Stories and Dialogue

Found a section of my old book Theo-storying that had stuff that I had forgotten about. I think I will have to update my book on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to include this. If I have time.

Another thing that affects the impact of a story is the respondent’s (or hearer’s) attitude about stories. Let’s return to the idea of responding to movies. Robert Johnson in “Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)”3 speaks of different film responses.

  • Avoidance. Films are all bad. Best to stay away.

  • Caution. Films are often bad. Be careful to avoid any sort of heresy, or bad language or behavior.

  • Dialogue. Films speak for themselves. Critique and interact with the film on their own terms, not our own.

  • Appropriation. Films may have something important to tell us. Let’s be ready to listen and learn.

  • Divine Encounter. Films may provide us an epiphany or divine experience.

According to Johnson, these five attitudes describe five philosophies of critiquing movies. He notes that they fit into a spectrum where avoidance and caution are in the region of ethical critique. By that is meant that the critic looks at the movie regarding how moral is the behavior, visualizations, and scripting. If there is too much bad stuff in the movie, the movie is judged bad. Otherwise, it may be okay. Appropriation and Divine Encounter are on the other end, is where the critique is more aesthetic. Bad behavior and language may not be the main focus, but rather whether the film inspires and enlightens.

This, I believe, is a useful way of looking at films, at least from the standpoint of film critique. However, for individuals hearing stories, there needs to be some changes. We can keep the same spectrum. However, since this is a response attitude, rather than a philosophy for critique, there will be some differences.

Avoid    Caution    Dialogue    Appropriate     Encounter

|                   |                   |                   |                   |


Less Educative                                        More Educative

Less Doubt                More Doubt                Less Doubt

Further to the right on the spectrum the greater the tendency to accept the story as having educative value. The further to the left, the less presumption of educative value is given. The whole spectrum can be seen as sharing the attitude of the story having entertainment value. After all, a story without entertainment value probably is unnecessary… just replace it with facts and declarative sentences (or say nothing). Combining these makes the definitions change a bit.

  • Avoidance. Stories entertain, but should not be trusted to inform. Listen but don’t learn.

  • Caution. Stories entertain, but are not a good way to inform or educate. Perhaps they may have value as case studies or illustrations for difficult concepts.

  • Dialogue. Stories entertain, but they also provide an alternate perspective and experience. Interact with them and see what they have to say.

  • Appropriation. Stories entertain, but they also are an educational tool. We need to learn from stories.

  • Divine Encounter. Stories entertain, but they also inspire and transform. We need to hear God’s voice (or perhaps “divine wisdom”) coming through the story.

But Which Response Is Best?

If one is telling a story with the purpose of informing and inspiring the hearer, which response attitude is best? The immediate thought may be that Divine Encounter is best. And in one sense that may be true. It is nice when the respondent already starts from the presumption that what you have may be, not merely true but, the TRUTH. But I might suggest that Dialogue is a better starting point. Why?

Dialogue, the center of the scale is most likely the highest position of doubt and critical faculty. As one moves towards Avoidance, there is a lessening of doubt and critical faculty as one is more sure that the storyteller does not have something of value. Likewise, as one moves towards Divine Encounter, one is lessening doubt about the storyteller/story and lessening the critical faculty. Strong faith often comes from critical wrestling with doubt. It may not be desirable for the respondent to start from a lesser amount of critical faculty and doubt.

Take the example of the story of the Good Samaritan. An avoidance attitude is likely to lead the respondent to think that the Good Samaritan is a nice and pleasant story… but has no personal relevance or application. Divine Encounter attitude may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the story. That may sound good, but the uncritical acceptance may lead to a trite understanding (“It is nice to be nice to people”). Or, perhaps, the hearer will have an understanding of a deeper meaning, but not take time to see how to integrate the message with the hearer’s life. On the other hand, Dialogue means that one is open to hear the story, interact with the story, and “wrestle” with it. Elwood P. Dowd may have “wrestled with reality” for 35 years, but we can and should wrestle with stories. We grow through the process.

One should not minimize the concept of meditation or rumination. It is a cognitive and affective wrestling with the story. Two of the greatest defenders of the faith of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, only came to faith through a long process of this sort of wrestling with truth.7 In the case of the Good Samaritan, what does it mean to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself, when one’s neighbor can be one who hates you? In the case of the the priest and Levite, is Jesus saying that religious piety should be set aside to help someone you don’t even know or like? (If you have read the Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly,8 one of the main characters begins going to church less often to invest time with a non-Christian friend on Sundays, to the chagrin of his Christian friends. Not completely a parallel story, but it does have elements of commonality.) If loving one’s neighbor includes friends, family, fellow believers, and enemies, is there any way in which one’s actions should differentiate these relationships? Are you TRULY loving your neighbor as yourself while you are reading this paragraph about loving one’s neighbors? The more you meditate, the more questions you are likely to have. Questions show that we are still learning, or at least open to learning.

