Transforming Our Narratives
Ben Hooper was born in Newport, TN in 1870 out of wedlock, to Sarah Wade. As a result, he had a tough childhood, being taunted by others. When he went into town, he could see people staring at him, making guesses as to who his father was. At school children said ugly things to him. In his early school years, his grandfather died, and his mother was forced to place Ben in an orphanage in Knoxville. At age 9, he was adopted by Dr. L H Hooper, and had to move back near his Newport home. At age 12, he recalls going to Church to hear the new Baptist preacher. He would go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the Benediction so fast he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the door, he felt a big hand on my shoulder. He looked up and the preacher was looking right at him and Ben knew exactly what he was doing. He was going to guess who his father was. He trembled in fear. A moment later he said, “Well, boy, you’re a child of….” He paused and Ben knew what was coming. He knew his feelings were about to be hurt and he would never return to church again.” But as he looked down at Ben, studying his face, He began to smile a big smile of recognition. “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance!’ With that he slapped me across the rump and said, ‘Go and claim your inheritance.’ Ben said he left a different person. It was the beginning of his life. Years later Ben Hooper would write about that event saying, “That was the most important single sentence ever said to me.” Ben Hoover gave his life to Christ and became a faithful member of that small Baptist Church in the hills of Tennessee. In 1911, He became a lawyer and later was elected as the first Republican Governor of Tennessee.
That event was not only a watershed event for Ben’s life but it became his story out of which he lived the rest of his life. A fatherless child who had been ridiculed and shamed by the other children in his town, heard of a loving Father, Almighty God, who claimed him as his own. That became his life story.
Our lives are made up with stories. We are a people of the story. We love stories. We’re raised with stories and when something happens to us, we turn it into a story. How often is it that you get together with an old friend and say, “Have I got a story for you!” But stories are more than just that. They are what James Bryan Smith calls narratives. Our lives are based on narratives. Narratives help explain our world, how we are to live and what our lives are about. In fact, they help us to make sense of everything in our lives, help us to navigate our world, understand what is right and what is wrong and provide meaning. They guide and direct our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, words and actions, sometimes without us even knowing.
There are all kinds of narratives. There are family narratives, stories we learn from our immediate families. Through them, our parents and grandparents impart their worldview, their ethical system and their values. They are often stories which are filled with life defining moments in a person’s or family’s life. They help shape who we are, why we are here and what we can contribute. Our family narratives become our narratives, for good and for ill. They help guide and define who we are as a person.
There are cultural narratives which arise from growing up in a particular region of the world. From our culture, we learn our values, what is important, who is successful and how to look at the world. Missouri, where I grew up, is called the “Show me” state because we value hard work and believe the proof is always in the pudding. I’ve lived in New Orleans for almost 30 years and here our values and way of life are radically different: it’s about a joie de vivre, lassiz les bonne temps roulez, lagniappe, your family and dem and of course, “Who Dat!” Cultural narratives define how we approach life and interact with the world around us.
Then there are religious narratives. These are the stories and lessons we hear from our parents as they teach us the faith and in Sunday School, the messages we hear from the pulpit, and the things we learn from religious books. They help us to understand who God is, what he wants of us and how we ought to live. Finally, there are the Jesus narratives. These are the images Jesus reveals and the stories Jesus tells to reveal the character of God.
We are shaped by our narratives and our lives are lived out of them. Often, our narratives are at work in our lives without our knowing it. We have narratives about God, our self, others and the world around us. Our narratives, (and here’s the scary part) once in place determine much of our behavior without regard to their accuracy or helpfulness. Once they are in our minds, they are largely there until we die, often going unchallenged. Whether we like it or not, these narratives are running our lives, and sometimes even ruining them. This is why it is so critical to get the right narratives in our lives. So one of the first things we have to do is to identify our narratives.
Now here’s the problem that most of us face: we have narratives about God that do not match the narratives of Jesus. Too many of us are living with false narratives of who Jesus is. Matt Mikalatos has written a fictional story entitled, “Imaginary Jesus.” In that story the main character encounters a wide variety of people who claim to be Jesus, but who actually represent our diverse and ever-changing depictions of who we want Jesus to be and the roles we want Him to fill for our personal benefit. There’s Nice Human Teacher who is a Jesus relegated to the status of Gandhi: a loving philosopher who did some good stuff. He can be largely ignored and he has no moral claim on my life, and, let’s be honest, “no one expects me to be as good as Gandhi or Jesus.” On the flip side there’s Perpetually Angry Jesus who is constantly standing up and denouncing things and pointing his finger at people while judging them for their sins. There’s TV Jesus, who says: "If you follow me, you will have the life you always wanted. Money! Wealth! Big house! Fancy plane! Unending health!" There’s Hollywood Jesus who is mild and kind and never asks for anything difficult. He’s the loving Jesus who wants us to be happy all the time and smiles knowingly when we sin and gives us a big hug and sends us on our way. Then there’s the Magic Eight Ball Jesus who’s good for quick guidance. Then there’s "Testosterone Jesus" who mostly goes to men’s mountain retreats and watches Braveheart for inspiration. The Legalist Jesus, who is constantly preoccupied with the minutiae of your obedience to the Law, and invents fences to keep you as far from sin as possible. The Political Jesus, who wants to take over the American government with Christians and transform the entire nation into a "Christian Nation." The fact is we all have an image of who Jesus is and the roles we want him to play for our benefit and they don’t quite match up with the Jesus of the Gospels. We build this story about who Jesus is and what we need Him to be and do for us and never challenge them.
