Narrative Theology

The observation has been made that, among other things, narratives (stories) form the mindset of today’s postmodern North American people. This in and of itself need not cause Lutheran theologians and pastors any angst. Much of the Old Testament is one big narrative (story), as are the New Testament Gospels.

Sure, confessional Lutheran theologians may have an affinity for propositional statements, but the reality is that theology can certainly be proclaimed through narratives. After all, the Gospel is a narrative of God’s love for us. And simply because something is in narrative form does not mean it cannot be undergirded by propositional truth or even speak propositional truth.

The Apostles’ Creed is this way, particularly the Third Article. It tells a narrative and speaks a profound propositional truth in the midst of it—the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. In fact, it mirrors the life of the church. For the church is the community of saints gathered around the narrative of the Gospel, receiving the forgiveness of sins, awaiting the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Thus, perhaps from time to time, confessional Lutherans might give some more thought to proclaiming our theology in narrative form. Consider an example of our baptismal and vocational theology:

 I (Lucas) was baptized (as an infant) at Emmanuel, Lutheran Church in Milbank, SD. Though the Lord made use of my uncle Rueben’s hands and mouth to baptize me (he was our pastor at the time), I was called by the Gospel—not by my own reason or strength, nor by my uncle Rueben’s—but, as the Scriptures declare, by the power of the Holy Spirit present in the water and Word of baptism, and given as a complete gift of grace. Yes, even to infants (see Matthew 28:19, John 1:11-13, John 3:4-6, Acts 2:38-39, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 4:4-6, Titus 3:5-6).

There were a number of farms in the area. My dad’s was one of them. For the first number of years of my life, I grew up on my dad’s dairy farm. My dad worked hard; being a farmer isn’t easy. Being the wife of a farmer is no easy chore either, but my parents were faithful and devoted in their vocations.

I didn’t know what a vocation was when I was five, but I am thankful my parents lived theirs out so fully. As Christians, they took their family regularly to worship. As a farmer, my dad worked long hours trying to support his family and make a living. As a mother, my mom had three young children to take care of—including one who was plagued by cancer (my sister Heidi, but her story is for another time).

One rainy day, when I was about five-years-old, I went out to help my dad round up the heifers from the pasture and bring them into the barn. I loved helping my dad. Most farm boys do.

Exercising his fatherly vocation, he gave me a job—stand at the barn door entrance and make sure the heifers went into the barn. Yes, it was a technical and highly qualified job, but a kid has to start somewhere. And as long as that somewhere was with my dad, it was the best job in the world.

So, favorite stick in hand, rubber boots sunk in the mud, and tattered farm hat on my head, I set my face to the rain and became the epitome of a cow doorman. That is, until Nancy came along. Nancy was an ornery heifer. Not by my own reason or strength could I make her go into that barn.

Nancy didn’t like me. She decided to head-butt me into the mud. Nancy decided to push me all across the mud-filled, manure-covered pasture. Tormented by an insane heifer and tortured by countless cow pies, I was careened across the mud.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. I turned to see my dad. He was close by. He had traversed the treacherous pasture in seconds, and had just launched into the air what I thought must have been a massive tree trunk, freshly uprooted from the ground with his muscular and powerful hands. I watched in awe as it hit its mark. Not by my own reason or strength could I have done that.

I was a mess: bloody, coated with mud, covered with manure, and missing a rubber boot. My dad didn’t care. He picked me up with both arms and held me close, my filth smearing all over him.

Tenderness wasn’t always his strong suit, but no one could have cared for me more tenderly than he did then. A hot bath, some clean clothes, and the safety of my father’s lap filled me with a lasting comfort still felt some thirty years later.

Not by my own reason or strength was I was washed clean of mud and manure. Not by my own reason or strength was I washed clean of my sins. One was by my earthly father and one was by my Heavenly Father.

My earthly father was fulfilling his vocation given to him by the Heavenly Father—not by his own reason or strength, but by His (the Lord’s). My uncle Rueben was fulfilling his pastoral vocation given to him by the Lord—not by his own reason or strength, but by His (the Lord’s).

Lutheran pastors and theologians need not feel threatened by the narrative desire of our postmodern society. Nor do we need to change our theology to appease our culture and make the message of the Church more palatable, as some futurists and church consultants might suggest. Lutherans can simply go on speaking the Gospel boldly, in propositions and in narratives, regardless of the age, trusting in the power of that message to do what the Lord wills it to do.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be the 21st century Lutheran church that desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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2 responses to “Narrative Theology

  1. Rev. Woodford,
    I want to thank you for your example of narrative theology. I am an independent Catholic studying for the diaconate. Too often theology is couched in elitist theological terms. Your narrative is as simple and effective as one of the Lord’s own parables.

    Blessings
    Brent Rollings

  2. What a fantastic example of narrative theology! Bo Giertz is a master of this both in his The Hammer of God and The Knights of Rhodes.

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