I believe in stories. The Bible comes to us as a story -- the big story of God of course, but also the many smaller stories of people and communities. Within the biblical story, little stories intersect with the big story in a way that is absolutely stunning in beauty and depth and meaning. The Bible teaches us to pay attention, to notice the stories that are everywhere, the little stories that reveal the big story of God and grace in the context of real human life.
Perhaps the biggest reason that I believe in stories is that they show us how ideas can be embodied in real people and situations. And this is extremely important. Ideas on their own float disconnectedly over life, but story helps us see how ideas can be embodied and worked out. For instance, if we at Westside King’s Church want to talk about and deepen our understanding of grace, than I think we need a story of grace. We can believe in grace but we need to see it, feel it. Stories help us do that.
As communicators at Westside, we continually talk about how we need to articulate our Christian faith, how we should “language” it. But even as we converse about such heady matters, we agree that God must be modeled in a way that goes beyond just our words. Or to put it differently, there are words to say about God and there are living models of God, and the second is as important as the first.
Simply put, unless all of our God-talk lives in embodied action, it tends to fall flat. For instance, I could take a big stack of books, give them to my daughters and say, “there you go, everything you need to know about God and grace”. Absurd right? What my daughters really need to know is that I love them and am deeply proud of them. They have a better chance of knowing something about God and grace if their Dad loves them. I can fill in the details as we go.
Paul Vitz has written on what he calls “the psychology of atheism”. He proposes that there is an underlying condition in some minds and hearts which makes them distrust the infinite-personal God. Vitz contends that disbelief in God is not an entirely rational thing, even though atheists often claim that their case is so. His book, The Faith of the Fatherless, is an examination of the stories of some great unbelievers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and many others), as well as some great believers (Pascal, Wilberforce, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and so on). What he notes is the way the stories of those who find faith so hard to commit to had their thoughts shaped by a common theme, what Vitz calls the “deficient father thesis”. He says that the personal stories of famous unbelievers are often attached to an absent, or abusive, or weak father figure. And the biographies of famous believers often reveal an opposite story, the presence of a faithful and loving father.
There are, of course, qualifications and extensions to Vitz’s basic thesis. Our ability to believe is not completely determined by our biological fathers; there can be a “father figures”. There are enough exceptions to Vitz’s theory to show that his thesis cannot be the rule. Nevertheless, Vitz’s study reveals an important insight into the way faith is formed in us. In other words, Christian faith does not develop merely as a process of rationalization, of arguments and ideas. If it develops through thinking at all, it is through that kind of thinking that is enabled to see the world as a loving and secure place, the place where grace has been seen and felt. Perhaps the most important insight is that faith is powerfully helped by living models, especially the model closest to us -- Dad. When a Dad models faith, we tend to find it much easier to believe.
This past Sunday we offered the story of the prodigal son as a story of a living model. At the heart of that story comes the moment when the father runs down the road and “falls on his son’s neck”. I love that phrase because it says so much; and what it says you can see and feel. I would encourage you to read the story again in Luke 15:11-32. And as you do, consider who your living models and examples of faith have been, and to whom you might be a living model of faith.
As you think about these things, remember what Francis was reported to have said, “preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words”.
See you this Sunday and 9:29 or 11:11. This is volunteer appreciation Sunday and the Barbeques will be fired up. Enjoy your weekend.