I recently read this article by essayist Alan Jacobs on the issue of personal narratives as a witness to God’s activity in history. Jacobs’ main argument is that as the church is moving towards more of a narrative theology and a hermeneutic that is “ecclesiocentric” in nature, there is a minimizing of the value of personal “testimonies” as a way of proclaiming the movement of God in individual lives. In other words, the stories of the individuals in a congregation only cohere and are given their fullest expression when woven into the fabric of the church as a whole. In many ways, this paradigm shift is a counter approach to the hyper-individualism that has taken place in Western civilization, and what we are seeing now are attempts at restoring communal aspects that have been lost in our culture. However, as much as there is a desire to reconnect people with finding meaning and purpose in their local church, there is a fear that their own personal journeys will be lost in relation to the community at large.
Jacobs mentions one form of personal storytelling that has remained constant in the Protestant church, the individual “testimony”. Many who have sat in a church service or a small group Bible study know that at times individuals are given opportunities to tell their own story and to articulate how God has moved in their lives. This is often used a method for leading people to conversion or at least witnessing to the fact that God does indeed engage in the lives of individuals. In many ways this has furthered the idea of self-discovery and has produced a flourishing business for books, tapes, videos and journals allowing others to find out the meaning in their own stories. The problems that can be created out of this are such things as narcissism, sentimentality, and the desire to find truth for oneself but have little advice for one’s neighbor. A key example is the use of “journaling” that is promoted by some.
There is hope for those wanting to make sense of their personal stories whilst not falling into strictly “ecclesiocentric” or personal narratives. Jacobs offers three key examples: the Puritans use of the personal diary or journal as a way of framing one’s life to see patterns in their faith journey; the idea promoted by Walter Benjamin, that our stories should provide counsel and wisdom for others; and Augustine’s thoughts in his Confessions that reflecting on our lives can lead to repentance in the present and hope for the future. In respect to the faculty of memory, Jacobs provides insight from Kierkegaard to warn us that as much as we reflect backwards, our present lives move forwards and so our memory is shaky and thus our interpretative process is also being newly transformed, thus we are called to revise and rethink our narratives constantly in the desire that we may ourselves more truthfully. And though we may encounter problems or obstacles as we long to describe our journeys, we as Christians should not abandon personal testimony. As long as it serves to help us “frame” our lives better, offers counsel and wisdom to its hearers, and helps us to repent and hope more often, Jacobs believes we should promote the existence and usefulness of the personal narrative, not as an abandonment of narrative theology in relation to the church, but as a key component in the overall proclamation of the gospel.
I would be interested to hear what you all think about this?