Narrative Theology in the High School Classroom: Teaching Theology through Literature

Article excerpt

If Jesus taught most frequently through symbol and story, and the early Church passed on his teachings primarily through story, especially the four Gospels, why is today's catechesis and theological pedagogy not more informed by "narrative theology"--theology which focuses on the narratives told by Jesus and the Gospels precisely as narratives? This article provides some basic foundations for the discipline of narrative theology, argues for a more narrative approach to theological instruction, and, by way of application, proposes a full-year curriculum for high-school students that enables teachers to teach theology through the narratives of both the Bible and secular literature.

But wishing to justify himself, the man said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" And Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers." (Lk 10:29-30)

To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like ... (Mk 4:30-31)

The Pharisees began to grumble, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." ... So Jesus said to them, "A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.'" (Lk 15:2, 11)

On the night before he died, Jesus took bread. (Words of Consecration, Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite)


The epigraphs to this paper, which are but a small selection from many similar sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, point to a basic reality about Jesus' teaching and pedagogical method: He taught by stories. This is well-known. Yet, one might press further. Specifically, two further reflections on Jesus' penchant for story-telling seem compelling. First, as the epigraphs suggest, Jesus most frequently told stories in response to questions that sought propositional answers: "Who is my neighbor?"; "What is the kingdom of God?"; "Why do you eat with sinners?"

Why did not Jesus answer such questions straightforwardly: "Your neighbor is ..."; "The kingdom of God is ..."; "I eat with sinners because...." Propositional answers, apparently, were not, in Jesus' view, always useful or, often, even possible. Building upon this insight, this essay argues that Jesus' story-telling is not only a useful pedagogical method, but also a necessary one. That is, Jesus did not tell stories merely because they provided effective illustrations of what he was really hoping to say more plainly, if only people would better understand him, though Jesus' images and parables do often serve the useful pedagogical purpose of elucidating difficult or hard-to-grasp concepts. Rather, Jesus told stories because the subject matter with which he was dealing--"The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1: 15)--could often only be revealed in its fullness through image and narrative.

A second significant observation is this: when the early Christian church sought to communicate the message and person of Jesus, perhaps the primary vehicle for this communication eventually took the form specifically of a written narrative, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These Gospels, while often communicating "propositional" knowledge about Jesus' person--for example, he was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph--and message--for example, the Beatitudes, or his teachings on fasting or divorce--such knowledge is inextricably embedded in a larger narrative structure. Though this structure does not fit neatly into any one literary genre, the Gospels are unmistakably narrative in their overall structure (Meier, 1987); that is, all that is contained in the Gospels is presented specifically within the unfolding story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, one might say that, when the early Church sought to catechize others about their faith, one of the fundamental ways in which the Church did so was through stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and stories about Jesus telling stories. …