Telling stories for identity-forming discipleship
Maybe you’re an avid reader, or have binged-watched a show, or retain priceless memories involving friends and family. Odds are if you’re reading this, you likely also assign religious meaning to a set of stories called Scripture.
Why do stories matter? And in particular, why do stories matter for young people in your ministry asking big identity questions like, “Who am I?”
Psychological research suggests two answers: Stories are important for understanding and integration.
- Understanding is the process by which adolescents construct a “life story,” from various smaller stories (what we often call “memories”).
- Integration is the process by which they situate that life story into broader cultural stories in order to make meaning (from constructs like class, gender, race, religion, etc).
At FYI, we usually link the practice of understanding closely with listening and empathy. In fact, we have written about it here, here, here, and here. So, for now I’d like to focus on integration.
We often think about integration in terms of helping young people center their life story on Jesus. This is right and good. However, I often wonder if there’s an inherent risk in that approach. After all, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightly warns in her viral TED Talk, there is danger in a single story.
We could even apply this to the church. As history demonstrates, employing a single narrative about Jesus in our discipleship efforts (even when intentions are pure) has a tendency towards domination, assimilation, and oppression. It’s no surprise then, that Scripture offers us at least four such stories. Perhaps like the Living Word, it does more right and more good to guide young people in their integration efforts by surrounding them with as many Christian stories as possible.
Let me put it differently. In the recent Marvel series, Loki, there is one deterministic “sacred timeline,” which is kept pure by the Time Variance Authority (TVA) who “prunes” (that is, destroys) anyone straying from said timeline. I wonder: are we also tempted sometimes to prune the stories of young people into a determined narrative? Is there a model that embraces the diverse stories of young people as gospel adaptations? Could integration into Christian identity (what we usually call discipleship, or spiritual formation) be a dialogue between stories within a story?
You’ve likely heard the young people around you attempting this integration work out loud.
“Live your truth.”
“You do you.”
“Be your best self.”
Christian writer and teacher Amy L. Peterson argues against this approach to authenticity. “My identity,” she writes, “depends on how I respond to my ‘divine casting call,’…There is nothing fake about assuming this role—fitting into its costumes, learning its lines, reciting them, or improvising them…The part I’ve been called to play is that of disciple, and like a method actor, I must live into the role the best I can…This will not lead to mindless conformity, but to my unique embodiment of the role.”
She goes on to illustrate her point using Shakespeare.
This may seem like an odd turn, but perhaps you’ve seen West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, O, She’s the Man, My Own Private Idaho, Strange Brew, or The Lion King. Although these films span genres and generations, they’re all based on Shakespeare plays. Some of them are even based on the same play! It’s wild to think that Strange Brew and The Lion King have the same source material, but they do. Young people should be encouraged to embody the gospel in the same way. Their version of the gospel may be as different as a Disney cartoon is a from an 80’s Canadian cult classic, but as long as it’s based on the same source material: they are being disciples.
In fact, this way of connecting self-understanding to source material has been happening throughout church history. The Confessions by St. Augustine is considered by many to be the world’s first autobiography. In it he writes, “I encounter myself; I recall myself—what I have done, when and where I did it, and in what state of mind I was at the time …” This is what we called understanding above. But then, Augustine realizes that there is a reality outside himself, and seeks integration. “The individual, he believes, cannot be understood apart from the universal, and therefore The City of God must be written to complete The Confessions. Augustine cannot know where he came from or where he is heading without knowing where history as a whole is going.”
The trick is to help young people live their truth by introducing the Truth beyond themselves.
My colleague Jennifer Guerra-Aldana explains that hearing faith stories builds faith language. “When I think of discipleship for young people, I think, ‘let’s inundate them with stories so they will have many to draw from.’”
Maybe you already do this with stories from Scripture, your experience, and your community. But youth leaders should also be familiar with what I call ‘gospel adaptations.’
Church historian John L. Thompson writes, “[church] history tells me who I am as a Christian, and does so in ways that crucially supplement the story we call the gospel by showing how the gospel has been lived by the church.”
In the Orthodox Christian tradition there are paintings of the saints called “icons” plastered everywhere around sanctuaries with strategically placed gaps in between them. These gaps beckon the people of God to see themselves as part of the story—to consider the source material, consider the gospel adaptations of the saints, and assume their role in the great cloud of witnesses. It’s a picture of the one Church—a communion of storytellers who transcend time and space to adapt the Jesus-story into their lives.
Like Scripture, these gospel adaptions in the lives of the saints might surprise and challenge you.
For example, a friend recently told me of a pastor who made the assertion that public protest was unbecoming of a Christian. I found this a strange take coming from a Protestant, whose moniker literally contains “protest.” At the very least, there’s more to the story here. Excepting “matters of faith,” Martin Luther himself (the father of the Reformation) despised protest against the state, whom he believed was ordained by God. On the other hand, his namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., defined “matters of faith” more broadly and certainly did not hold the same views.
Look at this rich dialogue around practical wisdom that exists within church history! Should not the pastoral task consist of surrounding young people with these sorts of stories in pursuit of God’s wisdom, rather than constructing their faith in our own image? Is not the story bigger than our individual story? Should not they be invited into a storied dialogue with the Church that orients them?
“The disciples in the Gospels are not primarily proto-missionaries, but actual learners,” writes Anglican theologian Stephen Cherry. “They are not, and do not become, functionaries of the kingdom or gurus of Jesus’ new methods of spirituality, although he did show them how to pray, and what we read in the Acts of the Apostles suggests that they got the hang of healing and exorcising. The primary role of the disciple is to be one who learns.”
I’ve been at this long enough to get the hang of a few things. But I’m not done learning yet. And neither are you. Let’s learn more gospel adaptations. Let’s join the young people we serve in discipleship as learners. Let’s have surprising dialogues. We need not construct identity for them; just give them as many tools as possible. Inundate them with stories.
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 Kate C. McLean and Monisha Pasupathi, Narrative Development in Adolescence: Creating the Storied Self, Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development (New York: Springer, 2010), xxi, xxv.
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, accessed August 17, 2021, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
 Amy Peterson, Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (Thomas Nelson, 2020), 115.
 Locating God outside oneself is unique to the Western Christian tradition, with the possible exception of St. John of the Cross. Eastern Christianity might place God at the center of one’s being. Likewise, Womanist theologians have done the same as they attempt to reclaim the Imago Dei within their person rather than being alienated and othered by some whitewashed version of something outside themselves. See Mitzi J. Smith, I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015). Conceptualized either way the self is never exists sui generis, but is grounded in a divine reality.
 Mark C. Taylor, Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 3-4.
 Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2021), 82.
 John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), ix.
 Martin Luther, “Martin Luther: Concerning Government Authority. ,” in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, Revised Edition (New York: Perennial, 2009), 73–92.
 In my experience, Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted without context or co-opted for the preservation of comfort and the status quo. To truly dialogue with King the pastor, activist, and theologian we must read his writings in their entirety and let them challenge us. For his views on protest see Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Penguin, 2000).
 Stephen Cherry, “Discipleship and Christian Character,” Theology 119, no. 3 (May 1, 2016): 199.
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