By Stephen W. Hiemstra
In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC. The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.
I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan. So commencement gave me a new story to tell.
Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.
From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven). What logic would you use? Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so? Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story. A story is a model of reality. In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model. Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique. Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask: which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world? Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).
An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary. Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context. They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record. The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself! Stories provide context. Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words. The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings. As Mark Twain used to say: It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.
In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell. The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released. Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story. Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year. The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical. Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning. Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.
The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV). Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.
Seminary has taught me the value of a good story
A Few Good Stories