When I’m writing a story, one of my first concerns is plot. There are many ways storytellers describe plot:
- A storyline
- A story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end
- A character’s journey
- What happens next
- A linked series of events
- A series of events that have meaning
Often we choose to watch a film or read a book because the beginning “hooks” us with a compelling situation and we want to find out what happens. Although in this blog I’m comparing the events of our lives to the plot of a story, our lives are rarely so neat. The bonus of storytelling art is that seemingly random or disparate events are linked together by the storyteller in a way that gives them meaning. Small events are seen in the context of the overall story or the character development of the protagonist; events and choices of the major characters—protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters—have major consequences in the story’s development. Although stories with surprise endings might require a second viewing or reading, in most stories we have the satisfaction of being able to clearly trace the progression of events, which gives meaning to the story.
Typically, when we look for the deeper meaning in a good film or book, we might say, “Where is God in this story?” Most people will look for God in a particular character. For example, in some movies, the hero (or heroine) is a Christ-figure who sacrifices his or her life for others (Luke Skywalker or Superman). Or perhaps the mentor character, who shows the way to the protagonist or blocks the antagonist, can seem like God’s providence in the story (Obi-wan Kenobi or Superman’s biological father). Sometimes the community will become an image of the Church as the members of the community minister to each other and begin to transform the world beyond themselves (in The Dark Knight, Batman must decide whether to trust in the goodness of the people on the ferryboat. Together, they act in a Christ-like way.) All of these ways of looking at stories can be helpful in discerning the meaning of a story and connecting it to our own lives. Reflecting on the stories that we watch and read can help us to see patterns more clearly: the presence of God in our loved ones, or in the people who take action on our behalf, or in a dynamic and loving faith-community, whether it’s our parish or a circle of friends.
Life, of course, is not usually so neat and clear as a well-told story. It’s one of the gifts that the arts give us—a clarity or insight that we can relate to our seemingly muddled lives.
Narrative theology offers us another option: to go a step further and look for God in the plot of the story. In other words, the actual events of the story—what happens to the characters—is the action of God or represents God in the story. This way of looking at a story is more like discerning God’s presence in real life. And it can be difficult, just as it can be troubling to try to find God’s action and purpose in the painful events of our lives. But this less obvious way to think of God’s presence—as the plot of the story—can help us to discern and accept God’s action in the events of our lives. It can also help us to see our lives not just as separate events where God is randomly present, but as actually directed by God, even when we do not understand how or where God is directing us.
As an example, let’s look at a simple parable from the Gospel: the parable of the seed and the sower in Matthew 13:1-23.
Take a moment, if you can, to read the entire parable.
In this parable, Jesus talks about a sower that throws seed on various soils, with varying results. The seed on the pathway was eaten by birds; the seed on rocky ground grows up fast but is scorched by the sun; the seed on thorny soil is choked by weeds; the seed planted in rich soil grows and bears fruit. Where are we in this parable? Most people would respond that we are the soil. If we ask, Where is God in this parable?, some simplistic answers could be: God is the sower; or God is the good ground; or God is in the good seed that bears fruit.
But if take the approach of narrative theology, we may reflect further that God is in the events of the parable. Each action or event is allowed or provided by God. So the seed being sown is where God is present. What the seed does with being sown, and where it finds itself sown—that seems to be where Jesus puts the emphasis when he interprets the parable for the disciples. Jesus describes the soil and the behavior of the seed. The response of the seed to being sown and to the soil seems to be the heart of this parable. (In other words, maybe one good way to pray with this parable is with the question: how do we respond to the action of God in our lives?)
One of the blessings of living in a spirit of discernment is to be able to trust that God is at work in the events of our lives as they are—even in the thorny or rocky moments when we cannot see it. When we trust and believe with all our hearts that God is the plot of our lives, then we can follow where God is guiding us, and we can respond in faith and bear fruit.
To Pray With
Take a quiet walk in or near a garden, and closely observe the garden. During your next prayer time, pray with the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-23. (Or perhaps you can can pray with the parable in the garden.) What does the “garden” of your life look like? How is God at work in the garden of your life?