A Calling: Church as a Story People
At the outset, it may be best to spend some time in contemplative prayer considering a few thematic questions. Would you put on some ambient music and set a timer for three minutes? And during that time would you hold the questions below before God in prayer before we continue? (I know it’s probably not exactly what you expect to do when starting to read an article, but I encourage you to give it a try.)
“What is the story of your life?”
“What is the story of God?”
“What is the Church?”
How was it? What answers or thoughts circulated in your prayer? All of these explorations are related to narratives and becoming more aware of them can be most helpful.
"Narratives have the most power over us when they are invisible; that is, infinitely repeatable but unnoticed and unanalyzed.”
- Margaret Morganroth Gullette
I agree with Margaret. We need to become more aware of narratives that shape us unconsciously. And I also hope we will consider the stories we consciously submit ourselves to.
We are all living stories, in a sense. And our collective stories are woven together like a tapestry. But what is the tapestry that you see when you see all these narrative threads woven together? What the big picture, the overarching story? Let’s turn here to a concept from philosophical thought called metanarrative. A metanarrative is essentially the biggest story you are a part of.
Everyone is familiar with story. You’ve learned stories, told stories, and lived stories your whole life. And in a helpful to our desire to become more aware of a story’s influence upon us, stories can be mapped out, charted, and analyzed. For our purposes here, I’ve taken a traditional plot map and adapted the stages, replacing some of the terms for theological purposes. But even with those adjustments this narrative plot map should look quite familiar. Let’s review the components of a story.
The origin. Everyone and everything has an origin story. This is our beginning, our starting place. It’s important to know where we are coming from to know where we are heading.
The conflict. Every story has a conflict. This is the problem, the struggle to overcome. It’s important to understand why living out our stories is no easy thing.
The redemption. Stories resolve by means of a solution. This is how things are going to be made right and we find the corresponding answer to problem in our story. It is key to identify the hope we have (if any) against the conflict.
The eschaton. Every story has an endgame. The final resolution in our story is our view of the ever-after. It is important to know where we are heading and why.
This is story. We live out stories each day and through every season. All the time,.we are cycling through story after story, chapter after chapter of our lives. In this way, we could see our lives as a collection micro-narratives.
But metanarrative is the biggest story you see yourself in - the one that makes sense not only of your own collection of stories but of all the stories around you, the story of the whole cosmos.
Fortunately, pop culture has given us a very helpful and accessible way to conceptualize metanarrative. Look no further than the MCU. The Marvel Cinematic Universe weaves together an intricately and elaborately planned series of stories, each one self-contained with its own narrative arc, but also each contributing to an overarching story of Thanos and the Infinity Stones (at least movies in the MCU from 2008-2019). Many stories are woven together into one cohesive story that encompasses all other stories. That’s a metanarrative - the biggest storyline our stories are woven into.
Micro- and macro- stories shape us. They change us. The stories we tie ourselves to or get tied up in shape our character, our ethics, even our identity. The MCU gives us a compelling example of this narrative-shaping effect in the character of Tony Stark, Iron Man. Tony goes from egotistical, millionaire, arms-dealing playboy to (well, much of these descriptions still apply till the end) a selfless, messianic figure. The metanarrative charts a development in his character that no single story could produce. He is ultimately self-sacrificial, laying his life down to protect the whole universe.
But what does Marvel, metanarrative, and millionaire machine men have to do with the story of your life, the story of God, or our understanding of Church? For the very reason it took a universe-ending multi-story dilemma to bring out the best in Tony. Story shapes us, especially metanarrative.
It’s a bit self-evident, we may suppose, that writers of comic book fiction set out to do these things, and therefore, in our non-fiction worlds, the pervasive power of metanarrative is perhaps overrealized. Do stories really shape our very real and unimagined lives? Micro- and macro- narratives shape us - consciously or unconsciously. It isn’t just Marvel whose characters are shaped - for better or worse - by story.
A common and sometimes unconscious micro-narrative that people attach themselves to here in the U.S. (and one we often export around the world), we call the “American Dream.” (This is just my account on the story, so I’m sure you could rephrase it at different points, but here’s my general take on the contours of the much-celebrated “American Dream.”)
