of the saints, the ancient and modern heroes of the faith, are also important to know and share.
Narrative stories explore the world that our myths establish and the biographies of believers defend. For example, one myth may tell us that God is a merciful and loving God, but our experience may indicate otherwise. Narratives explore these contradictions and in the end reaffirm the myth. The story of Job is a perfect example.
And last, there are parables whose function is to subvert the way our culture sees life so that we might perceive the world in ways consistent with our myths. For example, the second half of the Jonah story and Jesus' story of the vineyard have a similar message: God does not give us what we deserve, but what we need. That is consistent with the Judeo-Christian myth of a gracious and merciful God, but it is subversive to those of us who live in a reward-and-punishment world. This world defines justice as getting what you deserve and has difficulty supporting welfare for fear people will get something they do not deserve.
Of course, there are other sorts of material in the Bible, such as prophetic judgments on people and communities who live lives that violate the implications of the community's myths. There are songs and prayers that celebrate life as it is lived within the context of our myths, and there are words of wisdom gleaned from experience that support the community's myth. But at the heart of it all is a love story, the Christian myth that must be known, owned, and lived if we are to be Christian.
Our greatest human need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. An understanding of the meaning of life is not suddenly acquired at a particular age. At every point in our lives, we need to discover some meaning. The whole process begins in childhood, when we learn through stories. To hold our attention, a story must entertain us and arouse our curiosity, but to enrich our lives, it must stimulate our imaginations and provide us with ever new and deeper meanings. Stories emerge from and speak to our responsive, intuitive consciousness. That is why it is meaningless to take our sacred stories of our symbolic narratives literally; it is equally meaningless to try intellectually to discover their meaning by searching for what can be rationally verified in them. Sacred stories speak to our deepest, unconscious longings and questions, our problems and predicaments, our inner and outer struggles in human life. They exist in the form of truth that only intuition and imagination can provide, truth just as significant and real as the truth that comes through logical analysis and scientific probing.
The Bible story is a symbolic narrative. That is why it enlightens us about ourselves and fosters our growth. It offers meaning on varying levels and enriches our lives in countless ways. The meanings of each story will change at different times in our lives; insights will vary, depending on our needs and experiences at the moment. That is why it is a mistake to explain a story or tack on a moral at its close. When we use the Bible to indoctrinate people, we destroy the story and do injustice to the Scriptures. When we simply tell stories without explanations, people want to hear the stories over and over again. And when we have derived all we can from a story, we will temporarily set it aside until it becomes relevant once again.
It is important for us to remember that both children and adults need stories. It is human nature to order our lives in accordance with a story. Stories make sense out of the chaos of life on the level of the unconscious: that is, poetic stories provide our imaginations with the means of ordering our experiences. They leave us open to new insights and inspirations. Stories preserve the memory of past events and the experiences to help shape our lives.
Stories are fundamentally oral and communal in nature. They are meant to be told, dramatized, sung, danced, and expressed through the visual arts. They are not intended only to be read. We forget that the biblical story was written down only because the community was worried that its storytellers would forget or distort the story, or neglect some important aspects of it. We need to return to telling and celebrating our story, as a people of God.
Stories are of central importance in human life, and they are enacted through our rituals. We humans cannot live without ritual; our religious life is expressed collectively through symbolic narratives (sacred stories) and symbolic actions (rituals and ceremonies). Perhaps no aspect of life is more important than our ceremonial life. We humans are made for ritual, and our rituals make us. No community exists without a shared story and shared repetitive symbolic actions. Our understandings and our ways are invariably objectified in ceremonial observances. Faith and ritual cannot be separated. Thus, when the prophets sensed that the people were forsaking their faith, they attacked the rituals as empty substitutes. But when the people had lost their faith, the prophets called them to return to their rituals. Without rituals, we lack a means for building and establishing purposeful identity; we are devoid of any significant way to sustain and transmit our understandings. Rituals, like stories, emerge from and speak to our intuitive, emotional consciousness. That explains why dance, drama, music, and visual arts are the basic means by which our rituals are enacted. And that is why poetry more than prose is the basic means by which ritual is expressed in words. When worship becomes too intellectual or wordy, it loses its depth and significance.
One of the problems in western culture, especially post-Reformation, Enlightenment culture, is that it is ocular in nature: that is, it is a book-oriented culture that reads and writes. We speak of the "eyes of faith" and hold that "seeing is believing." We are wordy and our preaching is discursive. We turn sacred story into historical event and doctrinal statement. We produce people who use the biblical story as pornography (a subject turned into an object) or as idolatry (a means turned into an end). In an oral culture, on the other hand, learning involves all the senses and the imagination as well. In an oral culture truth is poetic, and storytelling is understood as the doorway into the realm of the sacred. People in an oral culture experience life as whole, integrated, and interconnected. The biblical story becomes a sacred story that is to be imagined and participated in, not studied objectively or believed literally. Oral cultures understand that rituals are symbolic actions, expressive of the community's story, that thereby preserve the memory of past events and the anticipation of future events in ways that have power to make sense out of life in the present. Ritual storytelling is every community's primal way of knowing.
We humans live in two worlds: the world of outward events or visible manifestations and the world of inner experience or spiritual reality. To be human is to integrate the inner world of imagination, intuition, and subjective experience with the outer world of interpretive, intellectual, objective reflection and moral action. Similarly, the Scriptures are a record of events and a witness to religious experience in the form of a sacred narrative. It is the re-presentation of this symbolic narrative or sacrament that integrates the inner and outer worlds by producing an outward and visible manifestation of an inner spiritual reality.
Excerpted from A PILGRIM PEOPLE by John H. Westerhoff III. Copyright © 2005 by John H. Westerhoff III. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Classics Edition.................... vii
1. God's Story as Our Story.................... 1
2. A New Beginning Holy Week and Eastertide.................... 11
3. Life in the Spirit Ascension to Pentecost.................... 29
4. Ordinary Days and Ways The Season After Pentecost.................... 37
5. Recapturing Lost Visions Advent.................... 49
6. The Birth of Possibilities Christmas.................... 57
7. Living Naively Epiphany.................... 67
8. Facing the Principalities and Powers Lent.................... 81
9. Reforming Our Common Life The Seasons as Catechesis.................... 95