I (John Frye) like to tell my friend, Scot McKnight, that Eugene H. Peterson was emergent before most of the well-known emergent leaders were born. One emphasized element in the blossoming theology of discipleship these days is the place and power of story. In 1980 John Knox Press published EHP’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. In that book Peterson has a chapter titled “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth.”
Peterson observes that it was the ancient Hebrews who created a new form of writing: the story. The Book of Ruth is a sterling example. “The short story is the pastoral tool for moving from the kerygmatic center of Israel’s theologians to the outlying peripheral people who feel left out of salvation history…The short story is the pastoral form of narrating heilsgeschicte (salvation history) in the vocabulary of seelsgeschicte (soul history).” The Book of Judges is salvation history while the Book of Ruth is soul history. In the fuss and fury of Judges, God does not lose sight of an old, bitter Jewish widow (Naomi), a young, Moabite widow (Ruth), and a good-hearted, Torah-keeping farmer in Bethlehem (Boaz). In a good story no character (and no detail) is irrelevant. How much more so is every human life valued in God’s grand Story.
“A storytelling pastor differs from a moralizing pastor in the same way that a responsible physician differs from a clerk at the drugstore. When an ill person goes to a physician, the physician ‘takes a history’ before offering a diagnosis and writing a prescription…The clerk in the drugstore simply sells a patent medicine off the shelf—one thing for headaches, another for heartburn, another for indigestion—without regard to the particular details of a person’s pain… A storyteller is unwilling to reduce anyone to a formula of a case history, or depersonalize anyone into a statistic in the divorce rate, or use someone as an illustration of menopause depression.” Peterson quotes C. K. Chesterton, “…a story is exciting because it has in it so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free-will. You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like.” I implore the reader to get a copy of Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians because the book presents the sheer genius of “story” with the life of King David as its focus.
So many pastors these days are drugstore clerks and the Bible is their pharmaceutical shelves. “Do you worry? Here’s a prescription from Matthew 6. Do you doubt? Take Psalm 73 and call me in the morning.” We turn the glorious Salvation Story—the King Jesus Gospel—into a set of Christianized Aesop’s fables with cute moral “applications.” In evangelicalism, the smartest of the smart have taken the messy old Bible and cleaned it up into glistening “how to’s” and crystal clear “steps for successful living.” Apparently, God did not know what he was doing when he gave us the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit acting in human history in the form that we have it. Lucky for us that the tidy theologians and Bible-preaching pastors came along to make the Bible “practical.”
People do not live doctrinal statements. We all live stories.
N. T. Wright commenting on Jesus’ use of parables, writes, “Stories change the world.” After I read EHP’s chapter “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making,” I experienced a significant paradigm shift in how I view and relate to the people in my life. Each person is living inside a grand story being told by God. I was saved from what EHP calls “two egregious errors” in pastoral work: moralizing and condescending. My pastoral mission, then, is not to “fix” people by putting sticky-note Bible verses on their souls, but to explore where they are in God’s story, listening attentively for grace-details and reflecting back the vastness of their significance in God’s creative narrative. Even bitter old Jewish widows and young aliens from enemy nations and good-hearted farmers wishing to keep obscure biblical directives end up named in the lineage of a King. The King. “…Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. Behind the names is a fascinating story. Every congregation, large and small, is crammed with fascinating stories.