In our last time together, I wrote about how difficult it is for Christians to construct and maintain a common social identity. I argued that Christian commitment must form the foundation of that identity, and I asserted our identity as people committed to Jesus must be the most important identity in our lives.
Unfortunately, I also observed that these things are easier said than done. We could put the problem—or at least one of the problems—this way. How can we share a common identity with people whose experiences seem to be so different from our own?
Being a Bible nerd, it seems only natural to me that we would turn again to the Apostle Paul as we think about this difficulty. What is so interesting to me is, even though Paul wrote letters and even though his letters contain some highly developed arguments, Paul’s thought does not seem to be founded upon a particular set of logical premises or metaphysical convictions. Rather, Paul’s thought had a “narrative substructure,” to use a phrase from one of Ben Witherington III’s early books.
Moreover, Paul did not simply use that “narrative substructure” to give coherence to his own thoughts. He used it to shape the thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting of those whom he was trying to persuade through his letters.
What story could be so foundational for Paul that it frames every letter he wrote? It is the story of God’s saving work in history. It isn’t just the story of Israel. It isn’t just the story of the church. It isn’t even just the story of Jesus—although that story stands at the very heart of the story Paul tells.
No, for Paul, it is the Trinitarian story, the story of God’s saving and self-giving activity in history, that frames everything he wrote—and, presumably, everything he did.
This is not to say Paul did not tell other stories. He told his own story (cf., for example, Galatians 1:11-2:21). He told Abraham’s story (cf., for example, Galatians 3:6-9; Romans 4:1-25). He told the stories of his churches (cf., for example, 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10). But he nearly always framed these stories in a way that was consistent with his narrative substructure.
This is good news for us. We can tell our individual stories. We can tell the stories of our churches, our denominations, and our traditions. We may even be able to tell the stories of our nations or other identity groups (though I am a little more cautious about this claim). But we need to do so with the bigger story—and its convictional world—in mind.
Why is this so important? When we tell stories, we tend to label “good guys” and “bad guys.” The temptation will always be to label ourselves, and those who are like us in some way, as “good guys.” But the gospel is emphatic that we are all the bad guy, at least some of the time.
This is not to say there have not been genuine injustices in history. Nor is it to suggest all groups have been equally affected by these injustices. Rather, it is simply to warn us away from the moral hubris that often impacts the way we tell our stories.
When we begin our story in a place of humility, as Paul does in Ephesians 3, we can tell it in a way that builds community with those around us. Alternatively, when we begin our story in a different place, one which ignores the foundational claim that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), we run the risk of perpetuating the myth that we are somehow superior to others. And perpetuating that myth can do nothing but destroy community.
A Thought Experiment
Paul has given us the resources to tell our story in the right way. He has shown us how to tell our story not only in a way that cultivates humility but also in a way that embodies other important virtues (love for enemies, concern for the well-being of others, etc.).
How would gender relationships in the church be different if women—and especially men—led off the conversation by enumerating all the ways we have failed to live up to God’s calling upon our lives? How would race relations be different if we led off our conversations by acknowledging our insecurities and our pain? How would conversations between people of different political points of view be different if those who took part in them saw themselves as partakers in a common grace rather than combatants in a fight to the (hopefully metaphorical) death?
I’m not saying these changes in perspective and practice would always yield unity. Nor am I saying they address every issue that animates the divisions we experience. Listening, repentance, commitment to the truth, and a whole host of other practices must also be part of our strategy.
I am asking us to think about our starting point. I am challenging myself to look again at the stories I tell and how I utilize those stories to either bring wholeness and healing to God’s people or to wound and divide the same.