Preaching the “Story of Stories”

Of the many writings from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, one stands out simply by virtue of its intriguing title — “Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator.”1 In that article, which captures the more prodigious thinking of his major work on Time and Narrative, Ricoeur zeroes in on the fallacy of a commonsense belief that stories are told and not lived, while life is lived and not told. To the contrary, he theorizes about how life is really told by living our own stories.

Ricoeur adopts one of Aristotle’s central concepts — mythos — to explain how the working of a story’s “plot” informs our understanding of our own life’s story. Typically, we think of the plot as the author’s creative work in constructing a story. But Ricoeur argues that the act of plotting really comes to completion through the act of reading, there where the world of the text composed by the author intersects with the world of the reader. The latter, he says, learns from the story some new meaning and, because of the story, envisions how to live anew in this world.

In terms of this narrative identity, or new self-understanding engendered by a story, Ricoeur explains the broader existential import, namely, that “reading” life is a matter of plotting its significance. That is, we configure the singular story of our own identity by creating a sense of things out of the multiple circumstances and events that make up the days of our lives. We discover the meaning of this personal plot when we come to a new perspective on all that happens around us, to us, and by us. Describing it in terms of “discordant concord” or “concordant discord,” he says that we develop our identity, our sense of the world and our place in it, when we forge a unifying whole from the many disparate and seemingly unrelated occurrences that make up our life’s story. In this view, whatever events happen to transpire become meaningful for us only in the context of our entire story; in that sense we serve as narrators, though not authors, of our own lives.

This notion of “narrative identity” implies that human life is neither absolute nor completely random but is, instead, continually emerging as our stories unfold. In this respect, who we are is not stuck in the past, because the fragments with which our life’s story is composed require interpretation in the present. Despite the efforts of social media trolls, the words or deeds we may regret can be redeemed by re-reading them in the ever-emerging story of who we are now.

So, too, who we are now is not constrained by what now happens to us or around us. Our identity is not imposed upon us from without but determined from within, through our ever-evolving understanding of what those happenings mean to us and for us. Thus, life is not predetermined, not subject to fate; rather, I am who I become, in the continual process of narrating the story of a unique person who emerges from the past, dwells in the present, and lives toward the future.

What this more narrative approach to self-understanding implies is that our identities are neither naturally given nor socially determined. Rather, we shape (or narrate) the meaning of life by coming to understand all that happens within the framework of a larger story, a story not yet fully told. Every day, with knowledge gained from experience, we can turn the page to read, and to live out, the next chapter.

The “narrative intelligence” of life as a story in search of a narrator can help us to understand and appreciate what Pope Francis emphasizes in two recent pronouncements: his proclamation of the third Sunday in Ordinary Time as “The Sunday of the Word of God”2 and his message for this year’s celebration of World Communications Day3 on the Sunday before Pentecost.

In his apostolic letter instituting the new liturgical celebration, Pope Francis notes the inseparable link between the Word of God and what Ricoeur might call our collective narrative intelligence as Christians.

The relationship between the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred Scripture is essential to our identity as Christians. Without the Lord who opens our minds to them, it is impossible to understand the Scriptures in depth. Yet the contrary is equally true: without the Scriptures, the events of the mission of Jesus and of his Church in this world would remain incomprehensible. (Aperuit Illis, 1)

In the message for World Communications Day 2020, we hear another echo of Ricoeur’s philosophical interest. In that message, Pope Francis describes the powerful effect that stories have as they “influence our lives . . . leave their mark on us . . . shape our convictions and our behavior . . . (and) help us understand and communicate who we are.” Were we to ponder the stories that have had an impact on our lives, we can concur with the pope’s claim at the outset of his message that “by immersing ourselves in stories, we can find reasons to heroically face the challenges of life” (“Life Becomes History,” 1). Ancient myths, fairy tales, heroic narratives — these and other “classic” stories serve as pedagogical tools to teach children about life in this world, hopefully inspiring them (and ourselves) with a way to thrive in it.

