June 21, 2024

Story is a common topic in mission circles, and often is understood primarily as a way of communicating the Gospel and Scripture in oral cultures. But story is more than a communication tool; it is a key to understanding culture as well. It is often overlooked when talking about ethnography.

My friend, Mike Mathews, has written a helpful book explaining how story can help us understand culture – A Novel Approach: The Significance of Story in Interpreting and Communicating Reality, 2017. He writes in the introduction:

A Novel Approach presents a much-needed perspective of what it means to discover, correctly interpret, and understand the story of self and others as well as how to correctly interpret, understand, live in, and communicate God’s story effectively.  (p. xxviii)

Matthews identifies four core assumptions of the book:

  1. True conversion to Christianity results in significant worldview transformation, which by definition requires a turning in allegiance from one comprehensive story to another.
  2. Humans have been given responsibility by God to clearly proclaim the Bible story and message.
  3. Syncretism is one of the major problems worldwide in the Christian church. Often this syncretism is the result of poor (and incomplete) communication of the biblical story and message.
  4. Story has a central place in understanding and communicating clearly the Bible’s message.  (p. xxix).

Following those assumptions, he states the gist of the book in one sentence:

This book demonstrates the powerful place story occupies in the interpretation of reality and how this dynamic triadic relationship (Reality + Interpretation +Story) can be applied to the discovery of any social group’s story and to the subsequent communication of the biblical story. (p. xxix, xxx).

Matthews structures his book as a three-act play creatively communicating the importance of story. He gives an overview in the introduction (p. xxx):

The whole story fleshes out like this:

  • Act I/ Scene 1 rehearses the presupposed existence of objective and universal reality.
  • Act I/ Scene 2 exposes the well known – but often ignored and neglected – fact that this objective reality is always interpreted through a lens of bias. This scene also examines how the period of European history known as the Enlightenment significantly contributes to the pool of North American bias.
  • Act II/ Scene 1 and 2 lay bare the place of story in all biased interpretations of reality. Story wears the crown jewel in all hermeneutical activity.
  • Act III/ Scene 1 describes a model of culture consisting of stories (as foundational entry points), institutions, values, worldview, and prime drivers.
  • Act III/ scene 2 ‘brings the house down’ with an illustration of A Novel Approach being applied to exegeting and communicating within a particular social group.

Some readers may find the discussion of reality and interpretation a bit of heavy sledding but Matthews does a good job of explaining both concepts. It is worth thinking hard about reality and interpretation in order to reap the most benefit from story. The author’s discussion of the four dimensions of story (episode, key story, grand story, and greatest story) helps us see story as the shaper and expression of culture. Grand stories supported by key stories and episodes give identity to a people. Grand stories, in particular, feed the ten “realms of reality” in any culture (108-139).

In Act III reality and interpretation come together in culture. Matthews writes:

Every culture finds its genesis in story. The stories of a culture are the place to begin the exegesis of a culture. Moving on from a sound interaction and understanding of a culture’s stories and story, one continues to discover how the stories form a worldview and culture-specific norms and values. It also becomes crystal clear that every culture not only is built on story, but also interprets reality via story.  (p. 144)

The model of culture developed in Act III/ Scene 1 demonstrates the value of story as an entry point for understanding culture. Story is also key for understanding cultural change. The final scene in the book applies and describes the process, giving practical examples of how this approach works out in a ministry context. The appendix provides templates that can be adapted and used to study any culture’s stories and story.

A Novel Approach provides us with helpful tools and a practical way to understand how a culture interprets reality through its stories. Listening to stories is a fun way to build relationships in our host culture. Who doesn’t like a good story?  Not only will this process help us understand  another culture, but will also equip us to communicate the greatest story – the biblical story, the Gospel. I highly recommend that you get this book and study it!

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