From the beginning of my life, however, I also remember seeing glimpses of God outside of my workbooks and Bible quiz questions. The Spirit whispered through a million tiny images: My mother’s extravagant generosity. My father’s humor. The sound of thunderstorms. Singing old hymns around a bonfire. Reading all afternoon. The smell of homemade challah. Loving hugs. Poetry. Dancing in the living room. Sunsets over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Laughter with friends.
Intuitively I felt that Jesus was present throughout my real life and I began to learn something about who God was. Yet these aspects of life with God were never included in my theology charts. No matter how hard I searched, I could not find the Jesus I knew in Strong's Concordance.
In her book Breath for the Bones, poet Luci Shaw writes, “The Bible doesn’t teach theology systematically. It tells stories.” Her mentee, author Madeleine L’Engle, also echoes this sentiment in Walking on Water saying, “Stories, no matter how simple, can be vehicles of truth; can be, in fact, icons. It’s no coincidence that Jesus taught almost entirely by telling stories.” These women are artists, not professional theologians, and as a result, some may view them as less qualified to speak to matters of theology. However, as one raised with a big, blue copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology sitting directly next to the Bible on our shelf, I can’t help but wonder if the well organized approach to faith common in some Christian circles has stripped us of wonder and mystery, and as a result, distanced us from the God we seek to learn more about.
Systematic theology, as defined by Grudem, contains three steps. 1) "Find all the relevant verses" by using a "good concordance." 2) “Read, make notes on, and try and summarize the points made in the relevant verses." 3) “The relevant verses should be summarized into one or more points that the Bible affirms about the subject." Of course, Scripture is filled with concrete truth and passages relevant to many topics one would like to explore; however, the Bible not a compact doctrinal handbook. It is a book filled with law, poetry, stories, and personal letters. It is alive and active. When one reads to the Bible to figure out how the various aspects of the story of God fit into a neat “system of doctrine,” we can be tempted to ignore or reinterpret Scripture so that it fits neatly into our preexisting system. As Sarah Bessey says, "I wonder if we are prone to miss the gospel forest for the word-by-word trees?"
C.S. Lewis writes eloquently on the power of fictional stories to help us “steal past the watchful dragons” in order to communicate truth. In his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he explains that fairy tales can be door through which the reader may enter more fully into the truth about God and the world: “It would be far truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth.” In fantastical stories, we can certainly learn theology.
What if, however, instead of simply seeking theology in our stories, we looked for the stories in our theology? Inductive Bible studies, careful exegesis, and yes, even the presentation of clear doctrines and creeds enable us to better understand the beauty of who God is and what he is doing in the world. The problem perhaps becomes when we think that we can capture and quantify truth with precision. Systematic theology is a tool, but it is not the whole picture. We have created for ourselves an unspoken hierarchy of who is more qualified to understand and communicate truth, but perhaps we need fewer professional theologians explaining the Bible, and more painters, directors, dancers, and poets helping us engage with the story of Scripture. What if we dared to imagine that the Spirit could speak through all of us? How would our approach to theology change if we truly believed that everyone was a part of the gospel story?
As a theatre director, I certainly engage in a lot of systematic work in the process of staging a play. I consider the characters’ objectives, the dramatic action, the exits and entrances, the setting, the conflicts, and countless other facets of the script. However, the play is never about these things at its heart. I don’t want the audience to walk away from my play talking about my script analysis--I want their hearts to be touched by the story. I want the feelings of the characters, the arch of the plot, and the beauty of the aesthetic experience to help them to see the world differently. I would rather leave my audiences with good questions than simple answers.
Stories invite us in, welcome our participation, and require engagement. Facts allow us to maintain greater distance and think of abstract propositions as an unentangled observer. I believe that the Bible is a story, and though there are theological annotations, it’s not meant to be reduced to those facts alone. It’s so much more beautiful than the sum of its parts, and isolated systematic theology fails to help us engage with Scripture as story. The things about stories is that they require us to come to life. We are not afraid of missing pieces; rather we gladly listen to the words of the author and use what we know of the world to creatively question the blanks. If we view the gospel as a system to be understood, then we can be busy with our intellectual work on our own, but if we view it as a story, then we must be active listeners, engaging in community. We are absolutely dependent on the Spirit and so desperately need other people to collaboratively consider what we are seeing. It’s active, participatory, and inherently tied up with our real lives.
What is the end goal of our faith? Is it knowing the right answers or is it being transformed by love? After all, why do we even worship? Do we worship because of the neatness of a system, or do we worship because of a dynamic relationship? Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question--maybe it’s not systematic theology or story, it’s how to make the two work in harmony. We must know the doctrine that proclaims who God is, but the Bible’s statements about any one topic are not one dimensional facts--they are imbedded in a larger narrative and require the lens of the overarching story of the gospel in Scripture and our lives.
I am inspired by theologians, artists, children, and every person who dares to enter in there own way into the most beautiful story of all time. My understanding of God is enriched by inductive sermon series, good word studies, and creeds, just as it is by life in community, natural beauty, and Bible stories come to life through art. By engaging the story of the gospel, we aren't saying that there is no truth, rather we are choosing to believe that we don’t have to fear questions because they only lead us into deeper engagement. When we view the Gospel as a story, while also still taking advantage of theological annotations that help us to encounter its narrative in a deeper way, then we are freed from the pressure to systematize the mysterious of God and are instead able to joyfully live in awe of the wonderful story into which we've been welcomed.