"A Tale Told by an Idiot"?
Finding Meaning When Myths Collapse

Gary Pence

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
September 22, 1999


President Lull, Dean Aune, President McKinney, Pastor Segerhammer, faculty colleagues, staff, students, friends, guests, thank you. Thank you. I have said many times what delight I take in having spent nearly a quarter of a century in the bay area, in the GTU, at PLTS, and especially within this beloved community. I can't imagine a more congenial, supportive, and inspiring group of faculty, staff, and student colleagues, nor during all the years among you have I ever wanted to live or work anywhere else. So at least on this occasion I want to express more explicitly than modesty would usually permit me my love for you and my deep gratitude for the privilege of sharing a life and a high calling with you all.

President Lull, you made some very nice comments about me, and I thank you for that. In fact, it was a kind of narrative of my life, of a sort that one formulates for occasions like this, a positive narrative, a congratulatory narrative designed both to justify convincingly and to celebrate exuberantly and buoyantly the occasion of a major promotion.

Of course, we could, if we were so minded, deconstruct the narrative of my life that President Lull just presented, looking for what he omitted and sleuthing out the other less flattering narratives that could have been recounted by a different narrator on a different occasion, perhaps in a less gracious community than PLTS. That narrator might have come up with an account of crazy decisions, failed or abandoned dreams, relational gaffes, intellectual missteps‐well, I'll stop‐anyway, then we would have had an account of all the other range of experiences that comprise an ordinary human life. While these other experiences are the life blood of literature and film, they will not normally find their way into an occasion like this, which is just fine with me.

We're all quite selective in our memories, just as the story President Lull told about me today was highly selective. My therapy clients certainly are. When they describe their lives, they inevitably remember some events in their lives and forget others, and the ones they remember they knit together into a storyline with lucky and unlucky turning points, episodes of which they are proud and ones for which they feel deep shame. The stories they remember and choose to tell express the meaning they attach to their lives. One way to look at therapy is to see it as a way to help a client replace an inaccurate, negative, self-defeating storyline with one that is more healthy, hopeful, and true.

Of course, neither you nor I or my clients have come up with our life story in a vacuum. What we traditionally do is to attach the episodes of our lives to the big, sort of archetypal, stories we have been told, probably by one of our parents at bedtime, or perhaps stories we have seen on television or, for Christians anyway, heard at church or Sunday School. We don't typically create our life stories from scratch. We fit our lives into one or another of the standard plots our cultures have bequeathed to us and told us from childhood. That process may have been simpler in other times than ours.

Twenty years ago in The Living Reminder, a lovely little book still worth reading, Henri Nouwen wrote,

The rabbis guide their people with stories; ministers usually guide with ideas and theories. We need to become storytellers again. [65] The great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between the human story and the divine story. . . . [24]1

Nouwen moved me and inspired me when I first read this book not long after I arrived at PLTS. I thought at the time that his proposal could provide a really good definition of pastoral care‐helping people to connect their individual stories to God's story. The idea fit with the notion of a God who acts in history, who is the principal actor in a "sacred history," as the jargon of the day put it, that intersects with and illuminates the true meaning of the mundane secular history of the daily newspaper. That all sounded good to me 20 years ago. Today I'm not so sure. The problem I see with it is that it's no longer so obvious what this divine story is or even if we should describe God as having a story at all.

For generations of Christians the divine storyline to which Christians tried to attach their own individual lives was something like what Marcus Borg portrays in The God We Never Knew.2 There Borg describes a childhood spent in "a Lutheran church in a small town in northeastern North Dakota in the 1940s." The small-town world of his childhood was the world of Christendom: everybody was Christian, and it was assumed that everyone would tell the same big story with their lives. When little Marcus thought of God in those days, he thought of Pastor Thorson, the pastor of his church. "He had gray hair (rather wavy, as [Borg] recall[s]). He wore a simple black robe." He was Borg's "earliest visualization of God." Pastor Thorson was also a "finger-shaker." He literally shook his finger at the congregation when he preached. Borg writes, "Sometimes he even shook his finger while pronouncing the forgiveness of sins. . . . Though told we were forgiven, we knew it was a close-call."

