God at the Movies: Why Faith is about Story, not Doctrine

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This continues my series on understanding theology from the perspective of an artist. The HuffPost editors changed the original title above from "why faith is about story" to "why faith is a story" which made a lot of people think I was saying that the Bible is fictional, that it is "just a myth." That was not my point. Rather, story is a way of understanding what happens in our lives so that those experiences are filled with meaning. The Gospels do not simply report facts as a catalog of events. Instead, they weave those stories together in a way that draws out the profound significance of those events in the hopes that we will be drawn into the story of how God came among us. So that God's story will become our story too, the defining narrative of our lives.

There is a tendency for religious scholars (both the systematic theologians who pick out propositional truths, and the historical Jesus crowd who try to remove that story by 'de-mythologizing' the text) to pull the sayings of Jesus out of that narrative context. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how story functions. So in this post I briefly attempt to illustrate the power of story, and how thinking narratively can deepen our theology.

(reprinted from the Huffington Post)

Stories play a profound role in our lives. They are how we make sense of our experiences and organize our memories. Stories are how we tell people about our day, what we hear on the news and even what we dream at night. That's probably why story is our most prolific art form. Most of us have grown up on a steady diet of stories in the form of movies and television (and hopefully a few books, too).

What is so powerful about story is not the plot-line of the story itself, but the way that we are drawn into that story, how we feel the drama and identify with the protagonist. We therefore experience what the main character is going through. That's powerful because when we do that it has the potential to bring us beyond the typical polarizing divides of right vs. left or believer vs. atheist. By hearing and empathizing with their story, seeing things from their point of view, we can see the other human being across from us. Religious and political debates often get caught up in arguing about issues and doctrines, and we miss how our words can hurt another. Listening to others' stories -- and therefore practicing empathy -- can help us reconnect with the human and personal, even when we disagree.

Stories also allow us to understand an issue much more deeply than we could when it is explained on a merely theoretical level. A good writer can craft a narrative with complex and conflicted characters and overlapping and intertwining plot-lines. The result is a story that captures the messiness and complexity of our lives in a way that propositions and principles simply cannot. Thinking narratively provides a way of understanding who we are, and how life works in a deep, messy and complicated way that can lead us to a deeper and richer understanding of an issue in all of its complexity and nuance.

Ultimately, story is a way to communicate and bring us in contact with meaning. It not only describes the complex reality of our experience, but also identifies the underlying plot which gives that existence purpose. Stories allow us to make sense of our lives, and see the sacredness of the ordinary. They make us laugh and weep and cheer because we connect them with our own struggles, stretching our own humanity and illuminating our life with meaning. As Robert McKee writes, "Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience."

With all that in mind, it is not surprising that story is in fact the form most of the Bible is written in. The Gospels, for instance, are all written as narratives. Since story is such a foundational part of how we as humans make sense of our lives, it makes sense that our sacred texts would make use of story. Yet despite this biblical emphasis, Protestant theology has been mostly concerned with expressing doctrine in the form of propositional truths. That is, it reads the Bible not as story, but as a source from which to mine doctrinal statements. In doing this, we divorce Scripture from its original rich narrative context, and reduce it to simple dogmatic formulas, rather than allowing it to retain the complexities inherently found in story, which of course mirror the complexities of real life.

Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God's grace become our story and shape our lives. We all know this, I suspect, but the way most of us have learned to converse about our faith does not usually express that deep life narrative. Instead, it speaks in the detached terms of abstract universals and dogmas. As I have illustrated above, however, narrative thinking provides a much richer understanding which better captures the reality of our lived faith. That's why we need to learn to understand faith as story.

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What the Church Can Learn from Artists

Sunday, July 10, 2011

(reprinted from the Huffington Post)

Christianity has a long history of incorporating art into its liturgy and worship. Some classic examples of this are cathedral architecture with its soaring towers and stained glass windows, the religious paintings of artists like Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and of course hymns and classical music. Of course there are modern versions of all of this too that incorporate contemporary music and visual media into services.

What Christians are much less aware of is how the artist's unique perspective can enrich and deepen how we approach theology. So in this post I'd like to take a look at what doing theology as an artist looks like, and how that differs from the way theology has typically been done.

Let me begin by offering a definition of art: First of all, art is not just about creativity. That's part of it, of course, but lots of other work involves creativity too. Art in particular is about taking something in your heart, and putting it out there (on paper, a movie screen, a song, etc.) in such a way that another person can connect with it in his or her heart. A musician writes a song about a breakup, and you hear that song and deeply connect with it. It captures how you are feeling about your own breakup so much that it makes you want to sing it at the top of your lungs as you drive in your car. Art makes us laugh, makes us cry, inspires us or shakes us up because it has become ours. It moves us because we relate to it personally.

Art is something deeply personal of the artist, that becomes deeply personal to us as well. In that sense, the Incarnation can be understood as God's art. It is God's heart, presented in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That's why the Apostle Paul calls Jesus the "image of God" (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is God's own self-portrait, and the artistic medium of the Creator is not oils or clay, but life itself. Again, that divine self-portrait, that song of God in Jesus, is successful to the extent that it connects with us, to the extent that it becomes the song we sing, too. That means that truth needs to connect with us personally to function as truth. We cannot remain neutral and detached around it. With art, to be unaffected by it is to not get it, and the Christian story, at its very heart, is God's art. It's not about abstract doctrinal formulations or moral principles, it's about us connecting with what Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called God's theo-drama, God's story. That gospel, that message from God's heart, is not primarily informational, it is incarnational, and thus personal and relational.

Now, all of this is very different from the way Protestant theology has been approached throughout the modern era. There the focus has been on formulating precise doctrinal statements. It seeks to find objective truth by observing as a neutral party from the outside. This approach works well for the natural sciences, but it does not work in human relationships because we do not live in the general. Everything we experience is particular and personal. That's why the artist insists that truth can only be encountered in the concrete and personal, and never in the abstract, never in a detached way. For us as Christians that means knowing truth is about knowing God relationally, not just knowing facts about God.

The difference between the artist's relational approach to faith, as opposed to the more typical dogmatic approach which has characterized modernism, has many implications. It goes a long way toward explaining why the church has had a history of violence, and why many still perceive Christians as being unloving today. These are of course big topics that are beyond the scope of one blog post. So I'll be covering these themes and others in future posts.

What we can see right away however is that, while the church has often viewed artists with suspicion (and vice versa), there is a lot that we can learn from the artist's perspective that can enrich, expand and challenge how we approach faith. It ultimately involves learning to think with both our heads and hearts, developing both cognitive and emotional intelligence. You don't need to know how to paint to do that.

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My article on the Huffington Post

Friday, July 01, 2011

My article on art and faith has just been published on the Huffington Post. I'll be contributing there as a regular featured blogger on the religious section of the Huffington Post called Huffpost Religion (don't worry I'll still blog here too!), and am planning on continuing that series there on what the church can learn from artists.

As many of you know, I have worked all my life as a professional artist, and so I'm excited to talk about how the crazy way that artists think can challenge and deepen how we think about God and life together.

This is my very first post there, and your comments will really help to get it out of the basement and onto the front page. So please go check it out and leave a comment (way down at the bottom past the ads)!

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