Walter Wangerin on the art of storytelling and why doctrine still matters.
by Brandon O’Brien
Last weekend I attended Spark, a children’s ministry conference near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The theme of the conference was “The Art of Storytelling.” I think you’d be hard pressed to find a keynote speaker better suited to speak on that topic than Walter Wangerin. Pastor for 16 years in inner-city Chicago, father of four, grandfather of eight or so, and author of more than 40 books, Wangerin has lots of experience telling stories. And he’s good at it—really good. In his two plenary sessions, he touched on a good many things that concern me—the role of the teacher, the power of stories, and the nature of the relationship between art and truth. What I appreciated most was his sense of balance.
You might expect (as I did) that when speaking to a room full of ministers, a person who makes his living telling stories would emphasize how story telling is superior to other forms of teaching, such as catechism or object lessons or memorizing facts. In fact, I’ve come to expect that perspective at ministry conferences in general. It’s become very popular to claim that narrative is more important that systematic theology; after all (the argument goes) Jesus spoke in parables not doctrines, and the Gospels are narratives not bullet points. Fair enough. But Wangerin wanted to emphasize the relationship between story and doctrine, between the imagination and the intellect.
The value of story, for Wangerin, is that it allows people to experience the truth. You can tell someone, “Jesus loves you.” That’s a doctrine. But if you can tell a story that shows that Jesus loves me—maybe a parable like the Good Shepherd—in which I am invited to associate with a character that is receiving the love of Jesus, then I will experience the love of Jesus.
Wangerin used the example of Zaccheus in Luke’s Gospel. Wangerin was a bit of an outcast as a child, he said, and so he associated with Zaccheus. When his Sunday school teacher told him the story, he got swept up in it; he felt like Jesus was looking at him, talking to him. But when it was over, his teacher asked him, “What does this story mean?” Then, he said, the story was no longer my story. It was just a moral lesson someone wanted him to learn.
As soon as she objectified it, the teacher took the story away from young Walt and put it back in the Bible where it became “just an illustration” from which we are supposed to learn something intellectual. This was a big point for Walter—we should avoid turning stories into illustrations. You can’t dwell in an illustration. But you can dwell in a story. And the real power of a story is that it orders the universe for you. It shapes the imagination regarding what the world is really like.
What is unique about Wangerin, I think, is that he balances this emphasis on stories right away. In his 16 years as a pastor, Wangerin says he probably only told stories 20 percent of the time. The rest of the time he taught facts and doctrine and theology. But the stories were foundational; they were the context in which the facts became alive and significant. For example, the catechism class he led was two years long. For the first year, all he did every week was tell the great story—the metanarrative of the Scriptures. Beginning with creation and the fall, he told the story of Israel through the Old Testament, about God’s covenants and his faithfulness. Then into the New Testament, he told the story of Jesus, of the New Covenant, of the work of the Apostles, and about the promise of reconciliation at the end of all things.
Then, in year two, he taught about the Trinity, about Incarnation and Resurrection, about eschatology and other essential doctrines. “Because we spent the whole first year in story,” he said, “we could speak about doctrines as memories based on the stories.” The stories provided context. Rather than simply memorizing the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (which they did) as a cold fact, they could say those words as they imagine God forming the earth out of nothing, the man out of dust, and then breathing life into Adam’s nostrils. Wangerin was very clear on this point: stories don’t give the intellect what it needs. But the intellect can’t make sense of the facts without story.
The application of this balanced emphasis on story and doctrine as it relates to children is obvious. But I think it has broader application. The battle between the folks that just want to tell the stories of God and those that want to preach the doctrines of the faith will rage interminably, I imagine, unless we all recognize what Wangerin sees. And that is this: in Christ, God is calling us to participate in Christ’s story of life, death, and resurrection. Paul makes this clear again and again (see Galatians 2:20, for example). Our imaginations must be transformed so that this narrative of death and resurrection becomes the story that makes sense of the universe for us. But embracing this narrative is not the end. Getting to know our God and Father also requires understanding (as much as we can) that he exists as unity in Trinity, that he became flesh and walked among us, and those sorts of things. These truths are derived from the story, but they go beyond it.
In the end, then, making disciples of children and adults alike is a matter of transforming both the imagination and the intellect. And that means starting with story.