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Identity and Storytelling

Our identity is shaped by the stories we hear and how we perceive our “role” in the story.

One of the most important sociologists of the 20th century was a guy named Peter Berger. His most significant book was called “The Social Construction of Reality.” His basic point was that no human experiences reality is some kind of pure form but that every human is already born into a particular interpretation of the world through a thousand forms of media and socialization.

Identity formation.

Our identity is shaped by our myths – meaning “foundation story”, whether it’s rooted in historical events or not isn’t the point. It’s a story that begins to shape your sense of who you are and your role in the world. For Americans there’s certain stories that form the American identity. For example, deep within the identity of Americans is the freedom narrative.

Land of the free, home of the brave!

Alongside this is the American Dream/entrepreneurial myth. I don’t mean “myth” in that it’s not true, but rather a story that defines who you are. Sociologists use the word “myth” regardless of whether it’s anchored in historical events or not. A “mythical myth” or a “historical myth” function in the same way.

Identity is such a subtle thing.

I almost never ask myself, “What is my identity? Who am I? Why am I here? Whom or where do I get my identity from?”

Identity is a subtle thing…..with a deep, ripple effect.

Recently my church did a sermon series on the characteristics of God. After looking at ‘who God is’, we walked through a series of teachings about ‘who I am’ (in light of who God is). These sermon series topics can seem over-simplistic and monotonous for the long-time Christian but they’re important for shaping our identity.

Identity formation is something we often do without realizing it. For example, when we sing the chorus of the song “Good Good Father” we’re reminding ourselves of our positional standing with God.

“You’re a good, good Father.
It’s who you are, who you are, who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, who I am, who I am”

Historically, how have believers practiced identity formation?

The history behind this is actually woven into the narrative of the Bible and is tied back to the ancient Hebrew practice of reading large chunks of the scriptures aloud in a group. This was designed to remind people of their story – where they came from and where they’re going. This is a form of identity formation.

We see the power of this ancient Hebrew practice (and its role in forming our identity) play out with 6 key people in the Bible.

First, Moses….

Flashback to Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were just rescued from Egypt. They’re no longer slaves (Woo!!). They need a new identity – a new story to live by. So, Moses gathers the people together and reads the scriptures aloud. He reminds them of where they came from, who they are, and the new future they’re called to live for.

Bible trivia: This is the first mention of the public reading of scripture in the Bible.

Continuing on….

Moses passes the baton to Joshua. When the people get into the Promised Land…they do it again.
Joshua pulls the people together and they all listen to the scriptures read aloud – so they could remember where they came from and how they could keep living as a part of this new story.

After Joshua dies we don’t have any more stories of the people coming together to hear God’s word. Instead, the people forget their story…and a whole generation arose that didn’t know their God or what God had done for them.

But then, centuries later…

A king named Josiah rediscovered the scriptures and was so excited that he called Israel to begin this practice once again. It sparked a renewal movement….until the people forgot once more….and ended up in exile.

This is why, when Ezra & Nehemiah came back from the exile they needed to remind the people who they are and how they are to live.

Reading scripture together became a core part of Jewish life. It was done every week as they gathered in synagogues. Jesus himself participated in this practice. He even launched his mission during the weekly reading of the scriptures. He read from the scroll of Isaiah and he told everyone these words were about Him (Luke 4:16-30).

Now….fast forward to the times of the early church.

Paul told Timothy to keep this practice going…. to immerse the whole community in the story of the scriptures (I Timothy 4:13).

Do you catch the theme here?

From Moses…. to Joshua…to Josiah…to Ezra & Nehemiah…. to Paul…

The practice of reading the scriptures aloud was how people were reminded of their identity – who they are and how they’re to live.

Here’s the thing…. We can read the Bible by ourselves…and we should….but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of this ancient practice.

Something happens when we hear the Word of God read aloud with other people.

This is what God’s people have always done when they enter into new and uncertain times… they remember their story and who they are through the public reading of the scriptures.

Why is it helpful to read aloud and with other people?

Reading the scriptures acts on you. That’s exactly the role the scriptures have played throughout their history. That’s why they came into existence. To retell the story of what God has done to save and redeem a people and then to invite those people into a covenant relationship, into a new way of life. How do you sustain this way of life when it’s not the norm? And that’s precisely what the role of the scriptures is. And it’s why the public reading aloud of the scriptures has played such an important role throughout Jewish and Christian history.

In N.T. Wright’s essay “How Is The Bible Authoritative?” he begins by saying the Bible is fundamentally a long narrative, not a law book. What does it mean for a long narrative to be a divine authority in your life? The conclusion of Wright’s essay has this great statement….

“This I say is one of the reasons why God has given us so much story – so much narrative in scripture. Because ”story-authority” is the authority that really works because stories determine how we see ourselves, others, and the world…and how we experience God. If you throw a rule book at someone’s head or offer them a list of doctrines, they can duck or avoid it or simply disagree and walk away. But if you tell them a story, you invite them into a community of people living by that story. You’re inviting them into a different world. You invite them to share a whole new worldview. And when someone enters into the gospel story and finds how compelling it is, it begins to quietly shatter that worldview that they were in beforehand. And then there’s no telling what can happen when God himself breathes new lives and new worlds into being through His Word.”

In this case, it changes the role of the scriptures from being this thing that we act upon to something that acts upon us. You have to read it, but then metaphorically speaking, it also is reading you. You find yourself addressed by this ancient text.

N.T. Wright’s essay so brilliantly captures the value of storytelling and its role in the formation of our identity.
After studying this topic I’m convicted to weave this ancient Hebrew practice into my normal routine. I know how forgetful I can be. Consistently reminding myself of the story I’m in will help solidify my identity and help me better tell the Biblical story to others.

Like N.T. Wright said, people are much more compelled by a story, rather than a rule book or a list of doctrines.
May we as Christians press into the practice of storytelling. And as we tell our story, may it ultimately help solidify our own identity.

Credit: As always, big thanks to my guys, Jonathan Collins and Dr. Tim Mackie for a lot of the ideas and content in this post. You guys inspire me to dig deeper into God’s Word and to not keep what I’m learning to myself – but rather to share it. So, sorry for borrowing a lot of your ideas. You guys rock!

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