Theo-storying Again

Okay. I finally finished working on my wife and my have struggled

New Edition a few weeks awaybook,

with, off and on, for close to three years, Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training.  I have decided to start updating and fixing my previous books. I have decided to start with Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture. Although it has actually aged fairly well as far as I can see, there are reasons that I am starting with it.


#1.  This is the only book I have written that was not written because I am teaching a course on that subject. I wrote it because of the love of the topic.

#2.  I had actually started to write a sequel to Theo-Storying. However, in the end, I decided to take some of the ideas from the sequel and bring it into an early revision of the book. Since then, however, there are more things I would like to add. Most importantly the role of Theological Reflection, and its connection to Midrash Aggadah.

#3.  I had also started to write a book on Missions Theology.

The early version of the cover of a book I never finished.

I actually made good progress on this one. But in the end I lost interest in the project. But I did not lose interest in some of the topics covered. Some of the ideas were moved into Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training, but some really belong in Theo-Storying.


Hope to be done soon. I think I can get it done in the two week break between semesters here at PBTS and ABGTS. I will keep you updated.

The Curses— A Reflective Story

I wrote a story, a midrash of sorts based on II Kings 2:23-25 — the story of Elisha and the bears.

He was a man among men– gone now or so they say. Some said he was sucked up in a gust of wind some said he was taken off by horses into the clouds. That would have been amazing to see.

It is sad that he is gone. I resisted the idols, the groves, the fertility rites, but I cannot say that it is due to holy character. I have to say that it was because of the great prophet, who stood up to king and country, challenged hundreds, preaching fearlessly the message of Adonai. Baal and Ashtoreth had no one to compare to him. He was the man I aspired to be… at least sometimes.

But he has gone and another has taken his place. The great prophet, a fierce hairy man who could intimidate by his stare alone even before saying a word, is gone and replaced by one who seems so much less. The new is hardly a shadow of the old. I am not sure this is a man who would have inspired me to follow Adonai.

This new one came to our place. Some of the troublemakers came out to mock him, as troublemakers always do. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I joined them. It was so evident that this was not the man who took hundreds of Baal’s priests to task. And yet, this new prophet wears his mantle and rumor has it that he sought twice the blessing and twice the power of the older. How disrespectful! The disrespectful should expect disrespect.

Different jeers were thrown at him, but it moved toward a rhythm— “Go on up, O bald one, Go on up.” Where are those horses who would draw you into the heavens like they did your master?

This young prophet (although quite a bit older than all of us, I think) was becoming red in the face, and he shouted a curse in our direction. Nothing happened. Some of us threw curses back at him, while others laughed. But the laughter died with the roar— the roar of two raging bears that burst from the treeline. They began to trample the group, crushing them underfoot and tearing at their flesh. Over 40 were soon dead, and many more were injured. I was more fortunate, being among just a few that made it up into the trees. I have never seen bears behave like that. They do not attack unless provoked, and even then would soon look for an escape route rather then stay around to do more harm to the injured.

It has been many days now, and the dead are now buried and only those who can afford the time to grieve are still in mourning. It has given me time to think. Clearly, only a prophet of Adonai could command wild bears. That is obvious.

But I alone in my village, perhaps, feel sorry for this prophet. A prophet is a servant of Adonai. They speak His message to the people. Sometimes He gifts them with special powers like the great prophet– to heal the sick, change the weather, to fight evil spirits, or maybe even raise the dead. But this new prophet has the power to curse. Now that I think about it, the great prophet also had the power to curse… as did Moses. Our father Abraham, did he as well? I don’t know. God blessed him to be a blessing to all nations, but also a curse to some. Did that mean he could actually call a curse on a nation? I don’t know. But what a horrible power to have!

Having the power to curse and have the curse come true— who can handle such temptation. Even the great prophet could not fight off that temptation. He killed 50 soldiers by his word who were treating him disrespectfully. I cannot condemn him for it, because it is a temptation that few could resist. Moses could not resist it. Even the great kings David and Solomon in all of their righteous wisdom could not always resist the temptation to destroy their enemies through the power of the sword and state. I get angry and I say regretful things far too often. I thank Adonai that my curses float in the air and then dissolve to nothing.

To have one’s curses come true— that is a curse in itself. This new prophet, I think he sees how true this is. I could not look at the carnage below me, and so I looked at the prophet. I watched as his eyes were fixed on the dead and dying– his face filled with horror.

New Book on Pastoral Counseling Published

Just published our newest book— “Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training.” This is the follow-on to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”

It is available at the link below. It is paperback. E-book will come later.

