18 June 2020
Living the Story
(This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on May 15th)
I’m tempted to ask – like a child in the back of a car – ‘are we there yet?’ I’m also tempted to ask ‘are you bored yet?’ Not with lockdown – though you may well be bored with that too. But with our presidential theme. There are only so many ways in which you can ask the question; ‘So what’s the story…?’ But even so, it’s fun to ask it in different ways. So what IS the story, then? So what’s the Story (capital S)? So what’s the story here, now….what exactly is going on? So what’s THE Story…the one that really matters?
Barbara and I have been going on and on, as you know, during our year about stories, the Story, the Christian Story, and how you get inside them/it. Whatever you have been making personally of our theme, you’ll have wrestled in your own way with the fact that even though there are always lots of Christian stories (and there really are!), we do have to home in on the One Story in some sense. And we then have to ask ourselves: how do we live it (whatever version of the One Story we carry with us)? Wouldn’t it be quite logical, in fact, to say that ‘living the Story’ (being a Christian) is like performing a script? Well, this is only true up to a point.
Faith is like performing a script in the sense that we’re given something to work with from the start. It isn’t simply the Bible that we ‘live out’, helpful though its 66 writings are. We also receive the script being lived out in our particular Christian tradition. For most readers that’ll be ‘Methodism’ – but then, it’ll be a specific type of Methodism (for there are many). There’ll also be very localized elements (Methodist and not) to the kind of Christian script we are living, influenced by family, class, geography, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. How we live will be shaped in part by who we connect with and are influenced by.
Faith isn’t like performing a script when we make it fully our own, though, and recognise that God speaks in Christ through the Spirit ‘to me personally’. John Wesley’s heart-warming was shaped by lots of experiences and scripts, yet the reason it was so powerful was that it hit him directly in a way that was beyond the script (‘I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’) He was saying: ‘Got it! At last! I’ve rumbled what all the scripts within which I have been trying to live are actually about!’ It had taken him a while. And even though he had ‘got it’ there are some Wesley biographers who think that there was still a sense that he went on living at times as though he had to earn his own salvation. (All those miles on a horse…)
Rather than performing a script, perhaps the practice of ‘living faith out’ might be better likened to improvising on a musical theme, where it’s up to you how you take up a melody or riff to ‘work with’. Perhaps a script sounds too tight. There’d be interpretation involved, of course. Any actor can tell you that. But with no freedom to change the words then it’s perhaps too restrictive as an image of how faith works. Or is it just because, personally speaking, whilst not being very musical I can at least more easily imagine what it might be like to be a jazz saxophonist rather than an actor. The limit of my theatrical experience was as a (6-foot) dwarf in a student pantomime version of Snow White!
Thinking of faith as improvising does have its dangers. Good improvisers aren’t simply ‘making it up as they go along’. Though whatever they play is new, it’s also within clear parameters, and you have to be a very competent musician to be a good improviser. You have to know the tradition well! You have to know your instrument well.
God has given us rich resources to use, and an astonishing, beautiful if fragile, world in which to practice. If we’re to be singing or playing God’s tune, or performing God’s script/Story, this is not meant to be restrictive. Religion has gone badly astray when it becomes a restrictive thing. Faith is a framework for liberation and flourishing, or at least it should be.
A good friend of mine, Vaughan S. Roberts, has just published a new book called Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning (SCM Press). Drawing on decades of experience as an Anglican clergyman, and with deep knowledge and understanding of how organisations (not just churches!) work, he explores many facets of how significant story-telling is in human life. His work dovetails with, and enhances beautifully the kind of things that Barbara and I have been exploring with you during our year. So as you continue living, and living out, your own faith, and exploring your own stories, Story and the Christian Story, make use of Vaughan’s book as well as ours. But get beyond books and stories too, as you live your life of faith abundantly – even when locked down!
Prof Clive Marsh