I’ve written several times about the story in which we live — and yet I’m sure it remains a foreign concept to most. The idea is that, whether we realize it or not, we all have a certain worldview (metanarrative, framing story) that defines the culture in which we live. For Americans, this worldview is about personal freedom, individual autonomy, the good life defined in terms of family and consumer goods — having a good job and being able to buy vacations and stuff, patriotism to our nation, the inevitability of economic and scientific progress, etc.
For most people, these ideas are never considered because they are too obvious to question. Thus, when Islamic nations begin to revolt against their rulers, we assume that they revolt to gain civil freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. After all, that’s why we fought the Revolutionary War against England. It doesn’t occur to us that they may be rebelling to gain power to impose their understanding of Islam on their nation. We would never do that. Nor do we consider that it may about vengeance of one tribe for atrocities committed by the tribe in power years, even centuries, in the past. Again, we would never do that — and we assume that everyone is like us. And they’re just not.
Now, take that same concept and apply it at the individual level. We each live in a story. It may be true and it may be false. “Story” does not suggest either way. Rather, it’s as simple as: we all tell ourselves stories that define our personal identities.
That story may be that hard work, prayer, and going to church will result in the American dream — a nice house, nice spouse, with nice children. Or the story may be that I’m a victim of a brutal system and have no chance of enjoying the privileges others enjoy. Obviously, the story we tell ourselves dramatically impacts how we live our lives.
The story might be about the value of patriotism and service to one’s nation. Some people join the military out of sense of duty and service. Others reject the military out of a very different sense of duty and service, believing that the nation needs people who reject militarism.
Some believe that if the Republicans (or Democrats) could just win the next election, the world would be all better. It’s a variation of post-millennialism — with the next President playing the role of Jesus. It’s obviously absurd, whichever side you’re on, but we keep on telling ourselves this story and so we find great hope in the next election — a hope never realized.
So one way to help our church members be better disciples of Jesus is to help them examine their stories. It’s difficult because, for most people, admitting that they have stories is to admit that they’re under the influence of a power other than themselves — and the delusion of individual autonomy is a story that nearly every American believes.
Now, once you practice thinking this way for a while, you’ll find that Jesus as pictured in the Gospels is all about deconstructing our stories — by telling very different stories. The question he poses to us is whether to inhabit his stories — or keep living in our own. And so reading the Gospels as instructions on living a better, truer story is a challenging exercise. It’ll rock your world.
One approach is, each time you read a parable, ask which character is you. Are you the prodigal son, the older brother, or even the father. And while it may seem sacrilegious to picture yourself as the father (who is, of course, a picture of God), if we’re going to be transformed into the image of God, it’s a picture we should try on. Do we run toward those who’ve sinned against us and shamed us, anxious to embrace them — as God does? Do you see how it works?
Just so, we should ask which of the four types of soil we are. We love to teach the parable of the sower in the abstract — laying out the four situations and making nice categories and charts — but the real question is whether we’re rocky, hard, filled with weeds, or fertile and plowed (what would that feel like?) or even the sower himself — and that’s a much harder challenge.
It’s not just about “finding the application.” It’s about seeing how our assumptions and values fit in the stories that Jesus tells. And it’s terrifying. Trust me.