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You Too Are a Theologian: How to Build a Theological Narrative

In his book entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests that the brain likes simple stories. As such, when looking at stories of success or failure, we generally tend to “exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the part that luck played in the outcome.” For example, with regard to the rise of Google, Kahneman notes, “Of course there was a great deal of skill in the Google story, but luck played a more important role in the actual event than it does in the telling of it. And the more luck was involved, the less there is to be learned.”

I don’t disagree with Kahneman’s assessment of the human tendency to simplify stories, nor do I think he is wrong to suggest that there was more than skill involved in Google’s success. So, if Kahneman is right about these two things, has he written a theological narrative…not quite. Where I disagree with Kahneman is in the use of the word “luck.” Ultimately, I don’t know much about Kahneman or his background. I also use the word “luck” (or “lucky”) often. It’s a shorthand way of acknowledging that something beneficial to your situation happened that wasn’t fully in your control and didn’t come about because you are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

When we think about crafting a theological narrative, however, luck is a bit harder to incorporate. We know that God is not a puppet master and that, while he knows all things in advance, human actions are not determined. Humans make real choices and God interacts with those choices to bring about good for all those who love him. We also know that God can and does interact and, at times, intervene. We have, for instance, the narration of miracles in the Gospels and other writings.

So, how do we go about telling a theological narrative? While I don’t think I can offer an exhaustive answer, I will suggest four elements that seem to me to be important to tell a theological narrative that is true to the way in which God reveals himself in the Scriptures.

1. Faithful representation of God’s interaction with the world- We have to portray God faithfully. We may not have to describe his acts explicitly (note that the Book of Esther doesn’t contain the name of God, yet it is still considered a theological narrative), but we cannot misrepresent who God is by attributing acts or motives to him that are not fitting with his character. In addition, we cannot attribute to some other force (e.g luck, fate, destiny, etc.) works that are actually performed by God.

2. Realistic portrayal of the human condition- As we seek to tell a theological narrative, we need not demonize humanity or a particular human being, nor must we set humanity or a particular human being on a pedestal. Humans are not perfect, but we do act faithfully in many instances. Being realistic in our portrayal of humankind allows us to showcase God’s ongoing relationship with his creation.

Biblically, we see a great example of this sort of realistic portrayal in the life of David, in the Psalms, and in the faithful suffering of Job and Jeremiah. We see many of those in Scritpure struggling to understand why they are suffering despite their innocence before God, as well as questioning how God can allow the wicked to prosper when all they do is oppose him.

3. Interested reading of events- This element may seem a bit strange. We often look with suspicion on “interested” or “biased” readings. Basic hermeneutics and Bible study method classes often discourage interested and biased readings encouraging readers to approach texts more objectively. Interested readings are, in my view, nearly impossible to avoid. Their virtual (if not actual) inevitability, however, is not an unfortunate aspect of being human. Our biases can certainly keep us from seeing God rightly, but they can also help us to see God in fresh, faithful ways. In any case, interested readings guided by the right interest…that of glorifying God…can be quite powerful.

Theological narratives are not tirades against other people, structures, or systems. While they can be full of emotion and even express anger against others, they are ultimately interested in bringing glory to God, connecting more deeply with him, and celebrating the relationship we have with him. Along the way, we will certainly find that God’s word speaks against us and our understandings of the world around us.

4. Recognized as incomplete- Our theological narratives, no matter how accurate, are incomplete. They are written or told from a particular, limited standpoint. Even the voice and testimony of the full body of Christ cannot encapsulate all of who God is. We will get a more complete picture of God as we supplement our testimony with that of other members of the body of Christ worldwide…but we can never capture a full picture of God.

God has revealed himself to us through the Scriptures, so we have God’s own testimony…yet, the fullest representation of who God is was not written in the pages of Scripture, but embodied by the incarnate Christ. This final point is not intended to suggest that we cannot understand God…it is to suggest that our capacity to understand God is limited and, yet, growing, we know him more as we walk with him, trust him, and recognize his activity in our lives.

As I noted, these elements may not be the only elements of a theological narrative, but I do believe that they are important elements. When you seek to think about the world around you from a theological perspective, keep in mind that your vision of reality is shaped by your experience, by your community, and by the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the final authority for life and faith as they are the word of God given to us to help us understand who God is, who we are, and how who God is impacts the way we interact with the world around us.

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