To be open for surprises.

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A proposal for a theological understanding of transformation

Frederick Marais
Buvton, Stellenbosch

International Research Consortium Congregational Mission and the Social Sciences
Annual Meeting, Oslo 3-6 March 2006

1.    Introduction:

In this presentation, I will suggest that the insights of the narrative theory, in particular the distinction between the so-called problem story and the alternative story,  can be used as a hermeneutical lens to help us discern on the key question in a theological understanding of transformation in congregations, namely: What is God up to?

  • I will first make some comments on the necessity to suspend our “gut” assumption on what is going on and the attitude to be open to surprises,
  • and then introduce a practise, called the “story wall” practise that we develop in order to construct the local narrative of the congregations and to uncover the alternative story.
  • Comments about the dialogue between our narrative and the Biblical narrative

As a South African, who is blessed to life in the most amazing times, I would rather start with a narrative. In 2003 SACLA II, the South African Christian Leaders Assembly gathered in Pretoria for the second time.  In 1979 the first SACLA was held mainly because of the initiative of the late Prof Dawid Bosch. In 2003 I was ask to co-facilitate a group of 600 church leaders to try to make sense out of our history since SACLA one.  We sat around tables in groups of 8, representing the colourful and diverse population of our country. We started by telling out stories, former soldiers and formers freedom fighters told their stories to each other, for  many it was the first time that they had the courage to tell their story in public. We then created a Story-wall of 30 meters when the table-groups stick their memories onto a wall covered with newsprint. By doing that my story and your story became our story. We took time to read the memories and reflect on that. A Bishop stood up, pointing to the dramatic event of 1990 and the following years and said: “Nobody in their right mind would have predicted any of these events in the nineties; all of us knew that we were heading towards a bloody civil war in our country.”

2.    To be open for surprises…

2.1.    After almost 10 years of consulting and facilitating in and with congregations and trying to stay true to my calling as theologian, I came to the following conclusion: Never trust your gut, it is going to mislead you.  Well you could argue that as a reformed theologian I should have known that even our best try to understand what is going on, will be misdirected by sin. Well it might be true, but this is not the reason for my opening statement.

2. 2.    I believe I am in good company when I encourage us to stay open to be surprised. Is it not true that Moses where surprised a number of times, not the least when he encounter God in the burning bush? What about Jeremiah, not even to mention the exile.  Nothing in their tradition or social theory prepared them for the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babel. To the contrary, they were in the best of traditions to believe that Jerusalem will never fall.  Maria the young grill in Nazareth also would not have been ready to give birth to the Son of God. The disciples marching to Jerusalem with Jesus “gut” about what is going to happen during the pass over also mislead them.  Our “gut” can be so misleading that Jesus can walk with you on the road to Emmaus, without you being able to recognise Him.(Luke 24)

2. 3.    The well known father of the narrative theology, H. Richard Niebuhr experiences a similar discovery. As you might know, he wrote a very influential book in the Social Sources of Denominationalism  back in the 1929.  Using the social theory of Ernst Troeltsch he argues that the sources for denominations have much more to do with social rather than theological sources. Class, race, education was his conclusion; play a more decisive role than we theologians would like to acknowledge. A rather cynical conclusion on the status and identity of denominations in the USA.  In one of his next books, The Kingdom of God in America, a decade later, he give report of how uneasy he felt after the conclusion of Social Sources, simply because he realise that his analyses would not be able to give account of unexpected figures and events such as David, Jeremiah, not to mention Jesus of Nazareth.

My experience in studying and working with congregations is that Niebuhr is correct.  If and when we use  frames, we should be careful  to stay open for the unexpected.   In the words of the famous photographer of National Geographic, De Witt Jones, If we are open enough to be surprised, it is always there right in front of our eyes. If we only have eyes to see…

2. 4.    We all believe that God is in history, making history in time. We also confess that the Missio Dei God is some one we cannot predict or control His acts, neither can we ever fully understand nor grasp the wonder of his faithful and loving presence in the life of the phenomena that we study, congregations. To be true to these confessions I believe we need a theological theory of transformation.  We need hermeneutical lenses, language and methodology to understand and to articulate what we see when we discover what we did not expect. Most of our methodology pretend to be scientific precisely because of that cannot appreciate the surprising and loving acts of the triunian God of the Bible.  

