The Role of Story

Story is how we make meaning as humans. Stories help us shape our identity and influence our perception of God. Our stories also are revelatory; they reveal something of the nature of God in a way that nothing else does.

If you’re curious about why we talk so much about story here at the Allender Center – or if you’ve heard it before and need a gentle reminder – we hope this episode will help you reflect on the role of story and how your story connects with the story of God.

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Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Dan,

Dan: Rachael

Rachael: I’ve had the privilege of being both a recipient of so much of the world you’ve created with regard to story work and Story Workshops and Recovery Weeks, and both like a student at The Seattle School, but also getting to be a part of your team and the team of the Allender Center for a long season. And when I first started doing work with you in the early 2000’s, which is so weird to say, story was the concept of story as the primary theological category, a psychological category wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. So I want to have a conversation with you around how did story as a category, both theologically, psychologically, however else, whatever other frames we want to bring to it, come to be so central to the work that you do, not only as a teacher, an academic, a therapist, but as a believer.

Dan: What a lovely gift to be asked that question. And of course what happens when you ask a question is, I can’t respond without story. So as soon as you asked me that question, I’m sitting in seminary actually probably the first day or two sitting next to my best friend, Tremper Longman. And something came up, a word came up, probably something like concupiscence. And…

Rachael: I don’t even know what that means.

Dan: I had no clue what the word meant. And I lean next to him and I won’t say the exact phrase, but I was fairly loud. And it was like, “what the…” fill the word in, does that word mean? And he looked at me and just said, be quiet, I’ll tell you later. And so most of my seminary career was the fulfillment of that phrase. I’ll tell you later. So almost after every lecture, again, don’t want to exaggerate too far, but I would say 70% of the lectures, I would sit with Tremper sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for hours, and he’d reteach what he heard that I needed to understand. I had so little understanding of the basics. And so one of the things I remember though is being in a class where I heard this phrase, repentance begins in the belly. That was a sentence that even if I had no clue what it meant, there was something in my body that was able to go, what? That feels important and true. A second sentence. And honestly, I think I could go through the three sentences that changed my life in three and a half years of seminary. Who knows what else was in the background, but a second sentence was 70% of the Bible is story. And I remember thinking, because I was pretty unfamiliar with the Bible. Like what? The Bible, I probably was more aware of a book like Romans and going, I don’t see any stories there. Actually, there are. But nonetheless, I just saw it as a teaching. But stories. 70%. And it began to be clear through a whole lot of reading and thinking, but mostly conversations with Tremper, that story is the way God tells something about God’s self. And in that light, it wasn’t terribly difficult to make the transition that nobody can be clearer about God or about one another unless we have access to the stories that actually are revelatory. So we think in narrative form, we remember in narrative form and we have a sense of the future in terms of narrative. So what we can say in a way that maybe is just so obvious, our very existence is built on our capacity to tell and to receive and to remember and to plot stories. So in that sense, it becomes the way we know is a narrative knowing.

Rachael: I love that. And a question I’d have for you is when it’s okay, you went to seminary, you’re learning this about the Bible, you’re learning this about our epistemology, how we know, was that what you learned in your therapeutic studies? That story was central to being human and the way we know and therefore likely the way we can also pursue healing?

Dan: No, that’s the crazy part is that my initial master’s degree was in what is generally called family systems. But I was working with a mentor who was cognitive behavioral or rational emotive. And in that sense, the whole change process was in engagement with dysfunctional, ineffective or unbiblical thinking. So you help people when you heard a story to think about in one sense their maladaptive thinking, not the story, the story was almost the frame, but the real picture was the particular thinking that needed to be altered. And I worked in that kind of structure for almost five or six years before I had the privilege to go on to my doctorate. And then I was in a realm where there was more what generally is called psychodynamic thinking. But even there, narrative wasn’t central. It was far more what could be called the complex, the unfaced unconscious processes that needed to come from in one sense the unknown to the known. And yet there was always a sense that when I would hear a person engage their story and they began to in one sense, enter the story, feel the story, suffer the story, ponder the implications of the story, think through the deductions of the story that I began seeing far greater change than just mirror rational change or more unconscious to conscious awareness. That is not to say that our thinking is unimportant or that what we are unaware of or don’t wish to be aware of coming into consciousness is actually a story in and of itself. So I would say that until about the early nineties, the implications of the 70% of the Bible is story did not come in a way in which I would have put words to the absolute central importance of engaging the biblical narrative, your personal narrative, the narrative of a culture of the narrative, the stories that shape who we are.

