The Limits of Narrative
My first job out of seminary was as the Director of Youth and Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, New York. Most of the students in my youth group came from non-Christian or nominally Christian homes. They had started coming to the church as children because the programs offered were something to do in the neighborhood, and so most of them had been through Sunday School and knew a lot of Bible stories. But most of them had absolutely no idea what those stories meant. They could tell me the story of Jesus dying on the cross and coming back to life three days later, but they couldn’t tell me what that story had to do with their own lives.
I had been at the church for less than a month when I announced to my sister (who had moved to Buffalo with me): “These kids need the catechism!” During my time in seminary, I had been quite disdainful of the Reformed confessions. I thought that my own upbringing had included too much confessional drill and not enough Bible immersion. I assured one of my professors that I would never need to use the skill of catechetical preaching that I was being taught, since I would always preach from the Bible. And of course I was quite enamored of narrative theology.
Less than one month into my first church job I realized that I had been grossly mistaken. Stories provide meaning only when they are attached to some scaffolding that offers structure. My confessional tradition had been doing that for me, even when I was disdainful of it. When I encountered students who had no such scaffolding at all, I saw the limits of narrative.
All of which is prompted by the fact that my Christianity and Culture class has just begun reading Community of Character by Hauerwas, and I keep finding myself saying “Yes, but…” It’s a good book; I did choose it for this class, after all. But it needs some qualification.