Over the past year, I have posted reflections from my doctoral project in biblical storytelling. As a result of this project, a transformative learning pedagogy of spiritual formation occurred from the reconceptualization of the authority of Scripture. Many often tend to think of the authority of Scripture as being a source of infallible theological doctrine and of historical facts, which has been undermined by the historical critical investigation of the Bible. We discovered that its claim to being an infallible source of information of what actually happened is not possible.
There are significant differences in the various interpretations of biblical narratives, as well as a variety of theologies. The overall impact of that has been to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. Rather than focusing on that definition of biblical authority, investigating the Bible as one authorizing source of spiritual formation is a significant return to ancient models of evangelism and discipleship. The biblical stories are but one voice around the table of community formation. The biblical stories are a medium where new dimensions of the self-revelation of God can happen for people. The project’s emergent nature and structure allowed that to happen. Inviting people to enter into the biblical stories themselves has re-vitalized the authority of the Scriptures; when we tell the stories, we become co-authors of the experience.
Along these lines, one problem addressed in the project was the dissonance that progressive Christians experience with the Bible because of the way it had been used against them in oppressive and painful ways. The mechanism for investigating that was the development of an emergent worship experience using biblical storytelling as a hermeneutic for presenting these narratives in a “meaning as experience” paradigm. This paradigm allowed the progressive audience to disconnect from the stories as a referential document and reconnect to an experience of the story that was transformative for the early church. As a result of this contemporary experience, it was discovered that progressives can experience transformative “Aha!” moments—revelations of God—through the power of story.
An additional problem addressed was the ambiguity of the biblical narratives as a source of spiritual formation, which leads to the problem of what holds us together as a community. If we do not need the magic words to be saved, then what about the experience of Jesus is life-giving? How can the biblical narratives be meaningful to me today? I can be a Buddhist if I want community. I can be Hindu or Jewish. These are all communities of meaning. Why do I need to be Christian to have that? The answer to this ambiguity is a vital connection with God through the experience of Jesus.
Another dimension of the problem was my desire to harmonize my process theological perspectives with the biblical storytelling paradigm. I had not yet developed a practical methodology for the interpretation of the Scriptures that folks in the pew could understand and embrace. While some process theologians have done significant work of integrating Scripture with the basic tenets of process theology (John Cobb, David Lull, Russell Praegent, Chalice Commentaries for Today, Process and Faith.org), many clergy and laypeople (at least in the Midwest) are not familiar with its practical applications. More work can still be done to bring these processes into mainstream and mainline congregations. Perhaps my renewed calling for biblical storytelling in progressive contexts will lead me into those possibilities.
And yet another dimension of this research was the problem of contemporary worship versus traditional worship and the development of meaning for digital culture. “Meaning as experience” suggests that we give meaning to that with which we identify as important and relevant. We give meaning to experiences of our own choosing. Therefore, we can choose to give the narratives of Jesus meaning because they represent something meaningful. The stories are meaningful. They make the experience of God known through making the experience of the stories present in our consciousness. It is our experience of the stories that are meaningful. In community, “meaning as experience” helps us contextualize a relational God. It illustrates a God who is a part of our everydayness—the God who journeys beside us. That is the good news.
I intend to broaden this research from a localized perspective to a national exploration. After experiencing the transformative learning capacity of biblical storytelling, I am convinced it is the way forward for the progressive church to again take its place as a community of meaning that really does practice what it preaches. That, no matter where you are, or what experience of God you have had on your journey, you will find sojourners in the United Church of Christ. Let’s tell that story again and again!
Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.