As people of faith, who are all “children” in the kingdom of God, the story that we tell and in which we are called to immerse ourselves, the story by which we can heroically face the ever-changing circumstances of this life, is told in and through the Word of God. Pope Francis describes the Bible as a “Story of stories” precisely because it offers the meta-narrative to all life in as much as it tells “the great love story between God and humanity” (“Life Becomes History,” 3). In the diverse writings of Sacred Scripture, we read histories and mysteries, romances and soap operas, along with a host of other tales that weave together the divine story of human salvation.

That story, says the Holy Father in his apostolic letter, “is not a collection of history books or a chronicle, but is aimed entirely at the integral salvation of the person” (Aperuit Illis, 9). It is, as Ricoeur might say, the integrating plot of each believer’s life, as true today as when the sacred stories were composed. The biblical narratives come from another age and place, but the message and its meaning endure — thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the supernatural power at work as much in the authors as in readers called together to hear and share and live the story of Good News (Aperuit Illis, 10).

To paraphrase Ricoeur, these stories of the Bible give a narrative intelligence to our lives. To quote the Holy Father’s message, Sacred Scripture enables us to see that “God has become personally woven into our humanity, and so has given us a new way of weaving our stories” (“Life Becomes History,” 3). Or, to draw straight from the biblical source, John the Evangelist tells us in the Fourth Gospel that “these [signs] are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

In particular, the signs that Jesus performs and the stories He tells throughout the Gospels disclose to us the possibility of personal transformation. With specific reference to the parables, Pope Francis explains how “at this point life becomes story and then, for the listener, story becomes life; the story becomes part of the life of those who listen to it, and it changes them” (“Life Becomes History,” 3). That is, parables narrate an understanding of the kingdom through reference to circumstances and events to which Jesus’s listeners can easily relate; they can see the (potential) unfolding of their lives in His stories. Conversely, the parables do not simply tell a tale; they offer more than information or entertainment. They become life when the listeners are transformed by them, when they undergo a “conversion” that Jesus often explicitly exhorts, as, for example, when He concludes the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan by saying “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:29–37).

Pope Francis’s renewed emphasis on the inspired Word of God makes clear that in the biblical stories, especially the Gospel narratives, we still find and can read the overarching story of our lives. “The history of Christ,” he posits in his message, “is not a legacy from the past; it is our story, and always timely” (“Life Becomes History,” 4). As such, the story of Jesus holds the key to our own narrative identity.

In one sense, that divine story has already been told. It was narrated, historically, when the God who “was so deeply concerned . . . for our flesh and our history . . . became man, flesh and history” to redeem us by his death and resurrection. The story of the Incarnation envelopes every human being in the tale of salvation. And that Incarnational story continues. As the pope puts it, “Since God became story, every human story is, in a certain sense, a divine story. In the history of every person, the Father sees again the story of his Son who came down to earth” (“Life Becomes History,” 4).

Baptized into this very story, as Ricoeur might say, the Christian faith becomes the plot where concord outstrips discord. The Good News of God’s mercy informs the plot of our lives; it serves as the guiding thread to each human story, enabling us to emerge from the many scenarios in which we have become entangled by our human fallibility. Re-reading our stories in light of God’s history, we no longer need be stuck in our past. Instead of being consigned to see our present or our future in terms of sin and suffering, we are invited to “repent and believe the Good News” of salvation offered to us.

In that sense, the sacred story has yet to be told. We are called to become its narrators in and through the stories of our Christian lives. Formed by the Word of God, we are conformed to Jesus when we appropriate the “performative” language of the Gospel story (“Life Becomes History,” 3). Pope Francis here recalls the notion of his predecessor, who reminds us that “the Christian message was not only ‘informative’ but ‘performative’. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known — it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.”4

Informed and transformed by the power of the Gospel, those who read the story of faith are tasked with “remembering who and what we are in God’s eyes, bearing witness to what the Spirit writes in our hearts and revealing to everyone that his or her story contains marvelous things” (“Life Becomes History,” 5). But accomplishing this narrative task in a Christian life requires that we hear and learn about those marvelous things, and for that, preaching plays a critical role.

