Two summers ago, I went on a road trip with a friend through the south. We cut across I-40 and enjoyed Memphis BBQ, camped in the mountains outside of Chattanooga, stayed with some old friends in Atlanta, and circled back through Birmingham on I-20 and ended back at home. In the middle of our trip, In between Chattanooga and Atlanta, we stopped in North Georgia to camp at the beautiful Tallulah Gorge.
One night, after a long day of hiking, we hopped in our car and drove up to explore the small town of Clayton, GA. As we drove up to the downtown area, a heavy rain began to come down, so we ducked into a bookstore to escape the downpour. As we talked with the patron, we were informed of an event taking place that night in Clayton. To our great surprise, the town was barricading the downtown city streets for what they call, “The Clayton Crawl.” Local restaurants, breweries, wineries, musicians, and vendors were going to set up shop along Main Street for the locals to experience and enjoy. Naturally, we decided to stay and soak up the local cuisine and culture of Clayton. If an opportunity ever presents itself, I try to never miss the chance to see the unique culture of a city.
As the streets closed down, vendors began to set up shop and the streets began to fill up with people. As we moseyed from place to place on Main Street, we learned a bit about the town. Interestingly enough, Clayton is a fairly transient community, filled with young people who aren’t ready to settle down. Because of the many outdoor activities nearby, college-aged students come and work the rivers and mountains for a time and a season.
At each tent or table or store, we engaged in some small talk with the local vendors and asked them where they were from, how they got started, why they do what they do, etc. We kept the focus off of our own travails and became saturated in the stories of the Claytonites. As an introvert who usually puts his head down (at best, I might acknowledge others with a quiet grunt and a slight nod of the head) when he passes a stranger, I was shocked at their openness to bear all to two young wandering Texans.
We met a man who had recently opened his sports bar after moving to Clayton following a divorce; we met a woman at a vegetarian restaurant who had a falling out with her sister due to her decision to start the restaurant; we met a nostalgic elderly couple at a store filled with used junk and trinkets who spent their early years of marriage road-tripping through the US in an RV. They reveled in the fact we were doing the same and encouraged us to continue living with an adventurous spirit.
These stories were beautiful and heart-breaking. A few simple, pointed questions unleashed a flood of memory, regret, hope, and exhortation. They almost clung to our presence; their stories persisted as long as we were willing to lend an ear. It was as if they had no one else to share their life with and that this might be their only opportunity to bare their soul out to a willing listener.
As we drove back to our campsite and reflected on our time at the crawl, I began to realize a real deficiency in the working out of my faith. These moments with real people and real stories shed light on the failure of my purely intellectual pursuit of the knowledge of God up until that point. Theology detached from reality, from the story of life and lives, is ineffective and ineffectual. A rigid doctrinal understanding of God isolates and ostracizes the world and creates un-empathetic followers of Christ. It leaves little room for the diverse stories of God’s creation. My complex understanding of God left no space for their stories. My theology told me to try to cram their life and stories into the box of my doctrine rendering their experiences useless to my beliefs. Quickly, in this purely doctrinal faith, they become subservient to me.
Theology and the stories of our life must coexist. It is not that one is greater than the other. They rely on each other – mutually inclusive of each other. It is the very reason why Jesus spoke in parables, for Jesus’s words detached from stories is like a clanging symbol – void of love, a partitioning away of a messy reality which persists in the lives of us all.
Over the next three posts, I want to look at the importance of story. I want to examine how listening to stories enliven in us an empathetic spirit due to their mimetic qualities and keeps us in touch with the broken and blessed life of those around us. I also want to examine the importance of telling our stories and the cathartic nature of doing so and how it brings us into communion with our Father and others. Lastly I want to examine the importance of living out a meaningful story – a life which flows from listening and learning from stories and telling the story of our own life.
“I don’t wonder anymore what I’ll tell God when I go to heaven when we sit in the chairs under the tree, outside the city……..I’ll tell these things to God, and he’ll laugh, I think and he’ll remind me of the parts I forgot, the parts that were his favorite. We’ll sit and remember my story together, and then he’ll stand and put his arms around me and say, “well done,” and that he liked my story. And my soul won’t be thirsty anymore. Finally he’ll turn and we’ll walk toward the city, a city he will have spoken into existence a city built in a place where once there’d been nothing.” –Donald Miller