The “American Dream” narrative: You come from the Mayflower, from Brooklyn, from Akron, from some place that is tough to survive and somehow you make it. There are character-forming hardships, but forged in this crucible, training, discipline and commitment cue the process of you pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, accruing wealth, maybe celebrity, and all the accolades of success. And even if you don’t gain those things, you at least begin making increasing amounts of money, “find the one,” settle down, buy or build a big house, have 2.5 children, and live the dream. You’ll save enough money to send your kids to a better school than you could afford and they’ll be nested a class or two up from where you started so your kids don’t have to go through the hardships you did. You eventually retire to Florida and pass on new generational wealth to your children and their children. Sound familiar?
I’m not making value statements here (per se); I’m describing a storyline that has allured people born here or not in hopes that they may be tied to this be narrative of economic success. Obviously, if this is the story you want your life to tell, it will shape your character and your identity. And yet this all-American narrative is myopic and individualistic, not an all-encompassing, bigger-picture story. Let’s appeal to a macro-narrative, one that weaves the “American Dream” into a broader tapestry of (so-called) success.
Closer to a metanarrative is the “American Myth.” I use myth here not to say that these plot points do not have facts associated with them, but only to discuss their selective and propagandizing retelling of history that shapes our imaginations for better or worse. Here’s the way I see a common American metanarrative that shapes our corporate identity and character.
Religiously persecuted settlers who wanted freedom (and less taxes, of course) explored and sailed across to a new world they “discovered” (as Mark Charles, a Native American historian and theologian puts it “you can’t discover lands already inhabited”). Having found “free” (and forcefully emptied) land, they built the strongest, greatest, bestest country in the history of humanity from the ground up (obviously with the help of free race-based slave labor) which is evidence of manifest destiny and the merits of their mission. As America became a global superpower, the best thing for the world would be to make the world more like it, right? Thus the world looks to America as a beacon of hope for the future of humanity. And the only question left is will we do our part to maintain this exceptionalism or not?
You may hear my satirical bent a bit. This American myth is more caricature, more propaganda than history. I could dive in similar form into the counter-narrative of the American myth, where in negative fashion, our history become equally disfigured and self-possessed as the worst country in human history - which isn’t accurate either. While I don’t have time here to dive into the way the Bible demonstrates a paradigm of humbly holding national success and failure at the same time, I hope we at least understand the importance of doing so. But why is that so important - why am I so insistent that it is? Because our storytelling matters. It shapes us.
A story can disfigure you, create blindspots, instill pride. And for that reason it is a discipleship issue. It can make one defensive or offensive, where a particular angle on the story is preserved at all costs and anything that counteracts our preferred narrative must be dismissed, attacked, or silenced. Our metanarratives must be challenged by the story of God.
As we will see, the story of God is for those disenchanted with other thinner, less honest narratives - it is a story of belonging and hope for those who are disaffected with the stories the world has to offer.
Personally, my primary concern is not the defense nor destruction of the American story no matter how much I either cherish or resent it. My responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to submit the narratives that shape me to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Why don’t we take a look at this Good News, the big-picture of reality as the Bible weaves it together. Let’s remind ourselves of the story of God, the metanarrative as the Scriptures reveal it.
Though there are so many narrative threads that tie together to give us the beautiful redemption story of Jesus, I want to narrow the big-picture through the filter of the priestly role of humanity. It is surely a key theme and thus, a way in which we can get a handle on the metanarrative of the Bible. With that focus in mind, let’s quickly survey the biggest story we are a part of, as the Bible describes it.
The origin of our metanarrative is unimaginably beautiful. The story starts in Genesis, God creating the cosmos and then, us. He makes us in his image and likeness, meaning that we are both his family and made to be like him. He blesses this family to grown giving it the task of ruling over the earth as his representatives, a royal task. The role humanity plays in the origin is predominantly a priestly one - we are his and we represent him.
The conflict comes with our bid for moral autonomy, choosing to define good and evil for ourselves, to trust the Deceiver rather than trust God. And there in the Garden, while our grasp for autonomy severs the relationship, God begins to tell the tale of our redemption, speaking of a Son of Eve that will, in defeat, defeat the Deceiver. The plot continues with the proliferation of both God’s image and humanity’s twisting of it.
