Narrative or Doctrine- What Should You Teach?
Walter Wangerin on the art of storytelling and why doctrine still matters.

Last weekend I attended Spark, a children's ministry conference near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The theme of the conference was "The Art of Storytelling." I think you'd be hard pressed to find a keynote speaker better suited to speak on that topic than Walter Wangerin. Pastor for 16 years in inner-city Chicago, father of four, grandfather of eight or so, and author of more than 40 books, Wangerin has lots of experience telling stories. And he's good at it—really good. In his two plenary sessions, he touched on a good many things that concern me—the role of the teacher, the power of stories, and the nature of the relationship between art and truth. What I appreciated most was his sense of balance.

You might expect (as I did) that when speaking to a room full of ministers, a person who makes his living telling stories would emphasize how story telling is superior to other forms of teaching, such as catechism or object lessons or memorizing facts. In fact, I've come to expect that perspective at ministry conferences in general. It's become very popular to claim that narrative is more important that systematic theology; after all (the argument goes) Jesus spoke in parables not doctrines, and the Gospels are narratives not bullet points. Fair enough. But Wangerin wanted to emphasize the relationship between story and doctrine, between the imagination and the intellect.

The value of story, for Wangerin, is that it allows people to experience the truth. You can tell someone, "Jesus loves you." That's a doctrine. But if you can tell a story that shows that Jesus loves me—maybe a parable like the Good Shepherd—in which I am invited to associate with a character that is receiving the love of Jesus, then I will experience the love of Jesus.

Wangerin used the example of Zaccheus in Luke's Gospel. Wangerin was a bit of an outcast as a child, he said, and so he associated with Zaccheus. When his Sunday school teacher told him the story, he got swept up in it; he felt like Jesus was looking at him, talking to him. But when it was over, his teacher asked him, "What does this story mean?" Then, he said, the story was no longer my story. It was just a moral lesson someone wanted him to learn.

As soon as she objectified it, the teacher took the story away from young Walt and put it back in the Bible where it became "just an illustration" from which we are supposed to learn something intellectual. This was a big point for Walter—we should avoid turning stories into illustrations. You can't dwell in an illustration. But you can dwell in a story. And the real power of a story is that it orders the universe for you. It shapes the imagination regarding what the world is really like.

March 29, 2010

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments

Reformed Theology

April 05, 2010  2:31pm

I am currently teaching my youth group through the Old Testament. I tell the OT stories that teach theology.

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April 01, 2010  1:12am

Whoever tries to get a little better view of Jesus will end up with Jesus as a guest - even if you happen to be a tax collector. Would that we all realized what "wee little" people we are and used any prop we could to get a little better view of HIM !!!!

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March 30, 2010  9:44am

My observation of a great many good Christian people that I know (adults) is that they can tell you every childhood Bible story quite accurately but are woefully short on any knowledge of doctrine. The learning of doctrine is a discipline and very few folks want to have to work spiritually. This leaves them vulnerable to alot of false teaching. They know God is a God of love, but the judgement part of God's character is left out. To use a metaphor, it's like eating all dessert all the time and ignoring the spinach and the occassional spoonful of castor oil. For those who don't know the SS song: "Zaccheus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the sky and said, 'Zaccheus, you come down for I'm going to your house today. For I'm going to your house today.'" Part of the signinficance of this man, that took me till I was an adult to understand, was that Zaccheus was a tax collector. They were among the most hated people in that day because they decided what amount of tax you owed and had the authority to send you to jail if you didn't pay it. Hmmm...

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March 29, 2010  12:40pm

Rob, Thanks for your comments. I think you're exactly right, and I'm not sure I made myself clear in the post. You're right to say that the story of Zaccheus "means" something; I don't disagree with you there, and I don't believe Wangerin would either. I think Wangerin's point is that when the story was merely objectified, it communicated to him that his resonating with the story was wrong. He felt cheated because the story had been reduced in meaning. I think there's a way–and I think this might be what Wangerin is getting at–for the narrative(s) of Scripture to be enlarged by doctrine, and that's what we're aiming for. It's when our doctrines and/or our teaching of doctrines reduce the story to "mere illustration" that we have problems. And, to be clear, Wangerin's distinction was between "imagination" and "intellect" (not imagination and doctrine). I (and he, i think) would argue that doctrine should include both imagination and intellect, not that they should be considered opposites. Am I making any sense?

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March 29, 2010  12:30pm

I've learned since becoming Orthodox that the Gospel of John is arranged in the order it has because of its use in catechesis of new members. This seems to point to a parallel in the early Church of what Sheerahkahn describes above. In the Orthodox Church (based as it is on the patristic understandings of the first millenium AD before the age of Schism), there is a doctrinal framework that organizes the biblical narratives (OT and NT) in a particular way and relationship to each other that has been worked into the very Liturgy of the Church (its annual cycle of Feasts and Fasts) and the daily prayers, hymnody, and Scripture readings organized around this cycle by the early monastics. Thus in a very organic way, anyone participating in its liturgical life and spiritual disciplines is continually catechised. One learns by doing. Also, in traditional Orthodoxy, in a very organic, all-encompassing real-life way, children and new members were taught by participating in every aspect of the life of the Church–through daily prayers said with the family in the home, the ascetic disciplines (including works of charity and care for others–especially the needy poor), and in the liturgical cycle of corporate worship. As with the children in the OT Israelite community, faith was not so much taught as caught by everyday participation in it with those faithful to its spirit as well as its outward observances.

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Rob Haskell

March 29, 2010  11:34am

Hi Brandon - Very interesting. I had a conversation yesterday that feeds into this and disagrees a bit, I think. Some of us were discussing open or closed communion and aside from the usual reasons someone said they were bothered by the close parallel between closed communion and the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees when he ate with sinners. I think this is an extremely good point and a comment was made in our group about how that kind of observation is doing theology from narrative: using stories as paradigms. To me that seems to bridge story and theology better than the categories of "imagination" and "doctrine". After all, the story of Zaccheus does mean something, and that something can and has been articulated many many times. I fear that if we only use stories as "scenario building" without teasing out the doctrine we will make the error the allegorists. We will only find in the story meaning that comes from elsewhere. We will not allow the stories to speak for themselves. Well, those are just some thoughts. I think this is a great topic that deserves to be worked through! Blessings,

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