Lesson 1: A New Church Narrative

A New StoryIn marking the anniversary of the Reformation, it became clear to some of us that 500-year-old narratives really do not serve our mission to proclaim the Gospel in our own time. That has put me on a kick to consider what might be a possible new narrative to which I hope some of you will contribute.

To get started, let me use portions of a lecture I am giving this evening at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. Its thesis is a proposal to commemorate the Reformation by acknowledging that the narratives Lutherans and Roman Catholics have used to identify and understand themselves for the past 500 years have been made obsolete by Vatican II.

I am defining “narrative” as the way we understand and identify who we are. If I ask you who you are, it is unlikely that you would launch into a list of chemicals, genes, or other physical characteristics. If you did, I would soon cut you short with, “No, no, I want to know who you really are.” You would then naturally offer a narration of your life: where you were born and went to school, when you married, how you loved your family, what you did for a living. Your story would be selective, only including what you wanted me to know. Someone else might correct your story with something like, “That’s not what I remember!” which would prompt me to check out what you say. Finally, your story would not be conclusive. It would continue to change as you have new experiences.

We also use narrative to understand and identify God. When we say we believe in God, we mean more than belief that a deity exists. We express our faith in a narrative told of a very particular God that includes all sorts of events. That story is also always being corrected with historical criticism. And it is always ongoing as the Holy Spirit leads us into new adventures.

So, too, we use narrative to understand and identify our communities, and again we are continually critiquing and expanding these stories. I contend not only that the old narratives fail to serve us but also that Vatican II laid the groundwork for developing a new one.

After struggling throughout the entire first session with the bishops’ rebellion against the Curia, the council found its direction when Cardinal Suenens of Belgium proposed that the bishops follow the theme “The Church of Christ, Light to the World” for the rest of their time together. This was understood to imply dialogue within the Roman church, dialogue with brethren separate from the Roman church, and dialogue with the world.

Let me offer an example from my tradition that illustrates how that strategy has already changed the course of church history. Lutherans have always observed the same church year as Roman Catholics with one glaring exception. On October 31, we celebrate Reformation Day. Prior to Vatican II, we “celebrated” by remembering the Lutheran story we all had learned in our catechism classes. The sermon inevitably described what is right with Lutherans by remembering what is wrong with Roman Catholics. That narrative then colored the way we observed All Saints the following day. Picking up on Luther’s priesthood of all believers, we prayed for all of our members who had died the previous year. The sermon usually highlighted the New Testament notion that we believe all the baptized are saints and how that is unlike the Roman Catholics who teach some superstitious idea about a cult of saints.

Since Vatican II, things have changed. Most of our young people no longer even know the narrative so dear to us old folks, because most Lutherans now use Reformation Day as a call for reuniting the broken Body of Christ. This year, many Lutheran parishes are marking the 500th anniversary by hosting leading Roman Catholic theologians.

Of course, conversing is only a first step to a new common narrative. It has to include other church bodies in addition to the two I have been citing. It must speak for a global community, not just an Italian or European one. And, of course, it must address the issues of the modern technological society with far more depth than the current Roman Catholic narrative that sounds like simply an ancient power demanding authority or the Lutheran that sounds like cheap grace offering therapy in a dangerous new world.

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