Lent and the Master Story

This month of March is normally the heart of Lent in the Christian tradition, and this year is no exception. We are also fortunate this year that Western and Eastern Lent (because of Easter) coincide.

Traditionally, Lent is understood as a season of repentance and renewal, and that is certainly true. But I would suggest as well that one dimension of Lent that allows us to experience that repentance and renewal is often overlooked: Lent is finally about the cross of Jesus, and finding ourselves in that story once again. “He set his face toward Jerusalem,” and so do we.

Lent is a time to get our individual and corporate stories straightened out, to re-narrate ourselves (or, better, to allow the Spirit to re-narrate us) into the story of God’s self-giving, life-giving love that culminated in Good Friday and was vindicated on Easter Day.

We are each and all characters in many stories: individual, family, ecclesial, communal, national, global. But which story is our master story? To which one do we gravitate when life is hard, very hard, and faith, hope, and love seem distant? Do we naturally turn to some family, or perhaps national, narrative for security and direction? Although such narratives may be valuable in certain respects, they ultimately cannot save us, and therefore they should not ultimately define us. Moreover, there are some dimensions of such stories that are in conflict with THE story, and there are even whole stories that collide dramatically with THE story.

Lent is a time to return to our true story, our master narrative, a time to allow God to weed us out of unfruitful stories and plant us in the garden of God’s story, the story of the crucified Messiah who is the power and wisdom of God.*

A reflection inspired by the reading of Daniel Kirk’s thoughts on Lent.

9 Responses to “Lent and the Master Story”

  1. AKMA says:

    “March. . . the heart of Lent” — (Not approved by the PR department)

    Michael, thank you for this apt reflection, always pertinent and an especially powerful reminder for this season.

  2. MJG says:

    AKMA,
    You are welcome. It is always good to hear from you, and I hope the year is going well in you new work.

  3. Josh Rowley says:

    I appreciate this reflection, Michael. And I find its langage of a “master story” attractive. I’m wondering whether you distinguish “master narrative” from “metanarrative.” As you probably know, postmodern thought is big on narratives, but rejects the idea of metanarrative because it appears imperialistic. The postmodern argument (simplified) is that Western culture was (is?) imperialistic in part because it claimed to have a metanarrative and felt imposing this narrative on other cultures was justified.

    How might we prevent our master story from becoming an imperializing metanarrative?

  4. MJG says:

    Josh,

    I prefer the term “master narrative” to “metanarrative” because of the latter’s contemporary connotation. As you know, neither of us is the first to raise this question of the totalizing and/or imperializing character of grand stories. As others have also said, however, the issue boils down to whether there is in fact a true story that is inherently non-imperializing. Most postmoderns say no, while Christians say, or can say, yes. Fundamentally, I think, when we got/get the Christian master story right—when it is not turned into power over but remains (cruciform) power for—then the imperialistic potential of the Christian story is reduced. But we must always come back to the basics and keep asking the hard questions.

  5. Josh Rowley says:

    I’m hearing this: The Christian master story, when it is rightly interpreted, is protected from imperialistic impulses by its cruciform content.

    It would follow that Christian imperialism has been empowered in part by poor interpretations of the Christian master narrative.

    It seems to me that the postmodern appreciation for story (postmoderns recognize the power of narratives) is something to affirm. Also, the postmodern rejection of imperialism can surely be affirmed by Christians who read the story of Jesus as a story of cruciform power. If this master story is narrated in a truthful way (that is, in a way that shows it to be about “power for” and not “power over”), then perhaps postmoderns will embrace it simply because they appreciate it. I’m not sure it is necessary for Christians to claim that their story is a metanarrative–in fact, doing so shows a lack of humility that runs counter to our story’s content and that may undermine the winsomeness of our message.

  6. MJG says:

    Josh:

    Yes to what you are hearing and to the conclusion.

    I am not as opposed as you are to the term metanarrative, but neither do I want to go to the mat for it.