In Search of Critics– Part 2

In my previous post (cleverly titled, “In Search of Critics. Part 1“) I suggested that we should value the critiques from many sources. While in Blooms Taxonomy (cognitive side) the highest level is evaluation. Strangely, I have seen some lists that place Creation as above Evaluation, but never mind. A critic is an evaluator so one might suggest that the only critic one should value is one who has had massive training and practice (Remembering, Understanding, Applying, and Analyzing) a certain field. However, I don’t think this was what is being implied in this model. The model is for education, NOT for critiques. Two problems come up fairly obviously,

  • The Evaluator/Critic in Bloom’s Taxonomy is an Insider Critic. However, there may be value in Outsider perspectives as well (as noted in the previous post).
  • Even among Insiders, there are specializations that need to be recognized. For example, my wife and I like to watch the Australian TV show, “The Block.” Contestants take an old building or series of buildings/apartments and fix them up for sale. In that show, there are judges. However, these judges are not the only evaluators in the show. The judges primarily evaluate style/aesthetics and practicality. However, they are not the only ones. There are real estate agents who come in a look at the work, evaluating it in terms of marketability and value.  Additionally, there are inspectors, foremen, architect, and engineer, who evaluate in terms of safety, quality control, government regulations, and show standards. Further, there are people who evaluate the contestants in terms of their spending. Each have a role as insiders. However, at the end of the show are buyers who participate in an auction. They can, in fact, be thought of as outsiders— since they are not specialists within the field– not in style, not in practicality, not in safety, quality, regulation, or costing. And yet, as ones seeking to buy the places, they are the ultimate judges.

Often, the outsider perspective is valuable. I am from a rather conservative religious tradition, and so when someone I know hears something they don’t like they will say that it is “liberal.” Curiously, often the thing they label as liberal often doesn’t fit onto the spectrum of theology from liberal to conservative. These people just don’t like it and they don’t like “liberals” so they throw the sticker on it as a perjorative term.

But I would argue that this is a deep mistake. In fact, I would even argue that it is backwards. I am involved in two religious academic fields— Missiology and Pastoral Theology. Let me give an example from each.

Missiology.  Back in the early 1960s, with the joining together of the IMC and WCC, missions (particularly Protestant missions) took a sharp turn. While in 1961 there was still a strong formal commitment to proclamation of the message of God, within a short time, there was a rapid move away from proclamation and proselytization, and toward “presence” (doing good in a culture). Out of this was a reaction where Evangelicals formed their own interdenominational missions conferences. This was a much more conservative group. There was a strong focus on proclamation, with a demeaning of social ministry. The logic seemed to be (1) Christ is coming soon so any ministry work that is “good” but not strictly centered on moving people to respond to the gospel is actually “bad,” and (2) social ministry is not “real ministry” at least as far as what it means to carry out the Great Commission.

In my mind both groups were abysmally wrong. But I don’t get angry at the concilliar missions folks for deemphasis on proclamation. As people with a different theological perspective than my own, I would expect them to think and act different. What makes me more angry, actually, was the conservative side. As religious conservatives, I expect to believe them when they say that they seek to follow what the Bible teaches and have Christ as their example. The denigration of social ministry by many (or placing outside the sphere if valid missions) is horribly unbiblical and a clear rejection of following the example of Christ.  As one who is religiously fairly conservative, I consider those of similar theology to be insider critics. As such, I am very unhappy when they go against what they claim to be support (Bible and Christ). Those who are theologically liberal are an outsider perspective for me. Therefore, I don’t get mad at their viewpoint. Rather, I see if they have any validity to their perspective. Thankfully, in Evangelical missions, there was an adjustment and by the 1970s there was a (grudging?) recognition that social ministry is important and should NOT be separated from proclamation, discipleship, and churchplanting. This recognition came, in part, from the work of people like Stott and Newbigin, who maintained dialogue with both groups, rather than listening to only one.

Pastoral Theology. In pastoral care and counseling, in the 1950s and 1960s there developed a strong influence from the social sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology). This led to some forms of care and counseling that were seen as not taking issues of morality, sin, and repentance seriously. It was seen as a “liberal” (there is that word again) agenda. Pastors commonly would throw around more psychological lingo, than Biblical principles. In the 1970s there was a conservative reaction in terms of the so-called Biblical Counseling movement. At its best it was a welcome adjustment to the past decades. At its worst, it was judgmental (nuothetic), reductionistic, and behavioralistic. And worst of all— it was labeled as “Biblical” even though its methods were so cherry-picked from Scripture, that commonly it would have to be described as sub-biblical.   Truthfully, today we are still struggling in this area. I am part of a denomination that has fallen in love with the term “Biblical Counseling” and commonly promotes some pretty sketchy stuff because someone placed the “Biblical” or “Conservative” label on it.

In truth, pastoral counseling and pastoral theology is an area where there is much room for improvement. Far too many embrace one sub-biblical view or another equally sub-biblical, and then ignore concerns from the other camp by the use of perjorative labels.

Ultimately, we need to learn from others and often we should listen most intently from outsider perspectives because they are the ones most likely to have seen things that we haven’t and thought of things we haven’t because… well, because they are outsiders.

Pulling the fisherman parable back in from the past post… the argument of who to listen to more, active fishermen or theoreticians, breaks down under scrutiny a bit. We would need to listen to all sides— and most importantly, the fish.