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Stories Shape Religious Identity

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Within every community of faith there are stories or rituals that weave together the beliefs, values, and purposes of a people. There are stories that the group always seems to tell. And there are heroes, or people whom the group lifts up as shining examples for all to see. This dependence on narrative is nothing new for God’s people. Two stories permeated the life of the Hebrews: the call of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the Old Testament, God said (either directly or through the prophets), “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God’s very identity among the people was tied to the stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. Indeed, the call of Abraham and Sarah (in Genesis 12 and 15) is indistinguishable from the call to the people of Israel. The covenant that God made with Abraham became the covenant that covered all of Abraham’s heirs. That’s why the story of Abraham became the founding narrative that gave God’s people their very identity.1 So the identity of God and the identity of God’s People spring forth together from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his family. Likewise, the Exodus from Egypt served as a paradigm for the way that God remained faithful to His faithless people. The long-suffering love of God that endures became perhaps the defining characteristic of God for the prophets. “God has not forgotten his people.” God renewed the covenant with Moses and for generations to come said to the people, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Who God is was wrapped up in the story of what God had done. Throughout the troubled history of Israel, the prophets reminded the struggling people that the God who redeemed them from Egyptian bondage could rescue them still. They used the story then to call the people to repentance. The story became a paradigm. It solidified the identity of the people and the place of the God who would not forsake them.

Narratives are central to the religious identity of any people. The psychologist Jerome Bruner has written that stories become “recipes for structuring experience itself.”2 And Nancy Tatom Ammerman likewise notes that “religious narratives [are] the building blocks of individual and collective religious identities.”3 We carry with us a collection of religious narratives (think “tool-kit” or “repertoire”). We draw from a confluence of religious narratives to create a framework for explaining our place in the world. Some of those religious narratives are public narratives (like the stories of the Bible or from Christian history) that are available to all Christians.4 Some are communal narratives (such as the ones a congregation tells itself). And some are intensely personal narratives that are only available to the persons involved.5 

For example, when I was a child, my family became involved in what at that time was called “the charismatic renewal.” It was a renewed interest in the Holy Spirit that focused on lively worship services and prayers for specific healing. This movement pointed to stories in the Book of Acts that describe miraculous acts performed by the Holy Spirit and the movement believed such acts were available to God’s People even today. In other words, they reinvigorated a particular set of neglected stories in order to claim their religious identity. This shows how public and communal narratives come together. But what about personal narratives, how do they fit in? I was about eight or nine years old at the time that my family became a part of this charismatic movement. So I did not have much of a personal narrative to tell. I simply appropriated my parents’ religious identity. But one day, something happened that illustrates how a communal narrative can become intensely personal.

One day, while in third or fourth grade, I fell off a sled and opened a gash in my scalp. My mother dutifully put me in the back of the car and drove to the doctor while a neighbor kid applied pressure to the wound. And she did what any good charismatic mother would do in such a situation. She prayed while she drove. And since I was in the backseat, she prayed out loud for all to hear—including the taken-aback neighbor boy. When we got to the doctors’ office, an intern came into the room and began with the obligatory, “How are you doing?” At that moment, I did not feel much pain in spite of all the blood. So I said to her, “It doesn’t hurt. My mom prayed for me.” I had appropriated for myself the healing narratives described in the Book of Acts. This, of course, was not good enough for an incredulous intern. I am told that she poked and prodded the wound trying to evoke a shout of pain from me. None came. I was content while she sewed up the wound. That’s when the head wound story became for me a personal religious narrative. Throughout my youth, I would harken back in my mind to the tale as a reminder that God had visited me personally. It was such an intense event for me because the public narrative of divine healing and the communal narrative of the charismatic renewal intersected for me at that moment with my personal story. We can generalize, then, to say that specific situations and settings “activate” particular religious narratives that then shape the meaning we make of the situation and our own role in it.6  

The story eventually took on a mythic quality for me as well. One of my most vivid memories of the experience involves laying on the examination table in my pediatrician’s office while the intern examined my head. I recall seeing her spray orange drops of Betadine onto the wall as she prepared the wound for stitching. And every time I returned to that pediatrician’s office throughout my youth, I looked on the wall for the stains those drops made. I remember telling people that I saw them. With the clarity of an adult, I realize that I probably did not see exactly the stains made from my visit. I am sure that the wallpaper in those exam rooms experienced many such stains. But, as a child, the sight of something tangible like the stains on the wall reinforced my faith by calling to mind the story of this formative religious experience. Indeed, there is research that suggests that having something material reinforces the memory of an experience. This is why, for example, that teens buy concert tee-shirts. And this is why rituals support religious memory.7 



1 On the importance of a “constitutive narrative,” see the discussion of “communities of memory” in Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart, p. 125ff

2 Bruner, “Life as Narrative,” Social Research 54 (1987) 31, quoted in Robert Wuthnow, “Stories to Live By,” 307.

3 The best summary of how religious identity takes a necessarily narrative form is Nancy Ammerman, “Religious Identities and Religious Institutions,” Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. by Michelle Dillon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

4 James Hopewell describes how churches access these public narratives: “A congregation, undeniably Christian, nevertheless uses forms and stories common to a larger world treasury to create its own local religion of outlooks, action patterns, and values.” Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structure (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) 3.

5 Somers’ four kinds of narrative, quoted in Ammerman, “Religious Identities.”

6 Anderson and Foley argue that narratives create a “transformative encounter” between the human and divine. “We are transformed in part because we begin to understand our particular story as part of a larger, transcendent story.” (p. 37) This is why they can conclude that “we create stories and live according to their narrative assumptions.” (p. 6) Anderson & Foley, Mighty Stories.

7 On the connection between tangible mementos and experiences, see Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, The Experience Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999); on the connection between ritual, narrative, and memory, see Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).