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On Narratives

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about narratives recently, for personal and professional reasons.  On a personal level, I suppose major transitions in life always afford the opportunity to re-evaluate things—where have I come from, where am I going, what are my reasons, what have I learned, how will it affect what may or may not lie ahead, what changes should I make, how is God guiding, shaping, and using my story, etc, etc.  These are normal things to consider whenever we close one chapter and begin another.

On a professional level, I am thinking about the Anabaptist narrative in more general terms as I am moving from a church in the Mennonite Brethren Conference to one that is a part of Mennonite Church Canada.  In the grand scheme of the Christian world, this would probably be considered a fairly small sideways step, but for one who has spent his entire life in the MB Conference, it is a significant move nonetheless, and one not taken lightly.  It is new structures, new people, new ways of doing things, new emphases, new strengths, new weaknesses….  A new narrative to learn and inhabit.

With all this going on in my head, a a post by David Stutzman from the Mennonite Weekly Review last week provided much to think about.  Stutzman asks a number of important questions, but the overarching one has to do with how Anabaptists will define themselves in a world very different from the one that led to the founding of the movement.  How will we, as Mennonites, deal with our newfound “normalness” in a post-Christendom world?  How will we frame our narrative when there is no longer a big “Christendom” to define ourselves in opposition to?

Here are a few quotes I’m thinking about from Stutzman’s post:

The narrative of the Christian status quo has lost its storyline, and through that, so has the Anabaptist point of reference in its own narrative. So in an odd way, the church that always saw itself as marginalized is now experiencing a form of disestablishment. So what will our distinctive of peace and nonviolence mean in a post-Christendom era? What will our narrative of being the counter-Christendom church mean in the new post-Constantinian chapter of Christianity?

There are risks associated with being a “counter-_____” church, namely, what happens when _____ is no longer a reality.

As Mennonites, we have a unique set of challenges that accompany a post-Christendom shift. In fact, when we are honest, the implications of a changed Christendom present us with the similar sensation of disorientation, dissonance, disruption and disestablishment that is evidently present in the mainline traditions.

Whatever conference we happen to belong to, Stutzman argues that we need a new Anabaptist narrative for a new cultural reality.  Other Anabaptist narratives have been articulated in very different contexts than the present one.  Do we have the creativity, cultural insight, and gospel conviction to compellingly articulate an Anabaptist worldview in an overwhelmingly secular context?  Do we understand the resources we bring to the table?  Are we inhabiting the narrative of God in such a way that we can effectively discern the role we can play in the ongoing unfolding of the story?

At any rate, I’ll have plenty of time to think about personal narratives, Anabaptist narratives, and probably others as well over the next week or so, as I head off with some friends for a motorcycle trip in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.  Eight hours per day of solitude in my helmet ought to be enough to decisively answer all of these questions, right?

Well, maybe not… Maybe I’ll just enjoy the ride.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Did the 12 guys at the Stutzman table notice that some of the few hundred million at ours got up and left? 🙂

    Oh that Constantine!!!

    He’s your boogeyman
    That what he am
    From Nicea
    Third millenia too
    He’s your boogeyman
    Saved the Book for you… (Prophet K.C. Sunshine)

    Me, Mick, Mick, Mick, Mick, Mick, Mick the other Mick and Mick, ain’t going nowhwere see!!! Michael Voros is in the house baby, Roman Catholic smackdown is coming!!!

    Protestant ministers get a tri-state bike ride as part of the package! Really!! That sir, is the most compelling apologetic you have offered to date. 🙂

    June 10, 2011
    • Yup—the perks are virtually endless over on this side :).

      June 10, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    On a more serious note, does the Church need new narratives for “new” (oh how they come and go) cultural realities? I’m no expert but I feel that the post Vatican II experience for us, led to a watering down of faith. Culture changed us, we didn’t change culture.

    Maybe we should only have one narrative.

    June 10, 2011
    • I’m not suggesting that the overall narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ needs to be changed or reinvented or anything like that. That is the one narrative that each of the various expressions of faith must always be located under. I think Stutzman is simply focused on how the particular Anabaptist approach to faith needs to be re-evaluated. We’re not negotiating our faith in the context of fifteenth century Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, etc hostility and disagreement any more. 21st century North America is very different from sixteenth century “Christian” Europe. The way we tell our story today has to reflect current as well historical realities. The question is how and to what end.

      (Incidentally, I don’t think Anabaptists are in any way unique here… This is the challenge for every denomination within Christianity and, I imagine, for other faiths as well.)

      June 10, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Sounds good, find myself nodding in agreement but then honestly asking myself, “What does that mean?” How should “our story” reflect current realities? If we distill Christian ethos down to a golden rule/beatitude way of living aren’t “current realities” ,whatever time and place they are said to occur, be something we simply negotiate our way through? Not something we negotiate with. If apologetics is the best method of evangelizing then I could be convinced that being culturally relevant was essential to the cause. If however the way we live our lives is better testimony than an arguement, what is there out there for us to learn from culture? Any culture; any time, any place. Don’t we all ready know what to do? Don’t we already know how to live? Forgive me brother, but when I hear phrases like “current realities” bandied about, I want to run for the hills, or maybe some sequestered Amish community if they would be crazy enough to have me. 🙂

    On a somewhat related note, for curiosities sake, if the Anabaptist communities circa 1500-1600 sought to distance themselves from the corruptness of 16th century Christian expression then, why change now? Is Christian expression today any less corrupt from the Anabaptist perspective? Is some sort of eccumenical objective at work? Or have progressive generations of young people just sought to be more fully engaged with the broader cultures that surround them?

    June 10, 2011
    • Sorry Paul, just heading out into a technology-free week, so no time to respond right now…. Perhaps in a week, if there’s still any interest…

      June 10, 2011
    • If you’re still interested, Paul, here’s the beginnings of a response to your questions…

      I am not advocating accommodating faith to culture or anything like that. I am simply saying that how we tell our own story changes in light of where we are in history. As an Anabaptist living in 2011, my story is very different than, say, Michael Sattler in 1526. I do not face the same persecutions, nor am I reacting to the same religious, cultural, and political realities that he was (i.e., I don’t have fellow Christians seeking to kill me as a heretic). My understanding of what it means to live out my faith from an Anabaptist perspective is different than his. I am negotiating my identity in the context of a pluralistic, tolerant, affluent nation. We have different narratives under the one meta-narrative of what God has, in Christ, done for the world.

      Re: why change now? Well, I think that we actually have made some genuine progress in the last 500 years or so. Vatican II changed a lot of things in the Catholic world, and there have been many attempts by many people to focus more on what we share in common with other Christians rather than on what divides us. Anabaptists have, in some cases, become less sectarian and more willing to learn from and cooperate with other Christians. This is a good thing, in my view.

      June 17, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    You do the better thing. 🙂 Enjoy. I’m interested…. I’ll be lurking lol

    June 10, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I’m letting you know though, I’m gonna be cheating on you over at Jesus Creed…I have been for a little while now….sorry but cans of catholic whoop ass just aren’t as much fun around here as they used to be. 🙂

    June 10, 2011
    • Ken #

      I searched for Jesus Creed and found a blog at patheos. Is that the one you are reading?

      June 10, 2011
    • So sad not to have met your expectations recently, Paul :).

      June 17, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Yes it is, Ken.

    June 11, 2011
  7. Ken #

    Are you PJJ there?

    I just joined in the most recent conversation there (see #32.)

    June 11, 2011
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ken, no I use same name as I do here. I read more than I comment. Go figure 🙂

    June 13, 2011

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