In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the way certain therapists make use of narratives, or stories, in order to move forward individuals and communities whose own story has stagnated, causing various deficiencies in their ability to live meaningful and sufficient lives. What is of particular interest to me is the idea of ‘thickening’ or enriching a person’s story in order to counter what has become a way of narrating life in a ‘thin’ and insufficient way.
Though there are various elements needed to enrich a narrative, what is often vital is the notion that one is rooted in a past. Yes, we are storied beings, but our story is not just something that is present, happening now – the product of any given moment. Rather, we are historical beings – we are shaped by history and tradition.
The point is this: to ask about our past isn’t somehow to regress to a place that no longer matters, but it is to be fully attentive to our present and our future. It is to recognise that the ‘answer’ to now is rooted deeply in the past. You only have watch any episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, in which celebrities trace their family heritage, to know that a deep understanding of the past, and therefore who we are, can redeem and shape the now (and the not yet), in ways that would never be possible without this knowledge. In a sense, Narrative Therapy is playing a similar role by laying the plot lines of the story of what might be, of who we will become. A becoming that grows out of a past, out of the story so far.
Naturally, in this therapeutic age, one needs to be careful not to imply that Christianity is simply another ‘therapy’ for tortured souls, for while it may serve this purpose, it surely has wider aspirations and concerns. That doesn’t dissuade me, however, from suggesting that too often Christians and their churches are telling a story that Narrative Therapists would recognise as ‘thin’, even if at times the language used is inadequately complex. As Andrew Walker has lamented, many Christians are, ‘woefully ignorant about their faith’. An ignorance that has led to a story that is at times meaningless and insufficient for the complexities of life in the early twenty-first century.
Some have tried to address this tendency to ‘thin’ the Christian narrative by seeking to answer pertinent questions, such as, ‘How does Christianity relate to the late modern context in which we live?’, engaging not only the vagaries of popular culture, but also the subtleties of postmodern philosophers. However, while there has been much to value from this engagement, this has also led some to jettison theological and ecclesiological narratives in the worthy pursuit of contextual relevance.
What Deep Church is suggesting, as far as I understand it, is that we ‘find a way to the future by remembering the past’ (Bretherton), but not in such as way as to ‘thin-out’ the narrative in order to prefer ‘doctrinal positions and ecclesiological predilections’ (Walker). Indeed, Walker goes on to suggest that what deep church really needs (and I assume by that he means all of us) is a re-engagement with the Christian narrative – biblical, theological an ecclesiological. A catechism that is, at one and the same time, as contemporary as it is ancient. To restore to Christians and the Church (if I can put words into Andrew’s mouth) a ‘thick’ narrative to shape who we are, both as individuals and as a collective named ‘Church’.
Of course, for some, such talk is anathema. Indeed, they may even suggest that it is culturally irrelevant to speak of the past and tradition, history and a narrative that smacks of the ‘meta-kind’, for as far as the post-modern is concerned, these are spent non-entities. What truly matters is the here-and-now.
It wouldn’t be the first time Christians have been called to resist the spirit of the age, especially when that spirit denies a dimension of what it is to be human and has the potential to rob of us of our futures. If one is hoping to engage the now, then it is a grave mistake to neglect or sever one’s links with those who have shared our faith across he centuries. As Paul Ricoeur has suggested, tradition, far form being an outmoded, spent commodity, is in fact something which has a surplus of meaning. It is the collective memory out of which we build our futures. Provided we don’t fall into nostalgia or fashion ourselves liturgical and hermeneutical blankets to keep out the cold of change, we will actually discover that it is tradition that is emerging. Tradition is not static, it is a dynamic force, which brings forth the future (the not yet), even as it informs the now by drawing on the past. As the Catholic theologian, Terry Veling puts it, ‘the past survives and endures because it leans into the future, precisely because it carries the promise of what could yet be, what is still coming.’