Understanding the Story, Part I

A few years ago, I spent around six months with my youth ministry delving into the stories of Scripture.  Borrowing from a curricular approach known as “storying,” the goal was to help students grasp the great narratives of the Bible.  Each week a paraphrased episode was read (i.e. Creation, Noah, David and Bathsheba) and students were asked to creatively retell or interpret it.  They were then asked a number of questions about the text, including their unique observations and reflections on the place of God and humanity within.  I found the freewheeling discussion fruitful and encouraging as it allowed students the space to discuss the Word in their own terms and find their places within and connection to the story of God.  This singular insight is helpful to me as I consider how to bridge the two disciplines in which I teach and write.

When I consider the way in which my faith informs my academic discipline and scholarly work, my mind gravitates to Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum fides quarens intellectum.  I take as an axiom the notion that ours is a faith “seeking understanding.”  As such, the starting point of my life and its work is the reality of God in Christ and the story into which He has drawn me.  Perhaps influenced by the Neo-Platonic ideas of Augustine and his inheritors as well as the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, I take a relatively dim view of the place of reason in establishing belief and the propositional apologetics that often goes along with such assertions.  This personal understanding of faith is one that seeks not to prove but explain and discover more about the foundation of my existence in Christ.  My story in the midst of God’s story is therefore the starting point for this explanation.  Such a narrative approach has implications for both of the academic fields in which I operate and promises to be fruitful in scholarly work in these areas.  Considered under this rubric, youth ministry as practical theology and Church history both share an emphasis upon faith-full narration that brings them together in a unique way.

As I reflect on the academic discipline of practical theology, within which I understand youth ministry to be a subset, I must admit that the place of the Christian story—and our related stories—is never far from the surface.  If youth ministry is about the various narratives competing for students’ allegiance then it is truly a most vital example of “faith seeking understanding.”  Like all practical theology, it is a discipline that seeks to explain and understand how our faith and theology—truly “words about God”—relates to our practices as believers.  Individual faith stories and larger religious traditions have important roles to play in this conversation.  Within Pentecostalism, for instance, the specialized role and place of the Holy Spirit is but one of the characteristics that will help explicate and define the way in which practical theological reflection upon youth ministry will take place.  From the viewpoint of narrative, therefore, practical theology has a way of both describing and directing adolescent stories towards new ends.

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