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Stories We Tell Ourselves and the Big News from Jon and Kate

(photo originally uploaded to Flickr by Nick Konings)

Whether your realize it or not, everything you believe, everything you do, everything that defines who you are is based on a story that you tell yourself. You may or may not be aware of that story. Most of us aren’t. You inherited that story, most likely when you were a child. Some of us have refined those stories over time or completely rewritten that story or received a new one from someone else.

Am I losing you yet?

What I’m talking about is something called a metanarrative.

A friend of mine, Shah Afshar, recently wrote a post on metanarrative. Here is the definition he had:

“A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal (original pattern or model) account of the historical record. They can also provide a framework upon which an individual’s own experiences and thoughts may be ordered. These grand, all-encompassing stories are typically characterized by some form of ‘transcendent and universal truth’ in addition to an evolutionary tale of human existence (a story with a beginning, middle and an end).”

Now, if your eyes haven’t completely glossed over, and you are still reading this, you are probably wondering what does this all have to do with Jon and Kate and their announcement that they are getting a divorce (sorry for spoiling it if you didn’t watch last night’s show). I’ll get to that soon enough. First, I want to share more of what my friend Shah shared on his blog post. He talks about a young man who grew up in a Christian home and went to Bible school to become a pastor, got married and then was divorced 5 years later. He asked the question,

“‘…if my faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality were not enough to keep my marriage together, what else could all the “Christian experts” have been withholding from me?’

It was Tom’s last question that gripped my heart the most. A question that I never asked till I was well in my late 40’s, over 30 years after becoming a follower of Christ. A question that today Christians younger than my own children are asking me over and over again. How did we, evangelical Christians, come to the conclusion that our faith, obedience and spirituality should guarantee us of a life void of pain and failure? Of course, the preacher from the pulpit and the televangelist on TV are quick to point to the Bible. But I believe the answer lies in understanding the word metanarrative.”

Shah goes on to define modernism, postmodernism and metanarrative. He then asks this question:

“Do we, Christians, have our own metanarratives, or as I like to put it, ‘one size fits all stories’? Do we insist that all the stories in the Bible are universal and if something was promised or worked for Abraham, Jabez or David should work for all Christians?”

After giving a personal example of how he was told not to complain about surgery pain because Joseph didn’t complain when he was in prison and talking a bit about Bruce Wilkinson and his well-know book The Prayer of Jabez (read the entire post for more details), Shah makes these concluding remarks:

“To say that because God granted Jabez’s wish, He desires the same for everyone who prays the prayer, is as diluted and misguided as saying, ‘…rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.’ To believe that is simplistic, naïve and denies the complexity and mysteriousness of the God we serve. But even more heart-wrenching is not realizing how much damage Christian metanarratives have done to the faith of Christians like my young friend, Tom, a man who was taught that his faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality should be enough to keep his marriage together. And, of course, the reason his marriage failed was because he wasn’t faithful, obedient or spiritual enough.”

I encourage you to read Shah’s entire post. After finishing the post, I said, “That’s it!” He so well articulated the “harm” that can be caused by traditional evangelical culture. Some people may thing that the word “harm” is a bit harsh, but if what is happening in churches all over North America with people leaving with no desire to return then I don’t think so. We’ve become so convinced that our traditional evangelical metanarratives are truth rather than looking to the source of Truth.

This is where Jon and Kate come in (had to tie them in! it’s news and it’s good for drawing search engine traffic!). There were so many reactions to their announcement to end the marriage yet keep on with the show. So many well-meaning people had their reasons for why they ended their marriage or what they should’ve done or how they could reconcile their marriage. Most of the reasons I read on Facebook, Twitter and blogs were over simplifications of how their marriage could’ve been saved. Marriage is complex, takes hard work, and add to that twins and sextuplets!! Who’s to say what would or wouldn’t have saved their marriage.

I think metanarrative is crucial in children’s ministry. We have the opportunity to help set up children with a metanarrative and is made up of more than simplistic rules or proverbs we need to live by. As children’s ministers, we have the opportunity to help children understand that there is a God out there who is crazy in love with them, has an amazing plan for their lives, is the creator of the universe and wants to use them to do some amazing things in the world. We also have the opportunity to help children understand that does not mean life is going to be easy or void of pain or successful in the eyes of people around us. What it does mean, though, is that we get to play a part in God’s plan of redemption of all of creation and that in and of itself is amazing.

  • What metanarratives have governed your life?
  • What kinds of metanarratives are you instilling in the lives of children you minister to?
  • How are you equipping children to deal with a changing culture and the need to sometimes adapt our metanarratives without losing the Truth at the core of our metanarratives?
  • How many of you want me to stop using the word metanarrative?

6 Responses to “Stories We Tell Ourselves and the Big News from Jon and Kate”

  1. Maria June 23, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Pretty good post. I just came by your site and wanted to say
    that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

  2. Anonymous July 6, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    Cornelius wins.


  3. Gretchen July 17, 2009 at 3:19 am #

    Hi, I'm new here, I've been browsing children's ministry blogs. I was recently at the 3rd triennial Children's Spirituality conference at Concordia College in River Forest, IL, and was fascinated to discover there that "metanarrative" is the latest thing in children's ministries, but the word is being used in a different way — as meaning "the overarching story told in Scripture, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, extending from Genesis to Revelation." In other words, in telling Bible stories to children our goal is NOT to create the kind of mini-metanarratives that convey the message, "Every moral lesson that can be drawn from every Bible story is equally valid for you and everybody else, and is what that story is really about, and the Bible itself is a huge anthology of moral lessons," but instead we should be communicating that the WHOLE story of the People of God is a universal story with a powerful, dramatic plot.

    I'll summarize that plot in a second post!

  4. Gretchen July 17, 2009 at 3:20 am #

    , that goes something like this:

    Once upon a time, we were safe and happy in a beautiful and fertile place and knew God face to face. But we rebelled and alienated ourselves, and found ourselves lost, lonely and afraid in a hard and bitter world. God has never forgotten us or given up on us, but we have to go forward, not back, and the journey is long, difficult, dangerous and scary. God has called us to be faithful to him and promised us that we will grow up, come home, and be raised to glory … BUT we have to learn to keep our promises and control our impulses. We set out to do this but found it was much harder than we expected. Over and over, we failed. Over and over, we found ourselves far from home, trusting in false values, and breaking our promises. Over and over, God renewed his promises, saved us, breathed new life into us, and gave us another chance. [repeat, with varying degrees of detail, for hundreds of years]. Finally, God did something new.


  5. Gretchen July 17, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    God came to live with us, to share our life and our death, and to give us a new promise. His name was Jesus. He offered us a new promise — infinite forgiveness through love and trust in him, even when we go on breaking our promises. He laid down his life for us, and God gave him new life to share with everyone who hears his story and lets it change them. His new life is stronger than death. Some day he will finish his work and create a new heaven and a new earth, and all tears will be wiped away, and we will find our way home — not as children but as kings and queens, brides of the lamb, and live happily ever after.

    I've been writing Sunday School materials for 30 years and I try to ALWAYS keep this metanarrative in mind.

    • henryjz July 17, 2009 at 3:39 am #

      Thanks for the summary. Sounds like this is something that you really resonate with. What I like about shifting to a mindset where we look at the story of the Bible as a meta-narrative is that it allows us to tie the story of God's redemption throughout the entire Bible and beyond. It also allows us to find ourselves in that story rather than simply reading about it as a third party observer.

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