Values aren’t enough. Where is our narrative?

The church is in crisis. The old stories of divine intervention won’t stack up any longer. Yet if the church is to survive, another narrative will be needed, writes PCN chair, Adiran Alker

Values aren’t enough. Where is our narrative?
I have just finished reading two books, both of which challenge existing norms and dogmas, one around politics and the other concerning religion.

George Monbiot, a writer, environmentalist and journalist, well known to readers of The Guardian newspaper, has written a most compelling book entitled ‘Out of the Wreckage’. Monbiot asserts that the two great narratives of post war political history, namely Keynesian economics and neoliberalism will not provide the solutions to the economic and social crises facing the UK and that for a new politics to come into being, a new story, a new narrative must emerge. In his opening chapter, Monbiot says the “The lesson religion has to teach politics is: first, know your values; then evangelise them in the form of powerful narratives.” (p.10)

Furthermore he says, you cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. “Stories are the means by which we navigate the world”, claims Monbiot on the opening page of his book.

At the same time as reading Monbiot’s book, I read Jack Spong’s final book (a sad guarantee made by Jack in his eighty seventh year of a remarkable life and career). ‘Unbelievable’ is the title of the book, with its subtitle, ‘Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today’. There is inevitably both repetition and reinforcement of so much of what Jack has been saying to the church for over forty years but what struck me was that Jack Spong, like George Monbiot, is saying that the old stories won’t stack up any longer and that a new narrative is needed to face the future. The church, no less than the political scene, is in crisis and yet only a story, another narrative can replace an existing one. Let me explore this thought further.

So many biblical scholars and theologians have reminded us down the decades that many of the traditional doctrines and teachings of the Church, if subjected to scholarly appraisal, just don’t hold water. Keith Ward reminded his readers in his book, ‘Rethinking Christianity’, that Christianity has had many narratives from its beginnings as a charismatic Messianic sect through to the Constantinian establishment of the Roman church, the Christianity of the Reformers through to the Anglican via media and the multiplicity of expressions of Christianity we see today. There have been so many paradigms, ways of understanding God, Jesus and the world, and they have stacked up over two thousand years. Despite such complexity however there has been a constant story of a supernatural God, of sinful humanity and of a redemptive scheme by which God’s Son came to bring about our salvation. This dominant story ‘as recorded in holy scriptures’ has been the Church’s story. And for millions of people in the world of 2018 it is an unbelievable or at least an unconvincing narrative, which needs to be replaced. But by what?

Over the years Jack Spong, for whom I have the greatest respect and affection, has shown how so many aspects of traditional Christian belief need to be changed or else the Church will die. Biblical scholars, liberally minded church-goers, are well versed to rehearsing the  pitfalls of reading the bible literally. We might call for change, a ‘new reformation’ in Jack Spong’s words, but we surely we have to turn this into a new story, a new narrative and I think this is where a great deal of work has to be done.

Returning to Monbiot’s phrase, “know your values; then evangelise them in the form of powerful narratives”, it seems to me that the task before us is to present a coherent set of values, a kind of Christian manifesto which will flesh out this new narrative and then be evangelical about it. Of course many people, many organisations and movements have been doing this over the years, focussing on particular areas of interest such as peace and reconciliation, the environment, social justice and so forth. What I think is needed is to bring all these areas into a coherent re-presentation of what a 21st century Christianity might look like. Yes, our Eight Points are helpful. Yes, all the work of Marcus Borg lays out the landscape splendidly. Yet if I go to a church service anywhere in the country, of any type, I sing hymns and hear sermons, and listen to prayers and am asked to recite words which I can no longer accept. The obvious common sense and clarity of Borg’s thinking and writing has not seemed to have taken hold of our church communities. Such is the dead weight of tradition.

Perhaps many folk in our PCN family have given up on church for such reasons and I understand that.  But I don’t want to give up on church, which has nourished me in so many ways over most of my life. We know that churches do so much good in every community and offer countless opportunities to show the love and compassion as seen in Jesus. My hope, crazy or unrealistic it may well be, is that churches can be offered a new story ‘of Jesus and his love’ to quote the hymn of Kate Sankey. Not the old, old story of sin and redemption but a new way of reading the scriptures, singing new hymns, a new way of understanding prayer, new thoughts about ‘God’, new hopes of the republic of heaven on earth.

How do we proceed? Perhaps we should seek out partners in this grand enterprise of offering a “powerful narrative” to the Church. Perhaps some of the churches which are telling a new story can help us. Perhaps we need to offer a ‘package’ of liturgical resources, a challenging new course instead of so much of the insipid material like Alpha. No more sound-bites, its time to get down to details!

I would love to hear from PCN members and anyone else who can offer ideas on how we tell the new new story of Jesus and his love. Thank you!

Adrian Alker, Chair PCN Britain

Image by Albert Anker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

1 On 30/04/2018 edward conder wrote:

That sounds like a clarion call to action,  a challenge even.
How can we, who, if I am right, live in the paddling kayaks of uncertain progress, challenge those who stand on the anchored battleship of certainty ?  Can we help to raise its anchor or must we leave it to its eventual rusty fate?

We need to re-imagine the message and we need new resources to do so,  but, even once fully armed, how do we infiltrate the new ideas into the castellated castles of evangelical theology that surround us - well me anyway?  Essex is a long way from Sheffield!

Perhaps the divine solution lies in the present shortage of Anglican clergy, as the Billy Graham generation leave paid employment to take on a supporting role.  Maybe the replacement of over-worked professionals by those with less training, but more time, will
open the portals of progress. 
However, much as we may perceive that resurrection is required, I suspect that death is probably a prerequisite.
 