By the end of childhood in his Lutheran congregation, Borg had acquired what he calls a "package understanding" of Christianity, which he later repudiated and for which his book provides his own alternative. (I'll say more about his alternative later.) His childhood faith package is familiar to all of us: a supernatural God up and out there who created a universe and now intervenes in its history to keep it moving toward his plan for it; an inspired authority, the Bible; humans loved by God and created in God's image who, through their disobedience, have become sinners in need of forgiveness; a Jesus who sacrificed his life to make forgiveness possible; a salvation that equals "going to heaven."

This "package understanding" of Christianity contained the elements of a master narrative, a storyline, into which the Christians of Borg's North Dakota town, and many of us, would fit the minutiae of our individual lives. The bare bones storyline, again familiar to all of us, runs something like this: I was born a sinner and because of that my life is a kind of spiritual warfare, enduring constant trials and temptations. But if, through God's strength, I sustain the battle and trust in God, when I die I will enjoy God's eternal presence in heaven.

In a New York Times op ed piece a couple of weeks ago about the current state of the biography, the author, Stanley Fish, describes one of the two most common "master narratives" that guided biographers in the past as something close to the faith package that Borg describes. He calls it "the providential model" according to which, he writes, "everyone lives out the pattern of mistakes bequeathed to us by the original sin of Adam and Eve." But, he writes, that storyline doesn't work for people any longer and has fallen out of use in biographies written today.

Maybe Fish is right. Maybe that traditional "package understanding" and the storyline derived from it, which Borg felt compelled to reject, continue to provide a credible framework of meaning to fewer and fewer people. And if so, I think it's not just that the traditional story doesn't seem to fit their personal experience. In subtle ways of which we may not be altogether conscious, I think it is no longer compelling, in part, because that traditional package is pre-modern and can't withstand the parallel challenges of modernism and post-modernism.

In the first place, it can't be reasonably correlated with the single most pervasive and most coherent modern alternative to the old model; I'm speaking of biological evolution. In evolutionary understanding there is no "fall" from primal innocent perfection, no sin of origin to be atoned or even forgiven by an angry or regretful God. What there is is development over huge expanses of time from the simple to the complex. When, after billions of years, our own human species appeared on the scene perhaps a mere 100,000 or so years ago, we came with a brain large enough for us to reflect on ourselves and our fate and to begin consciously to alter the evolutionary process itself. The implications of this emergence of human consciousness for personal identity, for culture, and for religion are, of course, enormous.

Born with the social and survival wisdom accumulated over millions of years by our animal ancestors, we human beings are able to relativize and critique that wisdom, to develop systems of value and to create new patterns of behavior based on them that are a departure from inherited evolutionary patterns. We have made and continue to make many missteps. And yet, as a species we are new at this. All of human history is, after all, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary time. Is God disappointed and angry at the human species because, being only newly emergent from our evolutionary legacy, we fail again and again? Or is God delighted that we are struggling with the meaning and purpose of our existence and searching for better ways to enact it? We need to find an answer to that question that somehow integrates evolution with faith. (I want to say parenthetically that it is truly a thrill to work in a theological community where the Center for Theology3 and the Natural Sciences and our own Ted Peters4 are exactly working on such questions with the depth and seriousness they deserve.)

That traditional model also lacks conviction any longer because the post-modern spirit of our age questions ALL grand explanatory schemes, recognizing in all of them the personal interests and limited perspectives of their creators. This post-modern critique is troubling. It is troubling because, if it is true that the meaning of every person, event, or cause is socially constructed and culturally conditioned, then there seems to be nothing in which we can reasonably and responsibly place our trust. Your life and mine is at risk of becoming wretchedly meaningless, the minutiae of our minute and inconsequential lives following one after the other without point or purpose, as Shakespeare's Macbeth described it so tragically already three centuries ago. It was a passage I remember memorizing when we read Macbeth in high school English class:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. [Macbeth 5:5]

In William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," published in 1920 as Europe was caught in the pointless, devastating destruction of what they called "The Great War," he described his apocalyptic vision of the worst that such collapse of meaning can produce:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The disillusionment with reason in our century that followed the two world wars and the Vietnam War and led to post-modern consciousness is troubling when it threatens to abandon us to cynical meaninglessness, on the one hand, and the fanaticism of irrational and anti-rational zealots, on the other.

