From the Shepherd’s Nook: Story (John Frye)

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • SuperStar

    Excellent words John.

  • MatthewS

    A great read on this Fall Friday morning.

    I was grabbed some time back by the power of story, while reading some various thoughts on postmoderns and postmodern thinking. We are just finishing Ruth in our Adult Sunday School class – that story is a well-told tale with a beating heart. Love it.

    John, do you see a danger for sermons that a pastor might tell many stories and good stories but yet fail to (in Andy Stanley’s words) “communicate for a change”? I love a good story at the heart of a sermon but I believe we still have to bring it home. I believe we have to help tie up some of the loose ends without leaving them all out there for the imagination. My personal temptation is not to over-apply but to under-apply. I enjoy living in the world of the text, the hard part for me is truly bridging back into today’s world and helping spark people’s imagination about how this applies to their shifty co-worker, their difficult spouse, or their distant grandchildren. But I think it sharpens my own thinking and it engages the people in a different way when we go there with it. Any thoughts on that?

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    Excellent. Just excellent.

  • http://www.stevehusting.com/doubtbusters Steve Husting

    I remember reading of a research group which sought to find out how much of Jesus’ words were theology and how much was direction (telling people how to live). They found it close to 50/50. Next,t hey turned to Paul’s epistles for the same research. Results: close to 50/50!

    Story is excellent, but remember that Jesus kept it short.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Love, love, love this line: “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.”

    This is why people find spiritual solace in film. We all crave a place where stories lived out before us compel us to live, thoroughly live. But, it seems we’ve forgotten that. It’s too bad the Church sold our soul for a cheap bowl of lentil soup. We have the best story of all. Epic.

  • Michael Teston

    Respect & integrity would mean I allow another to enter a bigger story and I am willing to enter their story. When our stories intersect with the story(s) of Jesus well thats Gospel. Jesus was absolutely a master at getting people to the “intersection,” Luke’s narrative, a case in point, of those persons headed to Emmaus at a literal cross roads in their lives. I no longer fret over whether a person makes a commitment to follow Jesus in those seasons, at those crossroads, that is their call and the work of the Spirit. In the stories of Jesus, he was able apparently not to have to wait around for someone to make a decision. He acted, told stories, moved on. Our call is to tell stories that mesh with life and living, such stories open a doorway to an encounter with the Risen One. Its wonderful when someone says, “Hey you’re story changed the course of my life and I met him, but it is not the goal.” That is my need to know what a person does with that story. Peterson has always had that capacity as you note.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com Darryl Willis

    Amen! Peterson is one of my favorites because he gets it!

    I have been a part of the storytelling culture for 25 years (seriously, I actually tell stories publicly). It is a common mantra among tellers that stories should never be explained but be allowed to work their way through a person’s psyche. I’ve never been able to preach the story of Naomi in bits and chunks (i.e., “This week we are going to study Ruth 1…”)–it has to be told as a complete story and allowed to sit there. One of the most well received series of sermons I preached was the month before Easter one year. I memorized the book of Mark and divided it into four manageable “chunks” and just told the story. More people were moved by that simple telling than any 12 week expositional series on the gospel of Mark!

    According to communication professor Walter Fisher we are homo narrans or story-telling beings. Life takes on the form of story. One has to be taught how to do logic, no one has to be taught how to tell stories. We do it naturally; it is the way we think.

    Someone once said the perennial Christian strategy is: gather the people, break the bread, and tell the story.

  • http://joechambers.wordpress.com/ Joe Chambers

    Would someone please tell me a story on Sundays? Stories velcro to my head and heart. Great post.

  • Pat

    “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.”

    And not just pastors; many a congregant is known to dispense advice from the Bible like “take two and call me in the morning. In my view, that does a disservice to the word of God. I want to talk to another thinking, feeling human being who will listen first and foremost and then offer thoughtful advice steeped in the Christian tradition. Not just offer a Bible passage here and there like some magic mantra. Or better yet, just listen and not offer advice. But that takes being in tune with the Spirit and not always being quick to solve someone else’s problems and fill in the blanks as though another’s faith is at stake if even the slightest doubt is allowed to creep in. Often, people need to talk things out and to be able to hear themselves think aloud. It’s a ministry within itself to just sit and truly listen to another.

  • http://www.churchprojectgreeley.com D. Gregory Burns

    Peterson is the Dean. How wonderful it would be to sit on his cabin’s porch, rock together, bathe in his wisdom, and share stories.


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