Picture Change

Narratives function to sustain the particular moral identity of a religious (or secular) community by rehearsing its history and traditional meanings, as these are portrayed in Scripture and other sources. Narratives shape and sustain the ethos of the community. Through our participation in such a community, the narratives also function to give shape to our moral character, which in turn deeply affect the way we interpret or construe the world and events and thus affect what we determine to be appropriate action as members of the community.
—James Gustafson

We tell and live stories all the time. Now, by stories, I am not simply referring to a tale I spin for my daughter as she resists sleep. (However, such stories do count.) Rather, more specifically, the kinds of stories I have in mind are those narratives that provide the substantive components of a life. And, more importantly, I am not just speaking of the hearing of a story but of our living that story, embodying it in with our lives. It is the performance of the story that makes us part of their larger narrative, effecting us by that narrative’s force. (This is why “role-playing” for children and adults can be so expository.) This is the kind of “story-telling” that scholars like James Gustafson and others are so keen to promote. As Gustafson contends, narratives play both an epistemological and exegetical role. Epistemologically, narratives provide the form the lens through which we see the world. Exegetically, narratives provide the moral descriptions necessary to call something good or bad, holy or unholy.

Specifically, our faith communities are story-dependent performers . . . and for good reason. Faith communities recognize the power to narrative, the import of myth. These communities tell the same stories repeatedly, recycling their story’s motifs, characters, and enactment, embedding their narrative’s epistemology and morality in the performers through orthopraxis, i.e., right practice. Functionally, narratives capture the intellectual and moral nuancing more indicative of actual living, training the story’s tellers in the skills necessary to navigate a life that is less predictable than we might hope. In addition, some of our narratives provide overt shaping, while others are more subtle in their telling.

To be sure, faith communities are not the only places narratives are told. Others use story, too, for the conveyance of information far too complex to be communicated through didactic streams of data. From Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories to Ridley Scotts’ dystopian “Blade Runner,” narrative services as an essential epistemological tool to frame and examine our rational and moral understanding of the world.

This week, we will explore the notion of narrative as a life shaping and world-changing device. In particular, we will turn to the usefulness of “moving pictures,” i.e., film and television, as a tool for theological illumination and practical transformation.

Have a wonderful week.


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