2 On 08/05/2018 Michael Hearns wrote:

Adrian,
      I just came across your blog and would like to make an input into telling the new narrative. I will just give a few comments here and if they interest you write to me because this little comment box is inhibiting.
I will start with the question which seems to have never been asked and it relates to John’s gospel as follows: How could Mary Magdalene look into the tomb and see two angels sitting at either end of where the body of Jesus had lain whereas Peter who entered the tomb could only see linen clothes and a head napkin?
The answer is equally intriguing for I have discovered new evidence which shows that the gospel writers had used the holy tabernacle of Moses as an image motif for the tomb to tell of the events of the resurrection in a presentation that mortals could understand. The writers had introduced the tabernacle into the scene where they stated that the veil of the temple or tabernacle was torn in two at the death of Jesus. 
It meant that the gospel writers had afforded Mary Magdalene the same status as the traditional high priest where she could see into God’s holy of holies place and view the two angelic cherubim sitting at either end of the mercy seat where the body of Jesus had lain.
The new evidence opens up the Bible to tell a completely new narrative of the Messiah from the time of his prediction by the prophets until that scene with the tabernacle as a lens to report on the events at the tomb. Michael

3 On 07/06/2018 Hellen Giblin-Jowett wrote:

Hallo Adrian, great snakes this is a luvverly site! I love your thinking about refreshing the old narratives, but may I please suggest that there’s nothing actually wrong with the old narratives, we just need to refresh the way that people encounter them? IMHO the worst offender of faith is literal reading: take it all at face value and you either get bonkers fundamentalists, or else you get perfectly sensible people rejecting religion for all the right reasons. Disseminate paradox and nuanced readings! I know this only hits a bit of the solution but we have an easy-peasy opportunity to make a huge difference to young people studying the Humanities (and that’s quite a lot of them). It simply involves young people doing their GCSEs and A’levels at school and putting on day conferences that provide valuable context about the Christian tradition that surrounds the works they’re studying.

4 On 11/06/2018 Michael Jones wrote:

I’m totally with Adrian on this. The basic Iron-Age world-view behind the Church’s ‘Christ-narrative’,  even when that is read non-literally, cannot be imposed on top of the one which our scientific age is now developing, and be expected to convince most children and young people who are living through it.  That old world-view has serious flaws, whose consequences have, at the best, been ignored, or at the worst, been used by the credal churches to justify many forms of oppression. One of them is the assumption that the ordering of the universe is hierarchical, with an omnipotent supernatural being demanding that all creation below ‘him’ obey ‘his’ laws. Adrian’s challenge for us who still call ourselves disciples of Jesus of Nazareth is right, and relevant to me - to develop a new faith narrative using the understanding of how the universe works, which our scientific age is currently developing, and adopting he language that it uses to expresses those ideas.

5 On 17/06/2018 Alison Beresford wrote:

Adrian’s viewpoint has been mine and many others for years. We spend too much time describing what’s wrong with the church and traditional beliefs.
It’s no good making up new creeds, re-writing old formats. We need to start from the position of those outside the church - the ‘lost’. Are the following few suggestions helpful at all?

How can I live a happy and fulfilled life?
Does my life really have any profound purpose?
Who really cares for me, knows my thoughts, longings, worries?
Why has life treated me so badly?
Nobody can help me when I’m in trouble, desperate, lonely.
Why should I care for others and who should those others be?
What’s the point?

6 On 21/06/2018 Val Turner Turner wrote:

Thank you Adrian for your excellent article which echoes a lot of my thinking. As Monbiot says ‘values need to be evangelised in a powerful narrative.’  Within this narrative, I need to understand, make sense of these values and have more emphasis on practical suggestions as to how to integrate them into my daily life (thinking, feeling and behaviours). I am aware that a lot of people find various Eastern teachings helpful to use alongside Christian beliefs.  At the moment, I am finding the readings by Dadi Janki, .B.K.Jayanti,etc (Brahma Kumaris Organsiation) very helpful to use for daily contemplation and meditation.  You may be aware of these publications. I am sure that we all differ in our ways of trying to keep in contact with God and for me, I find these readings a constant reminder which appeals to my common sense.

7 On 05/07/2018 Howard Grace wrote:

Adrian,
Your quest for an inclusive narrative resonates so much with me. I’m wondering though, when you write, “Perhaps we should seek out partners in this grand enterprise of offering a ‘powerful narrative’ to the Church.” whether you mean by “we”, PCN partnering with other Christians, or Christians partnering with other spiritually motivated people.

Should our search for a narrative be one which all can buy into, not just people who may be Christian centred? If Christians do respond to a new ‘inclusive’ narrative of Jesus, that would be great. We should certainly aspire to that. But that still wouldn’t be identified with by most others beyond Christendom. Muslims would still want to be Muslims; or atheists, atheists etc. So what I sense is needed is a narrative which, by and large, sees people maintain their group identities (albeit with a more inclusive understanding, such as PCN folk have for Christianity), but buy into an inclusive, overall story.

In that connection, should our narrative include a recognition that all people (and religions) are seeking to access a reality, divine or otherwise, which is beyond our human capacity to grasp. What we have in common is that we are human beings, in search mode - fellow seekers after truth - if you like.

In the present issue of Progressive Voices there is an article by Letlapa Mphahlele. He finishes by saying, “If only we can magnify our common humanity. Is this a vision that can unite atheists like myself with a variety of religious believers where we come together for a greater “Yes” - the reality of a shared humanity.” How do we respond to an atheist like Letlapa, also reaching out for that overall uniting factor? Is our expectation that all people will convert to Christianity? Or should we recognise that the Christian family, like those of other world views, sees through the glass darkly? Would we then be more likely to come together in a common, uniting mission?

 

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