I love God. I love drama. I really love the drama in the stories of our faith. After years of yearning for a call that fully integrated these loves of mine, I discovered biblical storytelling. Yet before this discovery, I began the search for making new meanings of the basic symbols of my Christian faith after I joined a UCC congregation in 1997. I had left the fundamentalist church of my childhood when I turned 18, and had been “running” from my call to ministry for two decades since. Yet this theologically progressive congregation invited me on a journey that challenged my fundamentalist experience of God and literalist interpretation of scripture. What began as a rejection of classical theism[i] led to an investigation of the historical Jesus. That investigation was followed by seminary and historical/critical studies, and an eventual embrace of process theology to contextualize my progressive faith in the post-modern era. Yet the primary interpretive method for this investigation remained enveloped by what Hans Frei called, a “meaning as reference” hermeneutic: a study of the Bible as a source of referential information about biblical history and theology.[ii]
The dissonance between fundamentalist Christian theology and progressive spirituality has caused many in the Progressive Church to reject the testimony of Christian scripture, labeling it as exclusive and culturally conservative. We’ve thrown the baby Jesus out with the bath water. However, my introduction to biblical storytelling has inspired me to seek a much deeper and life-giving relationship with God and our sacred texts than ever before. My research in this area is grounded in a commitment to asking the questions, doubting the evidence, and investigating the greater and lesser stories of God and our faith journey. This journey is my progressive faith process and there are many willing to engage that quest with me.
The original purpose of my doctoral research was the re-authorization of the Bible as an essential component for spiritual formation in progressive Christian contexts. The objective was the application of a new hermeneutic developed by my doctoral mentor, Thomas Boomershine, called “meaning as experience,” where the biblical narratives are no longer engaged as a referential document or a book of ideas but as the medium for making new meaningful experiences and nurturing spiritual growth.[iii] Strategies included the creation of an emergent worship service called Symposium that engaged biblical storytelling in the worship liturgy, and experimented with new pedagogical methods for spiritual formation based on performance criticism (an exegetical method unique to biblical storytelling).[iv] A variety of biblical themes were engaged to address a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and create new ways of seeing that welcomed the Bible as a sacrament and conversation partner. Could this welcoming partnership resolve the detachment from the Bible and reconnect progressive Christians living in spiritual exile? This emergent worship experience was the primary medium proposed for the project.
Yet if the research participants were to fully experience the integration of faith formation and worship, they needed the biblical stories to come alive. Symposium created an environment where these first-hand encounters could be experienced in a community of inquiry. Each week a biblical story was investigated from a performance criticism paradigm for illuminating points of intersection which provided the means for “meaning-making as experience.” The main strategy was making the stories come alive through storytelling. The engagement of biblical storytelling and performance criticism for the research participants was an effective mechanism by which these basic symbols could emit new meaning in new contexts. The deepening of community trust in the Bible was the most significant impact of engaging biblical storytelling in worship. Evaluating the impact of performance criticism as a means to reauthorize the biblical narrative as a transformative exegetical method has led to deeper discernment of the embedded theology (or lack thereof) within me and my congregation. You can follow this research here on Vital Signs and Statistics, or view videos and resources of this work at www.ExperientialJesus.com.
[i] Classical Theism is the view that there is a God which is the creator and sustainer of the universe and is unlimited with regard to knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), extension (omnipresence) and moral perfection. Though regarded as sexless, God has traditionally been referred to by the masculine pronoun. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, eds., Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Western Concepts of God,” accessed March 15, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/god-west.
[ii] Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 87.
[iii] Thomas E. Boomershine, “Biblical Storytelling and Biblical Scholarship,” Network of Biblical Storytellers Seminar, (2010), 9.
[iv] David Rhoads and Joanna Dewey, “Performance Criticism: A Paradigm Shift in New Testament Studies,” From Text to Performance: Narrative and Performance Criticisms in Dialogue and Debate (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 2015), 1-2.