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The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Scott Momaday, American Indian writer, professor of literature in Southern California, tells this story. When he was a small boy, his father woke him early in the morning and said, “I want you to get up and go with me.” His father took him by the hand and led him, sleepily, to the house of an old squaw, and left him saying, “I’ll get you this afternoon.” All day long the old squaw of the Kiowa tribe told stories to the boy, sang songs, described rituals, told the history of the Kiowa. She told the boy how the tribe began out of a hollow log in the Yellowstone river, of the migration southward, the wars with other tribes, the great blizzards, the buffalo hunt, the coming of the white man, the starvation, the diminished tribe, and finally, reservation, confinement. About dark his father came and said, “Son, it’s time to go.” Momaday said, “I left her house a Kiowa.”
Fred Craddock tells that story and then asks the question, “When youngsters leave our church building, do they leave Christian? To be Christian is to be enrolled in a story, and anybody who can’t remember any farther back than his or her birth is an orphan.”1
An orphan is anyone who doesn’t have a story.
If I’ve learned anything in the ten years I’ve given to ministry, it’s this: Because we are narrative creatures, our primary orientation in identity is inextricably linked to the narratives that comprise our memories, conversations, and emotional responses. To say it plainly: We are the stories we tell ourselves.
A cursory consideration of modern life in America underscores this point. We are the stories we tell ourselves.
There are multiple divisions within the American political arena offering fundamentally different narratives.
Northerners scoff at Southern racism as if racism is only a Southern problem.
Muslims are treated as terrorists even though most Muslims are peaceful and honorable people (Muslims and Christians make up half the world’s population—we have to learn to live together).
Local churches wage wars between ministry teams, elder boards, and laity regarding the role of women because of generational and interpretive stories undergirding the entire debate. Unspoken stories are the most dangerous.
Family systems are held hostage by individual family members who are unable or unwilling to tell truthful memories.
Hundreds of pastors were willing to throw Rob Bell (author of Love Wins) under the bus (tweeting “farewell”) before they even knew the story Bell was telling himself and others. Why? Because they had already constructed a story about their own theology and Bell’s theology, and in that story there’s only room for the one true story—the story they’re selling.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. We become the stories we privilege.
Flannery O’Connor—a required reference in any presentation dealing with the power of story—never said that “we are the stories we tell ourselves.” She actually said it better. She wrote, “It takes a story to make a story.”2 Leave it to the preacher to complicate what the writer already settled concretely.
It takes a story to make a story. How significant is it that Scripture, which the church believes possesses the sacred words of God, comes to us primarily in narrative form (not formulas, doctrinal proofs, or diatribe).
If this is true then Scot McKnight’s suggestions in his provocative commentary on James cannot be ignored.3 His work is dynamite. I don’t mean “awesome”—I mean his work is going to literally rearrange some stuff; it’s going to remind us of the power of the church’s witness in local communities. The church isn’t simply about reforming individual components of culture, we exist to bear witness to the truth that when God raised Jesus from the dead God definitively dealt with sin, death, shame, injustice, oppression—God has dealt with the dead parts of our story.
As I read Scot McKnight’s recent commentary on James, I was taken with the following observations: (1) James is Torah in a new key. That is, James is to the Sermon on the Mount what the Sermon on the Mount is to Torah. James is wiki-version of Torah. (2) James read Torah like his brother. He read Torah through the interpretive texts of Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18—loving God and loving others. Some, including McKnight, have helpfully coined this The Jesus Creed.4 All of us privilege certain texts over other texts. How are you working the texts? What texts do you privilege? If you aren’t sure, I bet your congregation knows.
Case Study: Otter Creek Church
My assignment as preacher is to demonstrate what it means for the preacher to be the local theologian; the resident interpreter of the intersection of Jesus’ life on earth and the local church. Specifically, I want to use my current context, the Otter Creek Church in South Nashville, as a case study of sorts. I’m trying to do what Miroslav Volf calls, “remembering rightly.”5
Background: Otter Creek is a large, mostly-white, well-educated, affluent Church of Christ located in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States (Williamson County). How do I say this politely—I don’t think James would have applied for the Senior Minister position, nor do I think the search team would have put him at the top of their prospective candidate list.
