I met Robert at a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa. At the time, Robert was a street-involved poet who perched on the curb outside the shelter writing poems on candy wrappers and scraps of paper he salvaged from discarded notebooks. For hours each day, Robert listened to the life stories of other street-involved people, regurgitated their stories in poem form and gave it back to them as a gift. It was no small ministry. People lined up to tell Robert their stories. Watching Robert work, I learned that a good story can inform, shape, heal and even restore humanity.
Everyone has a story. But to make sense of the world, humans must have a sense of where our stories fit in the larger story. For Christians, faithfulness means discerning where human stories fit into the narrative of God.
Narrative theology emerged in the late 20th century and has subsequently spun in broad directions, including: studying scripture as story, analyzing the cultural story in which theology emerges, and discovering the ways that theology is shaped by our personal stories and vice versa. The latter application of narrative theology has led to a resurgence in the spiritual study of autobiography, a call to the spiritual practice of life-writing and examination of the lives of saints.
The late James McClendon, one of the early proponents of this particular narrative approach, believed that biography is essential for theology because convictions can only be examined when they are lived out. “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all,” writes McClendon in Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology.
John Barbour, a professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is an expert on the intersection of autobiography and religion. From his office phone, Barbour sounds wistful as he tells me that he is drawn to autobiographies in part because they are an expression of theological thinking. He says that autobiographies have a subversive current, often questioning theological heritage and written by people who are marginalized, struggling to find a voice. His favourites? The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris and Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles. “Reading stories of other peoples’ lives, I become aware of and self-critical of issues in my life,” says Barbour.
There are some pages of my personal story I would like to rip out and others with dog-eared corners. Narrative theology asks me deeper questions of both: where is God in my story, how has my story been shaped by my understanding of God’s story and how does my story relate to the stories of those around me?
Now, to answer.
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.