In a very real sense, preachers are storytellers. By expounding on the stories heard in the Lectionary readings at Mass, they can bring the biblical stories to bear on the narratives of people’s lives. As Pope Francis points out, “Since it is the people’s book, those called to be ministers of the word must feel an urgent need to make it accessible to their community” (Aperuit Illis, 5).

But homiletic storytelling will make the divine Word accessible only to the extent that preachers focus their efforts more specifically on telling the primary story, namely, the narrative of the Sacred Scriptures. Too often, contemporary homilists spend more time on their own homespun or humorous tales, they comment on nightly news segments, or they resort to stories about current events. But this-worldly storytelling misses the mark.

The stories that really renew us transcend human interest and public entertainment. The stories that have the power to transform us go far beyond our own stories, individually or collectively. The stories that save us, in the end, are divine stories, the biblical stories of salvation.

Yet, as many will lament, believers today seem less familiar with those biblical stories. Even Pope Francis urges the need “in every generation” for “men and women . . . to recount and commit to memory the most significant episodes of this Story of stories, those that best communicate its meaning” (“Life Becomes History,” 3).

While families and schools have an important role to play in cultivating that memory of salvation history, preaching also has a significant part to play. Noting that the “quasi-sacramental character” of homily gives it “a distinctive function,” Pope Francis boldly states the implication for preachers: “Helping people to enter more deeply into the word of God . . . is a pastoral opportunity that should not be wasted!” (Aperuit Illis, 5).

The Liturgy of the Word at each Mass affords the greatest opportunity to tell God’s story; given the decline in religious education, it may also respond to cultural necessity. As the pope notes, “For many of our faithful, in fact, this is the only opportunity they have to grasp the beauty of God’s word and to see it applied to their daily lives” (Aperuit Illis, 5). Yet how many homiletic words are spent on introductions or asides, on announcements or digressions? How much time, in any given homily, does the preacher spend focused on the biblical story itself, not just in repeating it but in “narrating” it in the fullest sense of reading from and through God’s Word to communicate its meaning in the lives of the people to whom he is preaching?

Homilies that focus on and draw from the biblical stories, that offer teaching about the meaning of those stories, that explicate the timeless significance of the sacred tales as the narration of Good News that people so desperately need to hear and by which they will be motivated to lead better lives — that is the storytelling from the pulpit that will attract people to the Word of God. That is a mode of preaching that naturally connects with the story-telling nature of human beings, who “are engaged in a process of constant growth, discovering ourselves and becoming enriched in the tapestry of the days of our lives” (“Life Becomes History,” 1). For homilists, the best textile with which to weave that Christian identity is God’s sacred Word.5

Amid the many, often conflicting, stories that people hear via contemporary mass media, it becomes even more important for us to know, to remember, to recount, and to share with others the “Story of stories.” When all of us, and preachers in particular, engage in that kind of storytelling, and factor faith into our own narrative intelligence, then our lives will have found their narrator. Reconfigured by the divine Word, as the papal message points out, then our “life becomes history” that we can tell to generations present and future.

  1. P. Ricoeur, “Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator,” in eds. M.C. Doeser and J.N. Kraay, Facts and Values, Martinus Nijhoff Philosophical Library, vol. 19 (Dordrecht: Springer, 1986), 121–32.
  2. Pope Francis, Aperuit Illis, apostolic letter issued “motu proprio,” instituting the Sunday of the Word of God (30 September 2019), online at w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190930_aperuit-illis.html (hereafter cited in-text as Aperuit Illis).
  3. Pope Francis, “‘That you may tell your children and grandchildren’ (Ex 10:2): Life Becomes History,” message for the 54th World Communications Day (24 January 2020), online at w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20200124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html (hereafter cited in-text as “Life Becomes History”).
  4. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, encyclical letter on Christian Hope (30 November 2007), no. 2.
  5. Throughout his Message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis adopts the image of “weaving” (from the Latin texere) to the reading of “texts” or stories.
Fr. Thomas F. Dailey About Fr. Thomas F. Dailey

Ordained in 1987, Fr. Dailey is a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He holds a doctoral degree in biblical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and currently serves as the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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