Big Stories and Little Stories

“A learning space should not be filled with abstractions so bloated that no room remains for the small but soulful realities that grow in our students’ lives. In this space there must be ample room for the little stories of individuals, stories of personal experience in which the student’s inner teacher is at work. But when my little story, or yours, is our only point of reference, we easily become lost in narcissism. So the big stories of the disciplines must also be told in the learning space — stories that are universal in scope and archetypal in depth, that frame our personal tales and help us understand what they mean. We must help students learn to listen to the big stories with the same respect we accord individuals when they tell us the tales of their lives.” - Parker J. Palmer

This paragraph, which comes from Parker J. Palmer’s phenomenal book The Courage To Teach, has helped give language to something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year. Palmer is talking about “big stories” and “little stories” primarily in the context of the liberal arts, but his insight here is just as easily applicable to the teaching of the church. What is the “big story” of the church? And how does that big story “frame our personal tales and tell us what they mean”? 

To become a Christian is to become enveloped by the big story of what God has done in Christ. The gospel is the universal, archetypal narrative of redemption through which all our little stories find their meaning. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. Just as a bath in the Jordan means nothing without the journey through the Red Sea, so our personal testimonies mean nothing without the testimony of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Palmer says it, when our little stories become our primary point of reference, disconnected from God’s big story, we easily become lost in narcissism.

This is the whole point of the creeds. To steal an image from N. T. Wright (as if I’ve never done that before): Just like a suitcase carries and protects our clothes while we travel, so the creeds are meant to carry and protect the controlling narrative of our worldview. But the whole point of traveling with a suitcase is so that you can unpack it and wear the clothes inside. You wouldn’t take the suitcase with you if you didn’t intend to wear the clothes. And yet that’s exactly what many churches do with the creeds. We carry them around, post them on the “statement of faith” page of our websites, and go on living in an entirely different set of clothes. 

My family has moved twice in the last year — from Portland to Virginia Beach and from Virginia Beach to Kansas City. That means we’ve visited a lot of different churches looking for a new home church, which has forced us to figure out afresh what we’re really looking for in a local Christian community. Becky and I both come from nondenominational charismatic backgrounds, so naturally we started looking at nondenominational charismatic churches. What I noticed as we visited various communities in that genre, however, is that there is often a very wide gap in charismatic circles between the “little stories” of the community and the “big story” of the wider Christian tradition. 

Such communities are often theologically conservative, having traditional statements of faith that closely echo the early creeds, but the emphasis on Sunday mornings is usually about finding your breakthrough, reaching your full potential, or what the Spirit is doing in our little group right now. In this way, the little stories of God’s presence in the community tend to displace the big story of the gospel and what God did through Christ already — and the result is that people get lost in narcissism.

Now contrast that with Paul’s words at the end of Galatians 2: 

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Paul didn’t just affirm the truth of Jesus’ story and then go on telling his own little story. Rather, he allowed Jesus’ story to completely transform the way he thought about his own story and the little stories of everyone else around him. 

I still call myself charismatic, and I think the rest of the church has a lot to learn from the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. But what I’ve come to realize over the last year is that it doesn’t matter if I affirm a list of traditional beliefs. It’s only when I give those beliefs their proper place within the big story of my worldview, when I take the clothes out of the suitcase and put them on, that I am truly orthodox. 

Recommended Resources In This Post

96864: The Courage to Teach, 10 Anniversary EditionThe Courage to Teach, 10th Anniversary Edition
By Parker J. Palmer

"This book is for teachers who have good days and bad - and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life." - Parker J. Palmer in the introduction