Rachael: I feel like this is attributed to Brené Brown, but I know it’s also she would say in a cumulation of multiple people and cultures. But just this sense that if you don’t own your story, your story’s going to own you. And sometimes when we think about story, we think about it being static, we think about it being set in a way people will talk about story like that happened in the past. And you will hear this refrain a lot, just leave the past in the past or time heals all wounds. So I’m wondering if you could put some language to some, in some ways stories are alive and they’re not as static and boundaried as we think they are, and that might be a weird statement to make, but how have you come to understand that reality that if we don’t look to our stories and seek to understand or even recover or even tell them more truly that they actually do have a lot of power, the here and now to shape how we relate to the world around this, how we live?

Dan: Well, and again, it may not be the best way to put it, but I have the benefit of a lot of trauma and abuse in terms of sexual abuse, in terms of a very mentally ill mother and other tragedies and losses. And what I think I can say without even having the theoretical frame was I knew I was being haunted. And to have that sense of I’m doing my best to leave that crap in the past, but it seems to actually at times not just show up in the present, but show up around the corner at the least expected moment. So I think for anyone to be aware that again, we’ve got so much more neurological understanding of how trauma is in our body, trauma is in our present and shapes our capacity for perception, for judgment, for assessment and choice. So all that to say, I think any honest human being knows that there is something or elements of their past that continue to sort of bite their derriere that for all their flight or even turning around and commanding it to depart doesn’t seem to eradicate the presence of something unsettling, haunting with regard to our own internal world. So when we begin to go, look, there were three things that just struck me from the very beginning, that God is the author of story. So right there, he is our authority, he’s our author, he has written our lives, Psalm 39:15-17, before I lived even a day, my life is written. Now of course that creates the complication of, well then am I just a puppet? And I kind of go biblically back to wait a minute, God left a lot of creation for Adam to engage and to name and God loves co-participation. So he invited Adam to name the animals, and if we understand the hebraic worldview, the power of naming was literally giving meaning. So God creates, but he leaves meaning for us to name and important that realm to be able to go. Yeah, God authored my life, he authored my face, my body, he put me into a particular family and I might struggle with all that, but ultimately he’s the author. So in his co-sharing co-authorship, He’s inviting me to write a story that even if it’s in the heavens, I don’t have access to it. And so I have the freedom to name and to be able to create. But I think that interplay of God as author, 70% story, is inviting me to not only engage my story, but maybe as simple as to be a story, to be actually a character in my story. And again, the larger question is and for what? And that to me is the second core assumption. And that is God wrote me to reveal something of the glory of God and every human being bears the reality being made in the image of God. So the Archangel Michael never met him, but I would suspect that if we were to meet him, we would fall on our faces in utter terror nonetheless, Michael, Gabriel, they’re not made in the image of God; you and I are and our listeners are. So if we begin to comprehend that we bear a glory that is revelatory and to then take it into story, we are the revealer of God’s revelation and God’s revelation is Jesus. So if I’m a revealer of his glory, I am a revealer of Jesus and his life, and obviously the next word story. So you reveal his death, you reveal his resurrection, you reveal his ascension. Now only those, no, those we’re not going to go on for hours. But to be able to say in some ways you reveal Friday, you reveal Saturday, you reveal Sunday you reveal exploitation and violence and humiliation, and you reveal despair and loss, and yet you reveal something of rescue and revelation of the goodness of God in the land of the living. And so one of the things that I think is central to the way we have attempted to live out is that we’re inviting people not merely to Jesus’s story a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Jesus’s story of death, resurrection and ascension, but that you have a story of death and resurrection and ascension, and can we invite you into what that actually means and looks like?

Rachael: Yeah. And some might say, okay, that’s true. I can see how I bear those realities. How does telling my story, writing my story, sharing my story, what does it change? How does it lead to healing toward what end revealing these realities of God?

Dan: Well, how fond are you of your own experiences of death?

