David Lose: Narrative identity in postmodern preaching

Congregations today need to develop a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story that can inform, shape and assist our daily living.

Editor’s note: In his new book, “Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World -- and Our Preaching -- Is Changing,” David Lose examines how major cultural influences of the last century have contributed to the diminishment of the church yet also offer opportunities for a more vibrant and relevant faith in the 21st century. In this excerpt and adaptation, Lose writes about the role of narrative identity in preaching.

Jean-François Lyotard, the French postmodern theorist, declared some years ago that we live in the age of the death of the metanarrative. A metanarrative, most simply, is a story so large that it explains all other stories. Most frequently, we don’t think of metanarratives as stories at all but rather as “reality.” It is only when we encounter another metanarrative -- another grand story that explains everything -- that we recognize the boundaries of our own narrative version of reality. Lyotard therefore says that having believed, and been disappointed by, our grand narratives, and recognizing a host of others, we live only with micro- or local narratives, stories we may believe but that we know are true and relevant only for those communities that hold them.

While some have used Lyotard’s diagnosis to explain the loss of influence of the Christian narrative in a postmodern world (that is, it is one of those grand narratives that no longer holds sway in the cultural imagination), I am not confident that we can live long without some grand narrative. Indeed, it’s remarkably difficult to avoid offering grand narratives and making truth claims. For this reason, I think we live not in an era that has seen the end of metanarratives, but rather during an age that is simply saturated by grand stories, none of which, as Lyotard suggests, reigns self-evidently supreme.

Put most simply, we are surrounded by competing truth claims. Some of these are religious, but many more are about material wealth, nationalism, or ethnicity. Significantly, each and every truth claim, whether it be proclaimed from a pulpit, touted on the cover of a major magazine, or hidden in the logo of an expensive brand, is part of a larger story about what constitutes the good, the beautiful, and the true. Whereas postmodernism perceives in this swirl of competing truth claims a deterrent to our ability to make them in the first place, pluralism seems blissfully ignorant of such limitations and instead happily embraces any and all grand narratives and storied realities.

In this context, the Christian story has not so much disappeared as it has shrunk. The proliferation of different and competing stories about reality, that is, has occupied more and more of our congregants’ attention, crowding out the biblical story as the narrative by which to make sense of all others and rendering it just one among a multitude. As a consequence, the Christian story no longer enjoys the privileged place it once did in the larger culture and in the marketplace of ideas.

I say this neither to render judgment on the culture nor to pine nostalgically for bygone days, but rather simply to acknowledge our current situation. In a land of many faiths and belief systems, most of the cultural reinforcements that the church once depended on to lift up and teach its story have withered.

As a consequence, our people do not know the biblical story anymore, and this is problematic if not downright disastrous for one crucial reason: we make sense of pretty much everything in the context of a larger story. Take the following quotation, for instance: “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us!” Taken out of context, it sounds like a terribly belligerent threat that we might attribute to some terrorist group. Placed in its narrative context -- Winston Churchill’s first address to the British Parliament as the newly appointed prime minister in 1940 -- it becomes a stirring call to resistance against tyranny.

So also with biblical quotations, scenes, and stories. Apart from their larger narrative context, even stories as well known as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan become hardly more than quaint morality tales, retaining the power, perhaps, to serve as a well-worn ethical example along the lines of Aesop’s Fables, but hardly able to transform lives or invite a new and redemptive relationship with God. Similarly, key words and concepts of the Christian faith -- justification, vocation, proclamation, and gospel, just to name a few -- have little or no meaning because there is no larger pattern of reference in which to understand them.

Let me be clear: the challenge I name is not primarily the need to bolster biblical literacy, as if knowledge of biblical quotations, places, and names were the issue. Rather, we need to develop in our congregations a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story such that it can inform, shape, and assist our daily living. We struggle, that is, not simply with a lack of biblical knowledge but rather with an impoverished biblical imagination.

In a class I teach on Scripture and congregational life, for example, I have my students interview two persons from their home congregation and ask them a variety of questions about how they connect their faith with their daily life. One of those questions is, “What biblical stories provide you with comfort or courage when you are struggling with a problem at home or work?” I would guess that more than two hundred persons have been asked this question over the years I have taught this course, yet only one student has ever reported an interviewee being able to answer that question easily. Only one of two hundred church-attending persons interviewed, that is, could readily identify a biblical story with which to make sense of a challenge in everyday life. Similarly, Joy Moore of Fuller Theological Seminary reports that not even one of the two dozen lifelong churchgoers she interviewed -- persons who, by the way, had been listening to sermons for an average of thirty years or more -- could offer a coherent summary of the biblical plot.

When you recognize how little influence the biblical story has in the everyday lives of our people, you gain some sense of the enormous challenge before us to nurture genuine Christian identity. We are, as many have pointed out, narrative beings -- that is, we make sense of our lives in and through stories. Further, we construct our identity through narrative; identity, after all, is little more than the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. But given the minor role the Bible evidently plays in the lives of most churchgoers, it becomes much easier to see why participation in a local congregation has failed so many persons in supplying a meaningful religious identity. More and more members of our congregations have lost any incentive to continue attending a church that doesn’t meaningfully contribute to their understanding of, and life in, the world.

So here’s the question I’ve been pondering of late, and I invite you to give it some thought as well. What would church look like if it were the place where people heard God’s story told, sung, and taught such that they could imagine themselves taking their place in that story?

Reprinted with permission of Augsburg Fortress, @ 2013 Fortress Press.