By Whitney Tu, edited for this format by TJ Poon and Kristin Waters
I had always felt life first as a story:
and if there is a story there is a
– G.K. Chesterton
One of Epic’s Nine Elements of Leadership Reproduction is Story. When you hear the word “story,” you might think of some kind of romantic tale, or romanticized medium of communication. But consider it as a paradigm for the way we can make sense of reality — whether it’s our own, others’, or the reality of a whole community of people.
No person lives in a vacuum – without the element of story, we lose connection with the very things that make life livable and significant. Without honoring the larger narratives of time and context, we fall into conformity and lose what is meaningful to us, both as individuals and as members of communities. While the concept of a person’s “story” is complex and meaningful, there is a tendency to flatten that concept and to reduce entire communities to one (often simplified) story. In her 2009 TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie describes some of the drawbacks of knowing only one perspective about a community or place:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity…It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
Discuss these questions:
- Do others sometimes only see or tell a “single story” about your life?
- Do you sometimes struggle to see a different story about yourself?
- Is there something about your story that you feel often gets left out of how people perceive you?
Epic rejects the idea that any person or community can fully be defined by a single story. Each person’s story is complex, and overlaps with the stories of others. We recognize that each person’s unique story impacts how they view God and experience the world around them. In the article “Epic Is About Story,” we affirm the exploration of these stories, in order to authentically engage with God and others.
The Scriptures tell us that men and women are made in God’s image (Genesis 2:26-31). Throughout the Bible, we see that God moves uniquely through people in ways that are significant to their identities, stories and cultures. No one person or community possesses all of God’s image, but each person and community reflects a unique aspect of God’s image. When we open ourselves to new and different stories from others, we can know God more fully. Only then can we connect our story to who God is, find ourselves in his narrative, and begin to write with God, the ultimate Author.
Our stories and culture(s) are important because our stories are not isolated from God’s purposes, will or redemptive purposes. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus blew up the single stories put forth by others about who God is, what God’s Kingdom is like, who may enter God’s Kingdom, and how we ought to relate to each other. As you read the following example, take note of how Jesus honored the woman’s story and culture, yet pushed her to consider alternatives to the stories she had been told by others in her community about herself and about God.
Bible Study and Discussion
Read John 4:1-42 together and make a few observations before moving on.
Significant things to note from the passage:
- The woman is at the well alone around midday, not when the other women would have gone.
- She expresses surprise that Jesus is interacting with her, and brings up her culture and her gender as reasons why
- Jesus speaks very directly to her about who he is
Discuss these questions:
- As the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman continued, what do we discover about her past? From clues in the passage, how do you think the woman views that part of her story?
- Given the cultural context discussed above, what do you find significant about how Jesus interacted with the woman? How do you think his interactions with her would have shaped how she viewed her story moving forward?
Jesus knew he was breaking cultural norms by interacting with the Samaritan woman but he moved toward her anyway, in order to meet her in her personal story and to give her a glimpse of the redemptive story God was writing and offering to her. Jesus crossed gender and cultural barriers to pursue this woman, with the intent to bring her into God’s family. And not just her, but her whole town!
When we open ourselves to embracing our own stories and seeing the stories of others, we are granted a heightened awareness of God’s presence, purpose, and character. This awareness can lead us to deepened love for God and others, and a renewed commitment to see our own stories be used to tell the beautiful story of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Choose 2-3 questions to engage:
- In order to engage with God and lead others in healthy ways, we must first become aware of our own stories. Can you identify the major stories in your life? What stories were already unfolding in your family or community, before you were even born? What are the major events that have shaped your life? Where have you lived? What is your role in your family? What stories have others written about you? How has God been involved in writing your story?
- Opening ourselves up to see God, others and ourselves with new eyes can make us feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, and disoriented. Where are you feeling closed to “story?”
- Sometimes our families, as well as the media we consume, perpetuate single stories about other people, communities, or places. Pray for God to help you see where you have an incomplete view of others. Where do you hear him leading you to pursue learning and hearing more? Where do you need to see the image of God within others?
- Is there a prevalent story about God told by those in your movement? What is it? How can you help expand students’ ideas about who God is and how God interacts with humanity and the world around us?
- Whose stories are not fully represented in your movement? How can you be intentional about expanding your movement to include those with different stories?
As we live alongside others, our stories are being “read” by them whether we are conscious of this or not. In coming to understand and value our stories and our culture, we become better storytellers of ourselves and God. In discipleship, this gets lived out as we steward our stories as they intersect the lives of others, trusting that God is calling people into the Kingdom and asking us to play a role by allowing our stories to be used by God as we grow into being holistic multiplying disciples ourselves and influencing others in that direction as well.
Like the Samaritan woman, our stories are not exclusively for us. Rather, as Dan Allender says, “we are written by God to reveal something distinctive and unprecedented about God’s heart and ways of relating to creation. No one can reveal what I am meant to tell about God in the way that I am most uniquely meant to offer.” When the woman went and shared with her town, God was revealed uniquely in a way that had lasting implications for the people there. In the telling, her life was multiplied in ways she could not have imagined!