Rachael: Are you asking me? Yeah. Oh, I mean, depends on the day. Depends on the day. Honestly, because of the work I’ve been invited to, I would not say I’m fond of them. I’m not necessarily like, yay, I’m glad that happened. I don’t think… I used to think when I heard a phrase like God authored my story, God brought about this death and destruction to teach you a lesson or shape you. I think I have come to some different theological understanding, but there are many stories of death. Not all of them, not all of them, but some of them that I have seen like resurrection take place and that resurrection doesn’t eradicate the death or somehow erase it. Those are scars that I bear and will probably bear into eternity. But I have seen God take those ashes and turn them into something really beautiful. So I would say those stories of death bear a more full story what you’re putting words to. There are other ones that still feel very unwritten or very kind of loss of language places that I go, will there be more to write there or not?

Dan: Right. So let me put it in this way. I am not fond of having been sexually abused. And if asked, which I was on a radio show early on in my work after writing The Wounded Heart, kind of that if you could go back and rewrite your story, so you didn’t have to go through that, would you do that? And I remember being enraged, like of course no one wishes to know the harm of living in a fallen world, but your key word was the word scars. And in that sense, our scars have the potential to tell a good story. So in that sense, do you hear the complexity of the language? No, I’m not fond of having been violated, but my scars have opened the door not only for me to understand more of what Jesus suffered on that Friday of humiliation, but also it’s given me a connection and engagement with something of the lives of others. So in that sense, though I would wish never to have been harmed, that’s not my life, given the harm I can truly say, I think I’m growing to be more fond of the scars in that they opened the door to the reality of the book of Revelation chapter five, where Jesus shows himself in a glorified body still with the scars of the cross. And in that there is a kind of power. So in our ability to engage our heartache, the harm, where we have suffered from others’ perpetration, but where we’ve also failed and harmed others and ourselves, we have an entry into death. So when Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, I live always in my body, the death of Jesus. That’s where I want to go. Well do you. And if not, how come? Because he then goes on to say, so that I can also live in my body, the life of Jesus. So if we put it in neurological categories, when you shut down grief, you shut down joy. When you shut down the capacity to feel, you shut down the capacity to grieve and to know comfort, you shut down the part of you that is angry and is meant to be angry for the harm you and others have endured. So the capacity to enter grief brings comfort. The capacity to enter anger moves us into hope. Another way of saying all that is that if we won’t engage our story, we will not enter the heart of God and his story. And in that sense, what I’d say is for you to not engage your story and make pretense that you’re engaging God, I’m so sorry. I understand your desire to escape, but you escape only through not around.

Rachael: Well, that kind of leads to this question, which is maybe a redundant question, but just another way of coming to this is, so what happens to our stories when we engage them and we do this work?

Dan: Well, let me knock on your door again. And that is to say, what has come for you in entering into levels of grief with regard to so many different elements of your life?

Rachael: I think one of the things that’s been so interesting to me and transformative is, well, a couple of things. One, I think entering stories with the help of others as well and entering grief, I’ve just grown a lot more awareness of who I am and who God is. And actually even awareness of what’s the story? Because we have this world that’s like you can go take all these personality tests and try to make sense of who you are, but so often who you are has been so deeply shaped by your stories. And so for example, when I first came to the Seattle School, I would’ve said, oh yeah, I’m codependent, a recovering codependent. That’s just a part of how God made me. It’s just a part of who I am. And I remember the first time someone said, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead of you indicting yourself and having a lot of shame and contempt around this part of you, could we do some, could we have a posture of curiosity to see what are the stories that will help reveal how you came to be someone codependent to other people? Because again, that’s not just a banner you have to wear. And so I think for me, some of the most transformative work is in the process of grief and telling more truth and being able to see and make meaning in different ways is a lot of freedom from shame, a lot of breaking of curses that have long held power of movement towards being able to welcome back parts of me, memoried parts of me, parts of me that live in my body through my neurological memory that I have spent many years not being fond of, and in fact have tried to exile and kind of split off, which doesn’t really work because you can’t just leave parts of yourself somewhere. They come with you whether you want them to or not. And so, yeah, I kind of being made more whole in a really paradoxical way where wounded parts of me have been welcomed home and like you said, not without their scars that I also am aware of. So a lot of restoration of blessing and honor and welcome.

