Singing the Story Into Our Bones

Cultural forces can sometimes affect how we “see” the Bible, how we approach the Scriptures. So we receive the Bible as a sort of divine encyclopedia full of revealed “facts,” or we treat it as an abstract rule book, or we revere it as merely a historic relic of a past when people seemed to actually encounter God. What gets lost in these functional “pictures” of the Bible is something central to the Scriptures themselves: the fact that the Bible is a story. God reveals himself to us in a narrative.

We tend to think of stories as childish things—the stuff of children’s sermons. We romanticize stories, to be sure, and wax nostalgic about them, but we also think of “story” as something to outgrow, like security blankets and Santa Claus. Story is part of the immature, benighted world of myth and fantasy and nursery rhymes—the childish things we put away in order to grow up and face the proverbial “real world” full of cold, hard facts.

Those in authority don’t seem to traffic in stories either. What we hear from “the authorities” are pronouncements, policies, and proclamations that rarely begin with “Once upon a time. . . .” The announcements from our authorities do not come in the shape of stories but in the flattened, no-nonsense form of rules and regulations, facts and figures, bullet points and PowerPoints. We’re ruled by statistics, not stories.

We need to realize that as Christians inhabiting this late-modern world (still so powerfully shaped by the Enlightenment), we have imbibed and absorbed functional stances toward both story and authority that can make us poor hearers of Scripture. Even more problematic, our implicit perceptions of both story and authority might explain why, despite our best intentions, we have a hard time receiving the Bible as authoritative. It’s pretty hard for us to reconcile the flannelgraph depictions of fantastical stories about fish and fiery furnaces when Monday to Friday we’re faced with the urgency and force of the stock reports in The Wall Street Journal. We are unconsciously conditioned in a million different ways to defer to the authority of the facts in Scientific American and be skeptical of the gospel “stories” precisely because they are stories.

To sing the story of God’s gracious acts is not just to recite them. In the embodied, affective rhythm of song, the Spirit plants the story in the epicenter of our being.

But maybe things are a little more complicated than this. As many have pointed out—from theologians like N. T. Wright to sociologists like Christian Smith—stories may hold more sway over us than we realize. In fact, stories often have a kind of authority that we fail to identify precisely because they are operative behind the data, facts, and information that dominate our Googled age. Submerged stories are authoritative because narrative has its own logic: if every human being has a worldview, we can also say that every human being is located in some story. To be human is to be storied.

Stories, then, exercise authority for us, even if we have perceptions that tend to devalue story. As Alasdair MacIntyre once said, “I cannot answer the question ‘What ought I to do?’ unless I first answer the question ‘Of which story am I a part?’” So story is authoritative in the sense that narrative helps us make sense of our world and ourselves; it offers us a comprehensive take on the world. As such, stories work on us more on the level of the imagination than the intellect. Stories are “caught” as much as they are taught.

If Christian worship is one of the ways that we are sanctified by the Spirit, then we might say worship is a kind of narrative therapy—a reordering of our narrative orientation. Sanctifying our perception requires restor(y)ing the imagination. This transformation requires aesthetic measures that resonate with the imagination and reach us on an affective level. Stories are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way; there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase. And such stories are not only told in a “once upon a time” fashion, they’re compressed into films and commercials, enacted in games and dramas, played out on playgrounds and in malls. Story is the lingua franca of incarnate significance.

The formative power of cultural narratives cannot be adequately countered with mere didactics. Counterformation requires countermeasures that capture our imagination, not just convince our intellect. So we need to be regularly immersed in God’s story—“the true story of the whole world,” as Michael Goheen calls it. Our imaginations need to be restored, recalibrated, and realigned by an affective immersion in the story of how God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself.

This is why God enjoins us to sing (Col. 3:16). Song seeps into our bones in ways that didactic information never will. To sing the story of God’s gracious acts is not just to recite them. In the embodied, affective rhythm of song, the Spirit plants the story in the epicenter of our being: in our desire, in our imagination. Singing the story is the way it gets into our bones and under our skin, shaping the very way we perceive our world.

And this is why Lift Up Your Hearts is such an exciting resource for the people of God in our postmodern age. The hymnal reflects this narrative logic and gives us the story in song. The structure of the hymnal invites congregations to relive the story as rehearsal for the coming kingdom. And the thoughtfulness behind hymn selection assures that these hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs will resonate with our imaginations so that we might be restor(y)ed.

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also teaches in the department of congregational and ministry studies.

Reformed Worship 108 © June 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.