  7. DM says:

    The biblical narrative is a text that we ought to continually refer back to, as it can sharpen our frames of perception in order to better see a world that is both decaying/dying and regenerating/living. In this way, I wholeheartedly agree with you MJG. The cross is the crux of the story, and Lent ought reframe our vision so that it focuses on His cross, so that we may see our own cross. Christ made his inexorable sojourn to Jerusalem; such missional focus must also be our focus.

    – However, MJG, I think you are missing a crucial facet in the biblical sweep – that being the meaning of the unfinished or ongoing nature of the story. The church via Pentecost is still in the final act. I am not sure I would call it, then, a “master” story, but a masterfully scripted story that is yet to be completed. Let me nuance this a bit more.

    In the book, Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be, Middleton and Walsh’s analysis of biblical faith in a postmodern world, the biblical story can still be a meta/master narrative without being necessarily imperialistic and oppressive because it is not yet finished. Yes, Christ has dealt the death blow against sin, but it still skirmishes today, and His full unveiling is yet to come. “Far from being a closed book about a story that has ended, the Bible authorizes our faithful enactment of the Author’s purpose precisely in order to continue the story across the pages of history” (182).

    Thus, we must return to Scripture as the ultimate authority. But if we memorize and recite it verbatim then, yes, postmodernity will raise a red flag – and rightfully so! Rather, we ought indwell and familiarize ourselves to its truths and beliefs, but then “faithfully improvise” here and now (183). Further, we have a Director and Acting Coach in the Spirit, who can critique us in our improvs (184). Verbatim repetition of the extant Script can perpetuate not only numbness, but violence and oppression.

    I am not willing to just “read” or “return” to the biblical story, but embody it and move forward within it – even move past it. After all, we, humans, came with the Image of God intact at the onset of creation, not a book for us to abide by. I heard a wise poet once say: “God didn’t make no junk, and doesn’t junk what he made”. Creation in Genesis claims creation is Very Good. And, as Jeremiah and Paul said, the Word of God via Christ is scored into the tablets of our hearts.

    Trusting the intuition of the Very Good self-image is biblical and Godlike, but I wonder if the church all-too-often does not care to imagine or nurture this ability, residing wholly in the confines of their interpretations or translations of Scripture. I know that in my experience, this sadly has been true.

  8. MJG says:

    Michael (right?),

    I agree with much of what you say. My point in the post (or comments) was not a comprehensive one, but a call to take Lent as a time to abandon our seductive false narratives and return to the true one. I especially agree with you about faithful improvisation and the like, and have written about that at length in, for example, the last chapter of Cruciformity. I also agree that the story is unfinished, and that we are to participate in its unfolding. But I would suggest that the story’s “unfinishedness” in itself is insufficient to keep our improvisation from rendering either ourselves or the story imperialistic. Its unfinished character creates the need for improvisation. Its defined, cruciform, death-and-resurrection character creates the need for faithfulness. Unless the two are merged, serious problems occur—almost immediately.

    A simple example: I can read the unfinished character of the story to mean that I/we should now finish it—by forcing people to become Christians or to believe my/our way, or by pledging to “rid the world of evil” on my terms and with my weapons.

    I like Brian and Richard’s work very much (and have co-written a long article with Richard—salvation in the NIDB), and I think they would largely agree with what I just said.

  9. DM says:

    Ahh yes, I see your point now!

    The post/comment is meant to capture or zoom in on a portion of the Christ narrative, namely the part leading up to the cross. The foreground, then, is lamentation and search for renewal amid oppressive powers-that-be. And this portion must be — for a time — a reality in and of itself, with only the implication of hope and restoration in the background. Is this what you mean by the comment not being “comprehensive” in your response?

    The postmodern improvisation without a textual grounding in the biblical story is, to be sure, a way into imperialism. However, from the perspective of church leadership, I wonder if the opposite is more often the problem — entrenching our interpretations of the text..? (that’s my story and I am sticking to it!)

    – Michael

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