Right now, someone’s thinking: “What does that say about you, Josh?”
My only response is that when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, James, the kingdom of Jesus, and our own individual lives—we’re all hypocrites; we all fall miserably short. However, I’m learning to see the world, as Jews have historically believed, that God’s more interested in me as part of a community. South Africans have famously adopted the belief in Ubuntu—a person is a person through other persons. For my purposes, I’d say it like this: my story is a story because it’s part of a bigger story. When I read the story of Otter Creek Church, not Josh Graves, alongside the teachings of James, a different picture emerges. Maybe that’s a take-away for preachers and pastors—we’ve got to get our people to stop thinking about the kingdom in terms of their individual lives (successes or failures). We need to help our churches see their story as part of a great, big story.
This is an exercise in remembering rightly.
I could ask Mrs. Campbell who, in 1929, saw that several children in her immediate neighborhood lacked a community of faith. She felt compelled to do something. She did what any smart wife would do—she enlisted her husband, a bus driver, to round up all the children so they could share stories about Jesus. Two things got into the DNA of Otter Creek Church—a healthy respect for the vision and leadership of women and a passion for those, in the neighborhood, who are most vulnerable to being story-less; orphans in the spiritual sense. This acute awareness of something being wrong is the birth of the Otter Creek Church. I imagine a conversation with Mrs. Campbell might go like this:
Josh: Mrs. Campbell, what part of James moves you the most?
Mrs. Campbell: For Mr. Campbell, I like 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” These two passages spoke to me in those early years: 1:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” and 4:13 “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why? What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ . . . Anyone, then, who knows the good she ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” (4:13-15, 17).
If I asked Ruth Rucker, founder of Otter Creek’s first pre-school and kindergarten (one of Nashville’s first schools of its kind started at a time when it was controversial in the U.S. to educated children prior to the first grade), about James, I suspect the conversation might take this course:
Josh: Mrs. Rucker, what part of James moves you the most?
Mrs. Rucker: 3:1ff.: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
If I asked the group of men and women who started Korea Christian College after the Korean War because they wanted the kingdom of God to be the last word and not the gun—if I asked them what part of James inspires them, I suspect they might suggest 3:17-18: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Or, they might highlight 3:9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (sounds like Gen. 1 and the imago Dei pillar of the Jesus Creed).
Bono said we should pay attention to our enemies, for enemies last longer than friends.
By the way, Korean Christian University was recently appraised to be worth just shy of one billion dollars. Their potential for kingdom impact in Seoul and beyond is limitless: “a harvest of righteousness.”
If I sat down with those families from Otter Creek who started AGAPE, one of the largest not-for-profit adoption and counseling justice ministries in Churches of Christ, I suspect they might say that their place in James is 2:18-19: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Someone else would certainly add 2:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
If I sat down with Deby Samuels and Father Charlie Strobel as Otter Creek and a few other churches first launched Room in the Inn, one of the largest holistic homeless ministries in the South and asked them what texts in James fueled their fire, I suspect they might respond, “That’s easy. 5:1-8: ‘Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. . . . You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”
If I interviewed Otter Creek stalwarts Dr. Jerry and Sandy Collins, co-founders of the Wayne Reed Center—a school led by women with the intention of reaching Nashville’s poorest 2-5 year olds (and their parents) what texts in James give them hope on gloomy days, I’m sure they’d say, “5:1-8: ‘Now listen, you rich people. . . .”
We are the stories we tell ourselves. The Otter Creek story, like James, is a wiki version of the Jesus Story.
It takes a story to make a story. The Otter Creek Story started with a visionary woman with a heart for the vulnerable in her neighborhood. And that story was replicated because we are the stories we tell ourselves. These early stories have become newer stories: Made in the Streets (an outreach to holistically change the lives of street kids in Nairobi) and Living Water (planting 25 water wells all over the world in 2011). As one of my mentors likes to say, “What you win them with is often what you win them to,”—I suspect that’s true in all of our communities of faith.
