When Storymaking Fails: Towards a Non-Narrative Theology

Late in the summer, I opened an old wooden writing desk I keep in my office.

A year or two ago, I went through a period of a few months where frenetic ideas were coming quickly but I had no energy to write them into poems or essays or the book I thought might be glimmering around the edges, so, excited, over stimulated, I stashed them all in a box and let them sit a while.

Casting through old pages for ideas this summer I remembered that stash of notes and pulled them out, brought them upstairs. I remembered them as notes, lines, half-poems started and ready to be finished. I remembered them as a coherent set of ideas ready to be filled out and expanded upon.

They weren’t.

Instead, they were random jottings, strangely spooky and unfamiliar—like hearing a ghostly voice at great distance waft up from the scrids of paper. Some not even ideas—just nouns or doodles, unrelated. Or a half question. One slip of paper was entirely blank. Bits of dialogue in voices I now don’t recognize. There was no thread running through the group, there was no way to tie them together. I could weave no narrative.

It was a record of damage. Or maybe, damage control.




I know there is such a thing as Narrative Theology , or Postliberal Theology, as it is also known. I admit immediately I have only the faintest grasp of the subject, but it seems to be involved in moving away from a liberal Christianity that situates itself historically, back to one that centers itself in narrative—or story, or myth, if that word isn’t offensive. (It shouldn’t be, I think. Myth is the story that is always now and always true.)

If my understanding is correct, I have a lot of sympathy for the movement. A living religion has to situate itself in the ever-present yes of myth. (My easy embrace of a historically-based understanding of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity, for example, is rooted in the fact that I am not a Christian.)

Story is how the human animal makes meaning. Story is central to religion.

That said, I think again of my scraps of paper, scribbled down and saved from a period of my life when the narrative(s) I had created no longer worked. The story I created that was me no longer fit. It wasn’t an easy time…but I wouldn’t give up the knowledge I gained coming through it. And those little scraps bear a broken witness.

I distrust any religion that hands its followers too many answers. Answers close down the conversation, they take us from the journey to the idea of arrival, of finish line. We can’t help making narrative, any more than we can help seeing pattern. It’s what our species does. But I distrust stories that don’t leave some spaces.

Whatever my theology is, it needs to be able to encompass the gaps and ruptures as well.



A writer knows to leave some gaps in the narrative, to allow the reader to fill in some blank spaces. To invite co-creation.




I haven’t decided what to do with those folded up scraps of paper. Right now they’re in an envelope. Part of me wants to put them into some kind of book (to contain them is to give them a shape, even just a loose one, and shape is meaning). Part of me thinks they’re close to holy relics and ought to be kept private and secret. Part of me says Get real, it’s just some random jottings on bits of paper. You’re never going to come back to them.

Truth be told I’ve temporarily misplaced the envelope.

Moon over water (shutterstock)


We are made of scraps, unconnected, random experiences and actions that accrue through days and years as we grow. The bits that don’t fit our story, we conveniently let go. The mind sifts. But what happens when we’re faced suddenly with those fragments that we discarded, those little voices and stories and motions we forgot about? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats wrote. Theology has to make a place for the non-narrative moments too, or it fails us.