3.    Un-covering the alternative story as a method to understand what God is up to.   

H.J. Veltkamp (1988), White(1990) and Lester(1995) and other theorists mainly from the narrative therapy school, draw from insights of the narrative theory and develop new methods for the re-interpretation of narratives. Through a process of externalization, the group or person are invited to reconstruct their narrative by creating so-called “dubbel-narratives” or a problem- and a alternative narrative. The problem narrative will normally be well known to the client whilst the alternative narrative is constructed by discovering the “surprising” or unexpected events in the narrative. A future narrative will then be build upon the insights gained in the discovering of the unexpected events.

Since I develop the attitude of openness  for the surprises I was looking for a methodology to develop a habit.  The narrative theory helped me with language and methodology to do just that. The distinction between the so-called problem story and alternative story gave me a framework and skill to stay open for the surprises, and by doing that discovering what God has been up to in the life of the congregation.  We call the methodology we developed a “story wall exercise” and in short we will follow the following steps:

  • Congregational leaders reflect on the history of their congregation, their community and their personal life’s over an agreed period of time.
  • They respond by writing their memories in short statements on paper and then stick it on a wall usually covered with newsprint.
  • In the following reflection we took time to refresh our memories by telling the stories. 
  • We then try to establish recurring “problems” in the story that keep popping up.  Believe me it is not difficult to find.  In linking them we create the problem story.
  • The real work starts when we try to discover the unexpected surprises, because communities tend to remember the problems more vividly than the surprises, it takes some time. 
  • We when try to link these events and by doing that “discover or un-cover” the alternative story. It takes a while but slowly a new hi-story emerges.
  • The following step is then to ask the God question:  Does this help us to understand what God has been and is currently up to in our faith community?  The result is amazing, not because it is an easy question to answer, but because it gives us a hermeneutical lens to have a conversation about Gods acting presence in our story. In doing that Missio Dei becomes a reality for the congregation.
  • As a last step we reflect on the possible Biblical narratives that link with our alternative story. It is when proposed to the congregation to consider using the chosen Biblical narrative as a sacred text for them to dwell in as often as possible. 

4.    In dialogue with the Biblical text

In is not new for scholars in the field of congregational studies to make use of the insights of the narrative theory. James Hopewell, Carl Dudley and others have done this before but failed in my mind to develop a theological frame because they neglect the Biblical text in It is disturbing to me that so many times narrative theory is used as a hermeneutical tool in the study of congregations without an attempt to use the rich source of the Biblical text in our analyses of the narrative.  James Hopewell for example uses a classical theory on different genres in his analyses of the narratives. I believe a closer link between our stories and the Biblical stories gives us much richer possibilities to uncover what God is up to.  Niebuhr believed that we will not be able to understand our story fully without the Biblical text.

In times almost unprecedented new challenges or messiness as David Bosch would call it, a reading of narrative of the exile for example can provide us with more hope than despair. The letter of Jeremiah to the exile in Babel in Jeremiah 29:1-14 open a whole new self-understanding to the exile in discovering that they are actually mandated by God to build and to plant. Walter Brueggemann Exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to privatistic religion.  On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament.

Conclusion:

I believe if we who study congregations can suspend our assumption, as Peter Senge encourage us to do if we want to do what he calls “deep listening”, and create space where congregations can tell their stories, we will always be surprises by the unexpected event in times of “exile” or despair because God who work in and through congregations

“A theologically framed”  theory on transformation should start by the act of listening both to our narrative and to the Biblical narrative in which the divine action of God will be reveal to us in the sense that it will transform and shape our imagination.

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