UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Story Theology

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Antony Kalliath

Is Jesus and his message merely one story among numerous stories? Are stories binding in one’s life? Is Christian evangelization a mere ‘story’ telling? Isn’t ‘story’ nebulous and very relative idea to the mindset of the listener as well as the communicator?

To answer these questions, let me narrate an event. A protestant missionary delivered a moving sermon on the passion and death of Jesus Christ on a Good Friday in one of the remotest villages in North India. The majority of the listeners were, of course, poor villagers of Hindu lineage. Customarily, Good Friday sermons would be intense and dense with the details of Jesus’ sufferings and his crucifixion so that love of and devotion to Jesus become truly personal and emotional. After hearing the sermon, a villager, a Hindu, while returning home whispered to a fellow companion: Jesus had such a painful death because of his karmas in the former life!

What an anticlimax to the best intentions and rhetoric of the preacher! The sermon was counterproductive not because of its substance (the Gospel of salvation) but because of an argumentative and dogmatic style which did not vibrate with the cultural ‘reception’ of the hearers. ‘Reception’ is a good hermeneutic principle to assess the relevance and competence of truth in specific cultural and religious settings. ‘Costly’ religion cannot come out of a well articulated arguments through notional categories in a story culture: there must be an experiential sharing to which one is invited to participate. What is at work in such faith sharing is narrative intelligence rather than of normative reason….

Indeed, there exists, especially in Asia, an interface between style and substance. The most important aspect in the Asian religiousness is ‘experience’, not abstractions and arguments. The message must be nuanced with ‘experience’, and the messenger must primarily give a ‘witness’ of his/her faith. ‘Telling the story’ of one’s encounter with Jesus on one’s journey of life has the power of transformation. This means that Jesus’ story has to become autobiographical. Then our own life story can become a spontaneous faith sharing, an invitation to the Good News. That is to say, Jesus’ story has to be ‘retold’ in the narrative of our own life. Such a faith exercise entails a new interpretation of faith, which is to be responsive to our cultural and social unconscious. When our own story is transformed into a ‘parable of Jesus’, the Gospel acquires its missional nuance. This is what we learn from Jesus’ story narrated in the Gospels….

‘Story telling’ was, indeed, the style of Jesus’ ministry. He retold us the story of Yahweh because of his consistent encounter with God throughout his ministry and life (“the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” Jn 10:38) so that he could ‘draw’ many to him (Jn 12:32). The Samaritan woman retold the story of her encounter with Jesus and invited the people of her village to her new awareness: “Come and see” the Christ (Jn 4:29). Spontaneously she became the continuation of the “living water” for the Samaritans of her village. Mary of Magdala retold the ‘story’ to the disciples because she had seen Lord (Jn 20:18). Thus, she empowered the apostles who had been shattered at the death of Jesus; subsequently, they themselves became ardent ‘re-tellers’ of Jesus’ story of what they have ‘seen’ and ‘touched’ to the ends of the earth (Mk 16:19-20).

St John narrated the story of what he had ‘heard’ and ‘seen’ with his own eyes, and what he ‘looked at’ and ‘touched’ with his hands (1 Jn. 1). Jesus retold the ‘story’ of his ‘journey’ from the Father and the ‘return’ to the Father (Jn 16:28) to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, when he “came up and walked with them”; he narrated to them “everything in the scriptures concerning himself” and “stayed with them” and then, finally, “he took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.” Their hearts were burning within while Jesus was ‘retelling his story’, which finally opened their eyes and made them ‘recognize’ Jesus as the Saviour (Lk 24:13-31).

Jesus was not telling a mere story, but a real ‘story’ (an autobiography) of his own life journey that transformed the hesitant disciples into new agents of the reign of God. Jesus was preaching the Good News through parables and stories throughout his Kingdom ministry but these disciples were then unable to ‘recognize’ Jesus as Messiah. But this time, when Jesus ‘retold’ the Good News in an autobiographical narrative format, their hearts caught fire, and they became disciples again. Was Jesus hinting at the importance of the Asian way of ‘retelling’ one’s own ‘story’ in this post-Easter appearance? A shift from the abstract notional theology to an autobiographical experiential story-theology is called for in our Christian life to build up an authentic Asian orthopraxis and to develop a competent theology responsive to the Asian sensibilities.