But post-modern consciousness can also be hopeful. It's hopeful because it frees us from the tyranny of assumed meanings which harm rather than help us. That traditional package or storyline, after all, constitutes only one reading of the Bible and one with inherent problems. Borg called it a "monarchical" reading, a reading of the Bible that leads to a "performance model" of the Christian life: Christian life becomes a matter of "measuring up" or "meeting requirements," the requirements often framed in individualistic and narrowly religious terms. It leads to a conservative "politics of holiness and purity."

In opposition to this traditional, monarchical model, Borg proposes his alternative, what he calls a Spirit-centered reading of the Bible, a reading which leads, he says, to a Christian life that stresses "relationship, intimacy, and belonging." It leads to a radical "politics of compassion," that is, it inspires commitment to a larger social and political order that is "life-giving, nourishing, and inclusive." [143]

I think that Borg's proposal of a relational Spirit-centered Christianity can be correlated with biological evolution because it doesn't demand a storyline of creation, fall, and restoration that contradicts modern evolutionary theory. Borg's proposal can resonate with post-modern social constructionism because it doesn't require a huge cosmic scheme. Instead it provides a perspective on the Bible, an angle in on reality that permits us to construct our own small stories without making exorbitant claims about their universality.

We Lutherans find ourselves in an enviable position here, because we don't need to insist on any particular master narrative or any particular storyline, to describe Christian faith and life. All we need is a perspective on God, a vision of the nature of God, a definition of God's character. For Luther and for Lutherans that perspective constitutes the Gospel, the assertion that the God of faith is a gracious God, not a censorious and punitive finger-pointing tyrant, but a loving presence who accepts us and cares for us exactly as the flawed and fallible creatures we are, without demanding of us that we be what we are not. The first letter of John declared "God is love." In Luke's gospel [6:36] we read, "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate." Gerard Manley Hopkins has written, "there is the dearest freshness deep down things." When I think of God at this stage of my life I think of "compassion" as the core reality, "the way things really are," to use Phil Hefner's phrase in his book, The Human Factor.5 Or, since the Hebrew word for compassion and the Hebrew word for womb are related, we could say God, compassion, is the womb that contains us all, the ultimate holding environment, where we are safe. That, for me, is the Gospel. It is "the dearest freshness deep down things." It is the centre that holds.

That perspective on God and the Gospel has become the criterion‐in this setting I can say it is the "hermeneutic," and I believe it is the confessional hermeneutic‐by which I read the biblical stories, the stories of others, including those of my clients, and my own stories. Instead of looking for a master narrative within which I can resolutely place the incidents of my life, I have a perspective that frames my life and has become the interpretive lens through which I order and respond to each of its episodes.

I think that is about where we are today. There are no grand and glorious myths to which we all can confess agreement. There are no master narratives we all accept as the framework for the minutiae of every human life. What we have are our own stories, we have the biblical stories, we have the stories of many nations and many traditions. We will each respond to those stories differently, choose different ones to remember and tell and others to suppress and forget.

But, however we finally put it into words, we Christians share a perspective, call it an interpretive frame or even call it a theory about the nature of nature if you like, by which we can find shared meaning, by which we can inspire one another, engender hope in the world, and create community. It is the version I find possible of Henri Nouwen's charge that we become "living reminders," in this case connecting our stories, not to a single, unified divine story, but simply to a compassionate God and to the various individual biblical stories as the multifarious and sometimes disturbed and distorted attempts they are to sort through what it means to live in that God's presence.

That is what I think I have learned from living and working at PLTS and the GTU for these two decades. For each of us to author our own life story and to help others author theirs within the presence of a compassionate God‐maybe that wouldn't be too shabby a definition of pastoral care, a kind way to treat our children, come to think of it, not so bad a way to deepen our faith, to challenge our minds, to enlarge our hearts, to energize ourselves for mission, to find meaning today and to live out a larger purpose for our many tomorrows at this end of the 20th century.


1Henri J. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ (Seabury 1977): 65, 24.

2Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Conemporary Faith (HarperCollins 1997): 13 and passim.

3E.g. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, Francisco J. Ayala (eds.), Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican Observatory / Center for Religion and the Natural Sciences 1998).

4See esp. Ted Peters (ed.), Science & Theology: The New Consonance (Westview 1998).

5Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Fortress 1993).

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.