Tuesday, March 31, 2009

If you teach it, they will listen: thoughts on Narrative Teaching

Sunday night we had the privilege of seeing four of our High School Students give their lives to Jesus. I could never take credit for the work of the Holy Spirit, but one thing did stand out to me Sunday night. I'll get to that in a bit.

When speaking about Millenials, particularly Middle and High School aged Millenials, little credit is given to their ability to comprehend, engage and enjoy scripture. I think sometimes in an effort to make things easier, more relevant or maybe more understandable, teachers will start with a proposition dissected from a passage, one they deem appropriate and timely for students and then proceed to build a talk around that proposition. Now I would never state that propositions are inherently wrong or bad, all the time, but I would say that an inherited ideal in teaching causes many men and women my age to deliver talks with little connection to or concern for the actual Biblical Narrative. In one of the great flaws of the modern age, higher-critical hermeneutics taught us to pick apart the scriptures down to the tiniest propositions. Then, taking those propositions, we might find other like propositions and form an argument. Questions quickly arise. What's the context of that proposition? Does it come from a bigger story that may give it a different meaning? Are like propositions from like stories? If not, can they be viewed in the same light? The questions go on. Does our context inform our propositions? Do lifted propositions fit into or fundamentally agree with the meta-narrative? Are they historically accurate? Are they what the authors intended to the people they were writing to? And so on and so forth...

In walks Hans Frei and the Yale Divinity School with their post-liberal theology, sometimes called Narrative Theology. In my grossly oversimplified explanation, these guys basically came to the conclusion that meaning is often derived in communities, thus it is important to understand the stories or narratives communicated in those communities, or by those authors. To take propositions out of a text without considering the community it was written to or in would be errant. Also, in a moment of nothing short of rescue these men along with men such as ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and theologian James McClendon pointed to the simple fact that much of the Bible is written in a narrative format, thus is should be studied as a narrative, with plot, setting, characters, context, climax, resolution, so on and so forth. Even the non-propositional pieces of the Bible were written in conjunction with narrative portions. Thus, it is always important to take into account the story from which we derive truth. Scripture is still infallible and as a whole I believe a narrative approach reinstates the authority of scripture, informing us of meaning rather than being forced by us to mean things it was never intended to. In addition, I personally enjoy a narrative style of teaching because the point isn't usually made at the beginning of the talk, but saved for the end, allowing the story to teach us, capture our imaginations and form our hearts and minds along the way.

On a side note. Though it may often be, I don't think that topical preaching has to be completely propositional. Though I recognize that the general proposition is usually the point of origin, topical preaching can take on a narrative approach. Like a hybrid. For instance, when speaking about sexuality we might turn back to ancient Jewish marital practices, allowing the narrative to teach us about sexuality, rather than simply compiling a list of verses, or we might discuss the issues associated with Paul's words to the Corinthians, not allowing them to be propositions, but rather a part of a larger redemptive narrative, that happens to deal with sexual purity.

My point. You would think that all this would be so boring to Middle and High School Students, but I believe we underestimate their ability to grasp complex concepts, think abstractly, and derive meaning from the scriptures. Sunday night, there were no funny stories, intriguing illustrations, and I wasn't that eloquent. Now that's not usually what Rush is like. I usually use humor to break the ice and often times flow from a topical theme. (I don't mean for this post to sound like a narrative of nothing proclamation. Lots of people have decided to follow Jesus out of a propositional model) But Sunday night we simply talked about Sacrifice in terms of pre-history, Abraham and Isaac, Passover, the Levitical Law, and then Jesus. Goodness, I almost fell asleep typing that. It seems so boring, but because we focused on the narrative, connecting the mercy and providence of God at Passover to the mercy and providence of God at Calvary was compelling to many of the students in attendance and these aren't all church kids. Believe me. Maybe Sunday night was a fluke. Or maybe God just did some powerful stuff that was way bigger than us. I think that's probably true regardless. But one thing I know, for any who find themselves drawn to teach narratively, students who didn't understand the cross before they walked in Sunday night, both Christian and Not-Yet-Christian, do now, and its because we looked to the over-arching story.

Live Love.