Telling our Stories

Theology emerges from culture; but when communities and cultures clash and splinter over issues, what is a workable process for the emergence of a shared theology?  This is the topic of Telling Our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture, edited by Ray Gingerich and Earl Zimmerman.

Today, the Mennonite church struggles with issues of militarization and sexual ethics. Traditionally, Mennonites have turned to the Bible as the authoritative source when there are questions. Yet, somehow, in the struggle over these contemporary issues, turning to the common scriptural source seems to be a contributing factor in breaking apart the Mennonite culture.

Could it be, perhaps, that the divisions are caused by employing inadequate or incomplete methodologies for Biblical study? Could common meanings be developed by approaching the scriptural source in a non-academic, non-dogmatic way?   Inspired by an article, “Biblical Authority: a Personal Reflection” by Walter Brueggemann, in a 2001 edition of Christian Century magazine, a group of almost two dozen Mennonite church leaders, including academicians, pastors, administrators, and teachers, gathered at an invitational weekend event at which they intended to “simply get together and tell stories about our personal journeys with Scripture.”  The underlying belief was that each person reads the Bible in a socio-cultural context, out of which grows individual meaning. Listening to one another actively and creatively to develop common meaning is notably a Mennonite approach.

The twenty-one stories are introduced with the history of how they came to be told, and how the cast of story-tellers was assembled with an eye to inclusiveness including gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, theological position/orientation, and leadership positions.

Editors for the book were Ray Gingerich, who taught college and seminary courses in theology, church history, and ethics at Eastern Mennonite  (EMU) for nearly 30 years and helped lay the foundations for EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and Earl Zimmerman, Assistant Professor of Bible and Religion at EMU and Pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation. He is the author of Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics.

The twenty-one stories are followed by a chapter on presuppositions or “fore-meanings and prejudices shaped in us by our communities and effective histories” and another chapter on the theological grids or “value-meters” and life commitments which underlie the stories. The book also incorporates the Brueggeman piece, in which we are reminded that the Bible itself is narrative, “…an open, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world.”

The stories and supplementary material comprise a book which will be a metacognitive resource to small groups, Sunday School classes, churches, students and others looking for a useful process in understanding and interpreting the Bible in the matrix of cultural change.  It also is an enjoyable book to read. The apparent vulnerability of each story-teller opened a heart-space in me that allowed me to suspend judgment as I read the details of how each person created their own real path to, and through, the Scriptures. As I read each story, whether or not I held the same theological positions as any particular author did not seem important to me, as there was virtually no rhetoric here. As a result, I found myself saying, so this is how community works—using story-telling “…as an essential part of the journeying discipline, part of working at the necessary cutting-edge issues, whatever these may be, in every particular stage of the church’s pilgrimage.”

Telling Our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture
Ray Gingerich, Earl Zimmerman, Editors

Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, copublished with Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006; 287 pp.; ISBN 13: 978-1-931038-36-2 trade paper. $21.95

Review by Joanna Wiebe,  first published in the Journal of the Communal Studies Association

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