The redemption begins to take shape. God calls Abraham to recover original human vocation, tasking him with representing God to the world, and in priestly fashion, blessing the world through his relationship with God. Abraham, a childless old man is grown by God into a family then a whole nation as God’s original agenda of having a big family will not be thwarted. This growing family becomes Israel, and in Moses’ day, is invited into an extension and clarification of Abraham’s call - to be a priestly people, a whole nation tasked with representing him, and being with him. God would dwell among them in the tabernacle and through covenant obedience make them like him. And as we know, they never quite live up to their vocation, to their calling. And after long and important sagas of history, God becomes flesh and lives out this calling on humanity’s behalf. This is the decisive moment in redemption history. Jesus the Son of God, Jesus the image of God - God himself become human. He would be the exact representation of God and be with the Father and restore the calling not only of Israel, but of his people, of anyone who, like Abraham, would answer that call, have faith and walk in it. And thus in the incarnation, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection we see the upside-down, surprising story of priestly humanity as it was intended. If you are compelled by the kindness, mercy, love, and sacrifice of Jesus - that’s what you were called to be like, too! We are invited to return to that Garden project, to be with God, to be like God, and represent him to the world.
And at last, our eschaton, the fulfillment of this redemptive story is the resurrection, the realization of the New Heaven and New Earth, when every tear is wiped away and God’s story is at last consummated and we fully are with him and like him.
It’s beautiful isn’t it? It’s not just a story, its a purpose, an identity. This story has been unfolding since long before our own era and even now we get to play a vital role in it, to live it out, to embody it - to answer the call of God.
Bringing this exploration into our cultural moment, do you feel this is the predominant narrative shaping Church in America? The pandemic, the polarization, the reckoning with Church history - in a way, the American Church is having a identity crisis. And I believe it’s related to the story we tell of ourselves. The captivity of the storythreads of God into vandalizing narratives of American exceptionalism (in particular, but many other storied forces assert their influence) make the question so much more challenging to answer. It is really no wonder that among those who are deconstructing, among church leaders, among those who have disengaged and among those who remain alike, the question feels more pressing than ever:
What is Church?
Rather than a series of propositional statements, doctrinal beliefs, and thorough answers (all of which are vitally important!), I want to remind you here that the identity of the Church is revealed in Scripture through narrative, through story, one that is not only read but lived.
Built into the moniker we carry, Church, is this reminder: that our identity is born out by the story of God. We are people who are called into God’s story. It’s literally in the Greek word from which we derive our term, Church. The word we read for Church in the NT, ἐκκλησὶα (ek-lay-see-uh), literally means “called out” or “called from” the component parts, ἐκ (ek) meaning “from” and καλὲω (ka-leh-oh) meaning “to call.” It was common in its Greco-Roman context to call an assembly, a formally gathered group, an ἐκκλησὶα. But it takes on special meaning for New Testament writers like Paul. He uses it in light of OT concepts linked to the very thing we’ve been exploring. The Hebrew counterpart for call, קרא meaning “call” or “summon” often appears in key moments related to the unfolding story of God. Think of Moses’ call up the mountain, Samuel’s call in the night, or Isaiah’s call into prophetic witness. We tend (in individualistic fashion) to focus on these moments of calling as if the focus were on the stories of Moses, Samuel, or Isaiah. But the call is from God and into God’s story. Further, ἐκκλησὶα is the common term in the Septuagint (Greek translation of Old Testament circulating in the New Testament era) for the Hebrew qahal (ka-hal) which similarly means assembly. This word shows up in clusters during the Exodus account, where the emphasis is on God’s calling of Israel into his redemptive story. And so it is, built into the very word used by writers like Paul, the word we we call ourselves, “Church,” is the story of God, his invitation, his summons, his call to be with him, to be like him, to be swept up into his metanarrative.
