Anderson and Foley’s outstanding book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, brought clarity to my work as a minister in ways few other books have. In it, they argue that narrative and ritual are primal ways that humans make meaning. In other words, we are constantly constructing narratives from the details of our lives and acting out these narratives in the rituals we perform.
These narratives and rituals both conceal and reveal things. I will happily tell you about the little league home run I hit and show you my finisher’s medal for the Seattle marathon. But these stories would conceal the fact that I hit 9th in the lineup for a reason and that they timed my run with a sundial.
Congregations do the same thing. They tell some stories and suppress others. If you pay attention, certain narrative patterns will become clear in every congregation that in turn authorize congregational actions or behaviors. And sometimes these narratives conceal painful or difficult realities that nevertheless continue to have power over us.
So, the trick with both narrative and ritual is that over time they serve the truth of our lives, that they are healthy.
One indicator of health is to note how narratives are functioning. Anderson and Foley suggest that narratives function primarily in two ways–as myth and/or as parable. Myths are the stories we tell that reconcile the trouble of the world, that provide for us a sense of security and orientation. Parables do the opposite. They turn our worlds upside down and say that the status quo is not the only way to see things. Myth without parable leaves us in a fantasy land. Parable without myth leaves us in despair without the ability to act in constructive ways. We need both for a narrative health. So, as congregations tell their stories, do they serve the mythic or the parabolic? I’m always asking this question both as a diagnostic and as a strategic rhythm. Let me give you some examples.
My first ministry job was with a church in Arlington, Texas. In their heyday 15 years earlier, they had 800 members, filling both the auditorium and balcony. They were no longer in their heyday. The balcony had long since been turned into classrooms and 200 people were now spread out in a 600 seat auditorium. Every Sunday told a story of the congregation that functioned parabolically. Something had gone wrong here.
In my first year there, the preaching minister and I decided that “Ministers of Reconciliation” would be a good theme for our ministry year. We ran the idea by our elders at a retreat. They were supportive, but not exactly enthusiastic. Still, we charged forward, confident that this theological theme would inspire…something. Alas, the congregation received it pretty much the same way the elders did. Yawn.
By the time we came to my second year, I had been paying closer attention to the stories the congregation was telling. And the key word was “grace.” Grace was the hill on which this congregation had spent their life. As a result, they had been ostracized by other, more conservative congregations in the area. Their charismatic minister, who taught them grace, left ministry for law school. They were tired, dispirited, and spent, but they knew they were saved by grace. In the midst of all the parabolic symbols, this was the golden myth that said they had not suffered in vain.
But it was a weak understanding of grace. Grace was what allowed them to be content with their circumstances. Grace was permissive and accommodating. It was cheap grace. So, for the second year we came up with a new ministry theme: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” We started with the myth. We named it, “to whom much has been given.” But we added a parabolic element as well, “much will be required.” The reaction of the congregation was palpably, visibly, different. Now we had their attention.
One more story. I recently preached part-time for a fairly traditional Church of Christ congregation in Lake Orion, MI. I am not a fairly traditional Church of Christ minister. This concerned some members before I was hired. So, the elders met with me, particularly to ask me about the big question of concern–the public role of women. I was truthful with them and they were truthful with me and we thought we could make things work. But here’s the thing. I was functioning parabolically in relation to the prevailing congregational myth. I wasn’t the only one who believed the things I did, but the congregation’s rituals, which denied any public role for women, supported the prevailing congregational myth–a traditional Church of Christ.
I decided, therefore, that my first sermon series should honor the prevailing myth. I preached on the “five steps to salvation.” Anyone with Church of Christ bona fides knows what this is. Hear, believe, confess, repent, and BE BAPTIZED. It is otherwise known as the “five finger exercise,” and this is how I billed the series since I didn’t see them as “steps.” My first Sunday, someone had drawn two big hands and labeled the fingers and put them up on either side of the pulpit in the front of the auditorium. It was the only series I ever preached there where unsolicited art accompanied the series. They were enthused. And I believe in the importance of each of these–hearing, believing, confessing, repenting and being baptized are all important, even saving (although apparently the order east of the Mississippi is different than west), so had no problem preaching the lessons with a matching enthusiasm.
By starting this way, I was placing myself squarely within the mythic narrative of the congregation. I was showing my bonafides as a third-generation Church of Christ preacher, as a legitimate Campbellite. I knew the secret handshake. I believed what they believed.
Well, kind of. I also knew that if I could take their categories, that I could both expand and challenge them. I knew that the biblical text wouldn’t submit to anything called the “five steps to salvation.” So, while I was working within the myth, I was bringing some gentle parable as well.
I don’t know all the causes and effects, but I do know that that congregation loved me and treated me well. They were willing to listen to me and constantly showed their appreciation and my sense is that this included both those who were traditional and those who were not. I think this first sermon series went a long way toward creating a healthy relationship.
So, I’m always thinking myth and parable. And usually, almost always, I’m looking for ways to begin with the mythic, to honor the story that has authorizing power within the congregation. What I’ve found is that within any good myth lie seeds for the parabolic, for some gentle subversion.