Eighth in a series of reflections by Lawrence S. Cunningham
The Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once remarked, echoing an old Hasidic saying, that God created the world because God loves a great story.
God’s story, of course, is the master narrative found in the Bible. It is a truth, but not universally understood, that Christianity is fundamentally about telling a story about what happened. Christianity did not begin “way back when” or “once upon a time;” it had a quite precise point of origin, which the evangelist Luke pinpoints with reference to the birth of Jesus: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1).
Not to put too sharp a point on it: Christianity begins in history. Some years ago, a popular theologian said that the entire meaning of the Christian church could be summed up in three terse phrases: “Gather the people/tell the story/break the bread.”
If we think of Christian faith as the telling of a story, a lot of things begin to make sense. Christian tradition is a matter of telling the story correctly. Telling the story is also a corrective; it allows us to say, in effect, that certain things we say or certain things we do are at odds with the Christian story. The Christian story is so central to the meaning of Christianity that in church, we tell the same story every year. At Advent, we listen to the prophets telling us that a very important event is coming. In Christ’s birth, his mission and the great story of his passion and resurrection and ascension are not only told in sequence, but acted out in solemn ritual. The meaning of the Christian life is something like this: We live our story in tandem with a larger story that existed before us and points our own narrative in the right direction.
The above thoughts about the Christian story came to me a few weeks ago as I watched a father holding his young daughter, pointing to a scene of a guardian angel protecting a child in a stained glass window in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. He was telling his daughter a story some minutes before Mass began where we would listen to the reading of the Gospel and hear the celebrant explain the story in his homily. Some of us have heard the story so often that we think that we “know” the story but, in fact, the story is never completely grasped.
The four gospels tell stories about a Storyteller. It is important to recall that when Jesus had a question posed to him, he almost always answered by telling a story. Who is my neighbor? Jesus answers with the tale of the Good Samaritan. What is this kingdom of God of which you speak? Well, let me tell you, Jesus says, about a mustard seed or a lost coin or a treasure buried in a field or a farmer going out to sow seed.
Sometimes Jesus, the master storyteller, acted out a story. Are you getting a bit puffed up by being an insider? Well, Jesus tells a story in humility by getting down and washing feet. Are you going to exercise ultimate political power in order to intimidate? Jesus, before the power of the Roman state invested in Pilate, simply stood silent. To put it simply: Jesus tells stories and he acts out stories.
One could say that the subsequent history of Christianity is an attempt to keep that story alive, retell it, and act it out by being the good Samaritan, the returned prodigal son, and the searcher for the pearl of great price. In that sense, the Gospel story is like a script.
This great narration is wonderfully summed up in one of my favorite passages in scripture—the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). Two walkers on the road to Emmaus meet a stranger who listens to their story of the death of Jesus the day before. He, in turn tells them of how the story of scripture illuminates the meaning
of Jesus. They offer him hospitality and realize who he really is as they break bread. When he departs, they reflect on how their “hearts burned” as he narrated scripture to them. The two travelers go immediately to Jerusalem to find the disciples and the story ends with them repeating the story of their encounter: “They told what had happened on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). In other words, they began to tell the story that had just been their experience.
The story of the Emmaus account is also our story: We are on the road; we hear the story; we recognize Him in the breaking of the bread and we then tell the story to others. It is all quite simple, really.
I wanted to put on paper this admittedly brief way of thinking about Christianity for another reason: It is an exercise that chastens us professional theologians! We write big books, using big words, importing big theories, while our Lord and founder simply tells stories. What we need to recall, however, is that our faith is related to a story which happens to be true. We need to hear the story and learn from it, which means in turn that to be a good Christian is, above all, to be a listener.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology (Emeritus)
at the University of Notre Dame.