Too many of us are walking around with false narratives. Here’s why this is so important. We live at the mercy of our ideas and our narratives. What we think determines how we live. If we think God is an angry accountant frowning on us and would love us if only we are good enough, that narrative will be seen in how we live. Or if we think that being an angry person or hating our enemies are good things, then that too will be expressed in our day-to-day living. A lot of false narratives about God and human life are perpetuated in our world, sometimes even in our churches.
Second, we need to examine what Jesus thought, even before we look at what he did. The process of spiritual formation in Christ is one of progressively replacing those wrong narratives of God and Jesus with the narratives Jesus told himself, in other words, to fill your mind with the words, thoughts and ideas that filled the mind of Jesus himself. This is of critical importance not only to Christian living but for the people of God as a whole. Failure to know what God is really like leads us astray and can ruin a life, a people and a society. The prophet Hosea proclaimed: “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.” Hosea 4:6 And “A people without understanding comes to ruin.” Hosea 4:14 Jesus sought to not only teach about God but to reveal the true nature and heart of God to the disciples and the world. Of course, no where is that more profoundly exemplified that in his crucifixion on the cross. In this act, he revealed the God’s love for us.
Third, we need to measure our narratives against that of Jesus and see if they match up. Most of us don’t ever take the time or avail ourselves of the opportunity to do that? Why? We’re too tired and just have the physical or mental energy to go on a journey to destruct our false narratives and construct in our lives Jesus’ narratives. Second, we have a fast food mentality to life. Like our food in the drive up window, we want our food quick, easy and handed to us. Too many Christians today have had their faith handed to them. We want someone to give us truth which is easily understood, easily lived out and easy to accept. Too many Christians come to worship or a Bible study to listen to what someone else has to say about God and Jesus without ever really thinking and reflecting on what God says about himself and what Jesus revealed about himself and His Father. We have become lazy in our spirituality and in our faith, wanting someone just to hand our beliefs to us and accepting them at face value. Just as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” so too “the unexamined faith is not worth having” because there are too many false narratives of Jesus in our world.
Third, we are afraid of changing the foundation of lives. Yet someone once said, “The truth has nothing to fear from inspection.” There’s a natural fear of things changing if you push too hard on certain questions, but if you are searching honestly and with a rigorous standard of truth then you should generally come to true conclusions. And if you think Jesus is afraid of a few honest questions, look how he responded in the Gospels. Jesus encountered questions all of the time and never once did he berate or belittle someone for asking questions of their faith. In fact, he always tried to help them along in answering their questions. Our faith can only been strengthened in the long term during times of asking questions because it leads to a stronger, more vibrant relationship with Christ. Fourth, losing your narratives can be a painful process. It is not easy because we often identify our narratives with reality, pure and simple. Dallas Willard writes, To change our narratives “is one of the most difficult and painful things in life. Genuine conversion is a wrenching experience…..It can cause deep and permanent damage to the most intimate relationships as Jesus forewarned. (Luke 12:51-53)….(It) is the equivalent of a “soul earthquake” that leaves nothing unshaken…”
Fourth, we need to claim Jesus narratives. Our narratives are the most powerful things in our lives. Yet we have power over our narratives which then can help us direct and control our feelings. The challenge before us to recognize which ideas and narratives are governing our lives. You cannot evoke thoughts by feeling a certain way but you can feelings by directing your thoughts and changing your narratives. It is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the narratives Jesus told himself, that we find the true narratives of who God is. So we must become students of the Scriptures and thus students of the narratives of Jesus. It is upon Scripture we stand and by Scripture we live. Martin Luther King declared, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason- I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted each other- my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”
And so we must turn to Scripture to test our own narratives of who we understand Jesus to be and what we believe he calls us to do. We must thoughtfully take the word of God in, dwell upon it, ponder its meaning, explore its implications- especially as it relates to our own lives. We must pay greater attention to what we have heard and test it against the Word of God. When we do so, we will be assisted by God’s grace in ways far beyond anything we can understand on our own. As we come to correct and let go of our own narratives of Jesus and claim the narratives of Jesus himself, we will begin to live the life Jesus always intended for us.