Dan: Oh, I love that. Especially that word welcome. One of the things that I would want folks to have very clearly in mind is this is not a, if you go see a good therapist for three months, six months, year, three years, a hundred years, there is a sense in which the goodness of God with regard to the revelation of what we need to face is entirely in the hands of a good God. I am so grateful that a lot of my story has taken decades and decades to come into greater clarity. And a lot of times it’s more like that sense of aggregate like, oh, I saw this but I didn’t see this. And then that piece comes together. Now, I am not fond of crossword puzzles, but nonetheless, I would say it is like putting together a crossword puzzle where you go, oh, that’s blue. It could be an ocean, it could be the sky, but you’re beginning to allow yourself to hold that peice. And that’s what I hear with your word welcome. Hold it, ponder it, see where it fits. I remember many moons ago, Becky was looking through a photo album that my mother had. So this was many years ago early on in our marriage, and I was probably two to two and a half, and I was roped, tied, to a garage door, and my beloved wife looked at my mother and went, what’s up? Why did you need to rope him to a garage door? She was, I think, incensed with some degree of curiosity, but more with a sense of this is not right. And my mother made some very dismissive remark, and I think I likely early on at that juncture joined my mother, and again, I would not have had the awareness that I was doing this, but joining my mother against my wife. And we didn’t address that for, I’m going to say many decades. And yet something came up again probably about 15, 20 years ago where Becky said, do you remember when I brought up in front of your mother this event of the photo? And she said, are you able to look at that photo in a different way than before? We all have seasons where the particularity of our story is more than we can likely manage, and so we mitigate, we approach it with kind of a dismissive hand. But in that context, Becky and I began to ponder the question of, well, why would a 2-year-old attempt to escape literally run away? And that’s what my mother said, well, he runs away. So we didn’t know how to let him be outdoors without. And so that simple question of most two-and-a-half year olds are literally not escaping to a point where they disappear in the neighborhood. Questions we get to ask ourselves, even if they don’t have a fundamentally clear answer, begin to open up these categories of what shaped us, what were the matters that two-and-a-half-year-old was trying to comprehend that indeed sent him away from his family because there was too much danger in that world to remain. So even as we come, and the key word I’m looking here is as we begin to get understanding, there’s so much more than into intellectual comprehension that’s there’s far more the capacity as you have put it so well, to be attuned, we need to be attuned to those younger parts of us, to the young two-year-old, five-year-old, et cetera. And more often than not, our stance toward those younger parts is either a form of disinterest or dismissiveness, kind of cutting off as you put it when you split off, those parts don’t go away. They have to be welcomed. And we can only welcome, not conceptually, but in some sense through the contours, through the fabric, the smells of our story.

Rachael: Well, I have so many more questions. I want to ask you things like what do we do when there are competing stories, especially in our current day and age? Do we ever finish, tell, does a story ever become complete because we work on it enough? There’s just so many more questions and I think we’ll have more opportunities down the road to do that. But I think final question as we come kind of close to an end is in all your years of doing this and in this particular season of life, is there anything that is surprising you about your story?

Dan: Well, I think seeing it actually being lived out in the presence of people I love. When we talk about our life having impact or meaning. When I watch my grandchildren interact with me and I get to see something of their thoughtful, articulate, playful, and frankly, they have read me darn well, and I think they know something of my peculiarities, my goodness, my brokenness, and they have the capacity to actually engage me in the present related to something of the story that they currently know. And so for them to be able to say, Papa, you’ve always been a troubled man, and to be able to go, yes, sweetheart, what do you know of that? Well, when Mia told us the story of what happened when, and I won’t go into detail, and it’s like, oh my gosh, they are reflecting on the nature of story and when they can in-story. So when you see people that you love, and I would say that’s true as well. When I look at you, when I look at many of our dear friends that work within or not work within the Allender Center and be able to say, there’s something about watching how we get to hold, but also transform each other’s stories to the point where what I would say is I don’t think I would be the man I am today without you, Rachael, and to think in terms of the moments of tension, confrontation, the heartache. I love that the puzzle, I don’t think it’s, shall we say finished, but I’m seeing more and more of the contours and more and more like a good jigsaw puzzle. You need multiple people doing it to be able to see it even come close to being finished that I would not have imagined having grandchildren like I am privileged to have or friends like you that continue to play with me, to invite me to the better, the bigger, the more glorious story that I am part of, but need to become even more part of.

Rachael: Well, I love that, and it’s such a privilege to be your friend, and I will conclude our time with one of the core statements about story from my graduate education that happened to come out of your mouth, that I hold with me and I will keep with me for the remainder of my life. That because of the love of God and because of the way God continues to write story on our behalf, that death will never be the final word of any story we’re a part of. So may it be so.

Dan: Indeed.