Don’t you hear that invitation into a bigger story? Don’t you want to be called out of the thin stories the world has to offer and called into the beautiful story of God? Abraham had to leave the mythic stories of Mesopotamia behind and step with faith into the promises of God, partnering with God in unfolding his story of redemption. Cornelius (remember his baptism in Acts 10?), a Roman soldier in the days of the early Church, had to leave Rome’s narrative of imperial pride and domination when he was baptized into Christ as he merged his story with Jesus’. You’re going to have to put down some of the stories you inhabit, some that you tell yourself, or stories others speak over you - in order to hear and respond to the calling of God.
Let yourself be disaffected by the frivolous threads of Babylon, the imperial glories of Rome, the prideful myth of America. All other stories will leave you empty. There is no story more true, more fulfilling, more transformative than the story of God.
A scholar who compiled writings throughout Church history on the nature of God’s calling, puts it well:
"If the God who made us has figured out something we are supposed to do, however - something that fits how we were made, so that doing it will enable us to glorify God, serve others, and be most richly ourselves - then life stops seeming so empty: my story has meaning as a part of a larger story ultimately shaped by God.”
- William C. Placher
And so we revisit a value the Church holds, “calling.” We often use this word to describe pastoral figures or missionaries who express a particular burden for ministry. And yet calling is laced into the identity of the people of God. We are all called out from our own stories and into God’s. Vocational ministry, ministry of calling, priestly identity - it’s not something merely for men and women “of the cloth,” it is for the whole family of God. It is a corporate truth and identity that we are called.
God’s call is into a story-identity. This Church-wide, priestly call is to be with him and like him, representing him to the world. This is what Church is. The Church is made up of those who answer the invitation into this priestly role, this vocation, this original identity - to be with, to be like, and to represent God.
And yet, what is the entry point into this story, Church? What if we desperately want our stories to be woven into this amazing metanarrative of redemption? How do we begin? Abraham had his first steps forward, Peter his discipleship request from Rabbi Jesus, Paul his blinding light. How do we merge our stories with God’s, how do we respond to his invitation?
He has given us a plot point to which we can turn to and return to - the cross of Christ. The cross is the centerpiece of Jesus' story invitation. In order to be like Jesus and thus be with, be like, and represent God, we must merge our story with (what to the outside looks like failure or foolishness) a crucified Lord. Our lives must collectively and individually pass through the transforming and life-giving cross of Christ. It’s a story that requires us to sacrifice everything we know about ourselves. In order to participate in the redemptive arc of resurrection that restores this beautiful calling, death comes first. Brother Cornelius shows us how to respond accordingly. The Church has historically modeled this story-participation through sacrament of baptism, where we join in the death of Christ through our submersion and rise in resurrection hope as a part of the ἐκκλησὶα, the Church, the called out ones called into God’s story. It symbolizes the self-death that is necessary to allow God’s story to reshape you.
All aspects of our lives, our identity, our habits - it should all be given over to be transformed by the story of God. Our self-image, our politics, our sexual ethic, our financial perspectives, our life decisions - all of it is submitted to God’s story, all of it laid humbly and willingly and often painfully at the foot of the cross. But I believe that is where we begin to participate in the resurrection: the death of our stories and their resurrection into the story of God. By God’s grace, our stories are braided into Christ’s and we live as story-people, embodied reenactments of the story of Jesus, new life rushing through our narratives and transforming our identity and our character.
This is what it means to be “called,” to be “Church.” Our calling and identity come together in the story of Christ. We are called into a story that shapes and reveals who we are in him - with him and like him. The shape of the call of God, the story we are invited into is to be his and to be like him, to be priests and priestesses mediating the blessing, the presence of God to the cosmos. God, through his own self-disclosure, invites you to be his and to be like him. Let us close exploration by reading four selection backwards through salvation history that we might hear the continuity of God’s invitation, of his calling, of his summons into his grand and beautiful story.
1 Peter 2:9-10, to Gentiles believers in Asia Minor - God’s invitation to be his and represent him
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Exodus 19:4-6, to newly rescued Israelites at the base of Sinai - God’s call to be his and represent him
‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Genesis 12:1-3, to an old man in ancient Mesopotamia - God’s invitation to be his and represent him
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 1:26-7, to our common ancestors, the first humans in the Garden of Eden - God’s invitation to be his and represent him
Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humanity in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God invites you into his story - to be with him, to be like him, and to represent him, Church.