78. Enter the story: Biblical metaphors for our lives

Enter the story - Fran FerderFerder is a Franciscan Sister and adjunct professor at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, and a practicing clinical psychologist in the Pacific Northwest. Her aim in Enter the story shows real promise: that we would find in our life circumstances some connection to the greater story. “…Celebrating… feast days and holy days goes beyond commemorating someone else’s story… [and reminds] us of our own.” (p. xiii) Following an overview, she recounts in nine chapters significant episodes in the Gospel story – The Annunciation, The Incarnation, The Baptism, The Transfiguration, The Crucifixion, etc. – and reflects on their connection to our own lives. This falls squarely in line with Scot McKnight’s proposal in The Blue Parakeet: that the episodes in the Bible, and our own lives, are ‘wiki stories’ that reflect the greater narrative.

There is much good in Ferder’s contextualization of the Gospel narrative into current-day scenarios. Pregnant mothers, anxious fathers, cancer survivors, wounded men and women show up over and over in questions, propositions, sketches, all related to the scripture at hand. It’s good to see ourselves in the Story this way, and I often need the kind of help Ferder gives here, to put myself into the narrative successfully. Ferder knows her scripture, and is writing in a thoroughly Catholic context, as a Franciscan Sister in a centuries-old institution with a rigid power structure that has often been abused to the detriment of the powerless. Her strong desire to challenge readings of the Gospel that devalue or oppress women and minorities is noteworthy.

Ferder also consistently defends those who believe differently than she: openness, inclusion, tolerance are her keywords throughout the text. “Perhaps the greatest enemy of truth is too much certainty about it.” (p. 10) I know David Dark would agree. And yet, seldom does she acknowledge Jesus as Jesus – as a metaphor, an example, an avatar, yes, but as the center and goal of our yearning and still learning hearts, no. To advocate one without constantly pushing toward the other is to miss the core of the Gospel story and, I’d argue, our rightful place in it. Theologies are shaped by what of Jesus – his life, his mission, his understanding of himself – we choose to emphasize. In discussing the Magi, Ferder writes, “The narrative makes no suggestion that these sincere visitors are expected to change their faith, to pledge allegiance to Jesus, or to do anything more than what their journey to this place has already asked of them. Fundamental to the meaning and mission of Jesus is respect—respect for those who are different, acceptance of all whose heritage is not the same as ours.” (p. 63) It is true: Jesus does not demand adherence to a creed from those who seek him out. The seeking is evidence of the direction of the seeker’s heart. But I’d challenge the notion that the central point of the Magi story is respect and acceptance of differing heritages, (not, I should note, an unworthy notion in itself, and one may perhaps even reasonably draw it from the story as a whole). More to the point is this: Wise men follow the signs toward Jesus, and give their treasure to Him. Ferder’s focus here bends the story, and I’m not sure it needs bending before our own stories will fit inside it.

Ferder’s language betrays a disbelief in the historicity of the Gospel story; she says as much in her opening chapter. Instead, she holds that the Gospel writers engaged in ‘imaginative retelling,’ tooling the story to best convince their intended audience to believe in Jesus. “Earlier peoples… had no need to subject [their] narratives to tests of historical accuracy. If a sacred story… enabled them to move about the world with less anxiety and greater meaning, then it held truth.” (p. 3) Perhaps this is true of the Ancient World (I’m unqualified to say), but New Testament writers were concerned with the historicity of their Subject. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile,” says Paul (1 Cor 15:17). This is a recurring theme in Ferder’s text: “symbols… important less for their biblical accuracy than for their power to… stir our hearts.” (p. 54). In relating the story of Jesus’ baptism, she writes, “…memory of a strong spiritual experience associated with the baptism of Jesus likely circulated among the people. In time, this memory evolved into an oral tradition as it was told and retold. It became a story of faith, one designed to elicit belief that the Spirit of God was connected to his baptism… And to convey its genuineness over time, and assist in its retelling, a symbol was associated with the story. The tradition of the descent of the dove… resonated with each of them… inspired them sufficiently…” (pp. 82-83).

In trying to translate the story into terms applicable to our everyday lives, Ferder goes one step further and simply Changes The Story to suit a very human understanding of the world: “That doesn’t mean that, it actually means this.” She’s taken the initial premise – ‘Biblical Metaphors for our Lives’ – and instead presented the Gospel as a metaphor, a story describing earthbound realities in spiritual language. Resurrection is the name we give to the sense that Jesus’ influence increased after his death. Transfiguration signifies our changing understanding of God. The dove is the symbol we apply to indicate the spiritual magnitude we associate with baptism. For every welcome proposition (“Gabriel delivers a message meant for each of us,” [p. 33] she writes regarding the Annunciation), Ferder gives us another characterized by disheartening skepticism regarding the supernatural elements of the Gospel. Angels are merely the “still, strong voices within us.” The overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’s conception may have simply been the encouraging presence of God in an otherwise conventional intimacy between Mary and an unknown man.

Ferder suggests, using Walter Wink’s words, that Incarnation may perhaps be more reasonably expressed as our being made in the image of God, and as such we all reflect the Incarnation. “Jesus, as the incarnate God, is not synonymous with God… but over the course of his life, Jesus came to incarnate the holy, to become in his humanity the goodness and compassion that is also your task and mine.” (p 67). I have to work awfully hard to make that sound like less than a denial of Jesus’s full participation in the Trinity. She extends this understanding by casting His death in a purely political light – he was an offense to power and so had to die – while explicitly denying any propitiatory meaning in Jesus’ sacrifice (“Only a sadistic deity would require the death of anyone…”).

What’s heartbreaking about Ferder’s deeply felt understanding of the Gospel is that it’s unnecessary. The Story has its own power to enter into and change us, because of Whose story it is. Gosh, I want to afford Ferder every kindness. But underneath and behind the text I keep hearing her telling me that it’s wrong-minded to believe any of the Gospel narrative actually happened the way it’s told: to believe in Jesus as the fully Incarnated God, to believe in an actual Annunciation, an actual Immaculate Conception, any of the signposts of a Holy, Devastating and Otherworldly God Entering The Story. What’s left, spiritually, when you take that away, is only metaphor, and metaphor just isn’t as compelling as the real, Resurrected Jesus.

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