What kind of stories shapes the identity of your congregation? Of course, we’re like any church. We’ve got our crazy aunts, weird uncles, and immature family members, but the larger church is being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.
We are the people who get on a bus on a Sunday morning because God gave us children to save us from ourselves.
We are the people who believe that the imagination of a child is sacred.
We are the people who believe that God is turning swords into plowshares and preparing fields of inquiry and wisdom in the university setting.
We are the people who believe that God has no step-children and that the greatest response to the abortion epidemic in the West is not picketing or politics but adoption.
We are the people who believe that Jesus is found among the homeless; the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
We are the people that believe it’s insane for a rich white church to educate their own and not also seek to bless others as God spoke to Abraham in the beginning.
The fundamental challenge of leadership (here’s my fundamentalist statement for the day) is not about getting everyone in our churches to believe the right things. Nor is it to get everyone to have the same passion for justice. The fundamental challenge of leadership is to instill and cultivate a prophetic imagination. After all, doctrine and work won’t move us further into the kingdom. It’s not about believing or doing. It’s about sight. Can we see as Jesus saw?
Can we see the gay community as another group we’ve loved to hate instead of Jesus’ command to love others as our test of how much we love God? Can we see the single mother? Can we see our Muslim neighbors? Can we see the family paralyzed by addiction and secrets?
One of my teachers at Columbia Seminary, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells the story of a student in a class who bore a tattoo that simply read, “And.” When Taylor saw this tattoo after class, she asked her student, “And. And what?”
“Oh this?” she said pointing to her tattoo. “It’s part of an experiment. Actually, a living novel project. “
“Huh” responded Taylor.
“Many of us have a favorite author. He created the living novel project. He’s recruiting people to take one word and tattoo it on their body.”
“And this means something to you?” Taylor asked.
“Yes. It means a lot. I don’t have to bear the whole story. I just have to bear one word.” Taylor goes on to say that she loves the idea of God as this particular author. The author looks around, knowing he’s given each person one word. Just one word to bear before the world’s eyes.
What’s your word?
I’ll never forget Dr. Loren Siffring, over French toast and chocolate milk, telling me that my word was “truth-seeker.” You can’t overestimate how important it is for a young man to be spoken to in that way.
I think this is how God works. I think this is how we appropriate James in our cities. It takes a story to make a story. We are the stories we tell ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. James cares about belief (the entire letter is an ethical treatise). James also cares about action (assuming you’ve read it, I don’t have to elaborate). But what James is most interested in is neither belief nor action. James is most interested in convincing you that the God who spoke to Abraham; who spoke to Jacob who spoke to Moses who spoke to Deborah who spoke to Esther who spoke to Isaiah; who spoke to Mary; who spoke to Jesus; who spoke to Paul; who spoke to Luke; who spoke to James—the same God is speaking.
And when this God speaks, new worlds form and old worlds fade away.
And that will radically mess with the way you see God’s world.
While so many of us in the U.S. spend our time obsessed with what CNN/FOX are saying; what Rush or Colbert think—can we, the baptized community, recognize that the bankrupt stories of nationalism, consumerism, and competition are stories not worth telling ourselves?
Because we are the stories we tell ourselves.
Do we believe it? . . . is a decent question.
Do we live it? . . . is a good question.
Do we see it? . . . is a great question.
May Father God, who loves stories, name us.
May Brother Jesus show us our role in the plot.
May the Spirit aid us in faithful improvisation of the kingdom on its way.
Josh Graves is the preaching and teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author of The Feast: How to Serve Jesus in a Famished World (Leafwood, 2009). In addition to other articles and essays, he also wrote the study guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press, 2008). Josh speaks at churches and conferences all around the United States. He is currently a doctoral student at Columbia Seminary, studying the relationship of postmodernism and Christianity. Josh is married to Kara—the daily source of joy in his life and the real theologian in the family. They have one son, Lucas. You can read his blog at .
1 Fred Craddock, “Preaching as Storytelling: How to Rely on Stories to Carry Spiritual Freight,” Preaching Today, .
2 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 202.
3 Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
4 Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004).
5 Miraslov Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).