TODAY, across all platforms, the life stories of the famous and the infamous are as popular as ever. Thousands follow their favourite singer or sports star on Twitter or Instagram. Every week, Hello magazine reaches more than two million adults, keen to see and read about the world’s celebrities. Autobiographies, such as Michelle Obama’s Becoming, often top the booksellers’ charts. Recent cinema releases have told the “true-life” stories of stars such as Judy Garland and Elton John.
The docudrama genre is increasingly seen on television. Recently, the BBC told the personal stories of those caught up in the Salisbury poisonings affair; it has also screened the harrowing story of the racist killing of the black teenager Anthony Walker, murdered in Liverpool in 2005. Such reality-based stories hit us hard, and help to shape our attitudes and responses.
We human beings are made of stories. Our life in this world is our story to tell: a unique story, whether we be famous, infamous, or unknown. Five short films, commissioned by the Progressive Christianity Network (PCN), tell the stories of ordinary people grappling with important contemporary issues. Since a report in this newspaper (News, 4 September), we have had many enquiries from people wanting to show these films, from dioceses to prison chaplaincies.
Personal stories can so often enlighten us as much as studying any number of official reports. In recent years, the Church of England has encouraged churchgoers to talk about their personal relationship stories in order to contribute to the Living in Love and Faith project. “Giving testimony” has long been a central part of the more Evangelical tradition in Christianity.
Stories can, however, present us with challenges. After a Christmas nativity service, I once overheard a six-year-old asking her grandfather whether the story was “true”. The Bible, we know, is full of stories, and, in the search for meaning, readers need to distinguish between parable, metaphor, and fact — as children do from an early stage of learning.
Many of the past and present disputes within Christianity are caused by how we have read and interpreted its stories. A slavish literalism can misunderstand the creation stories of Genesis, the story of Noah’s ark, or that of Jonah, and make Christian faith an irrelevance to many. A progressive Christianity seeks to harness the insights of biblical scholarship, honest reasoning, and imagination as we interpret these stories.
Most crucial of all, it seems to me, is how Christians and the Church have told the story of Jesus, and how we discover his story within the pages of the New Testament and the folds of our heart’s experiences. Over the centuries, Western Christianity has offered one overarching narrative: the story of fall and redemption, seeing in Jesus the Saviour figure sent from God, concerned with individual salvation.
This dominant story is fleshed out in our liturgies, our hymns, and our teaching courses. It is the story of how the Jesus of history became the Christ of faith, framed and enmeshed in the doctrines and credal affirmations of orthodoxy. It has influenced how we interpret the birth, death, and resurrection stories about Jesus.
Yet for many Christians this story of the sinless Saviour — born of a virgin, performing miracles, and being tortured to death by a loving God to save us from our sins — no longer commands belief or acceptance.
IF WE could capture the “real-life” story of Jesus, as he might tell it on camera, we might be presented with a very different Christ of faith. This charismatic Jewish prophet might speak of growing up in a world of corruption and power, of violence and oppression, of poverty and prejudice. In this context, Jesus might tell of how he tried to bring a deep experience of compassion and reconciliation, the scorching fire and judgement of God’s love, as he experienced it in his own heart.
This is the passionate Jesus who invites us to follow him so that we make a difference in this world. Like the storytellers on our five films, we are invited to make sense of our own lives in all their complexity and ambiguity, and to see in the story of Jesus how his life can connect to ours.
We might find little solace in the propositional doctrines of the Church; little relevance in portraying Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, seated at God’s right hand on high. But we might well be attracted to the Jesus who asked his followers to consider the beauty of the lilies of the field, who crossed the divides of race and religion to offer healing and reconciliation, and who gathered around him a community of nobodies.
This is the Jesus to be found in these five films, Made of Stories. The hope of PCN Britain is that they will both challenge and stimulate their viewers into thinking critically about what being a follower of Jesus means today, and how best the Church can tell this story.
The Revd Adrian Alker is chair of Progressive Christianity Network Britain (www.pcnbritain.org.uk).