On Losing the Story of Discipleship

1.5 A loss of the story of discipleship

One possible overarching factor that might best explain why this gap exists is the loss of a scriptural story of discipleship, due, in part, to an ‘enlightened’ emphasis on individuality through the period of modernity, and the absorption of the church by the prevalent social, cultural and political and powers.

Walter Brueggemann, in his tremendous collection of essays entitled The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, outlines some ideas in regards to this loss of story as found in the biblical text. First, Brueggemann argues, “we have lost the text, in a measure, because we have wanted to press the text to yield dogmatic certitudes that it does not offer.”1 This brings us back to an emphasis on, among other things, following Jesus in terms of ‘going to heaven after we die.’ Rather than reading Scripture as a story that sheds light on how and through whom God has enacted his redemptive works in the present world, the Bible has become a book that is pillaged for the sake of extracting spiritual formulas or guidelines meant to reduce the need for active and costly obedience.

It has become a sort of guidebook seen as able to outline the process by which one can live a good and moral life and eventually end up in heaven. The text has become a veritable wellspring of theological and doctrinal information used to define truth about God without ever having to dive in to the relational and transformational heart of the text. And so, “the playfulness, openness, and ambiguity [of the text] were consequently made to yield to a scholastic pattern of conclusion that makes the text too predictable and familiar to bother with.2 In other words, if the means of achieving the desired result of going to heaven can be easily extracted from the text there remains no reason to examine scripture in terms of what it means to follow Jesus within the context of day-to-day life.

Secondly, then, as it pertains to the church in relation to the social, cultural and political powers, Brueggemann argues the following point: “We have lost the text, in a measure, because we have become knowing and technologically competent, and one cannot build public greatness on the irascible Holiness who subverts.”3 As a result, our desire is for a text that is “not so disruptive, either this one smoothed to management or another one in its place.”4 The volume of the text is turned down, therefore, “because we have become self-sufficient and affluent, and we no longer need to be reminded of the more dangerous powers that still float around in our bodies and in the body politic.”5 As the people of God become more ingrained into the fabric of society and culture around them and as humankind becomes more self-sufficient, discipleship becomes a lost art.

The text as a story that calls out is replaced by any number of competing stories battling for our allegiance, thus negating any notion of embodied participation in ‘the Way’ of Jesus. Again, if the masses already too easily believe themselves to be Christian, and feel as though the end will be neatly wrapped up in heaven for those who ‘believe’, then there is no need to look deeper into the text and allow it to inconveniently disrupt an otherwise comfortable life.

Brueggemann refers to this loss of the text as a sort of amnesia, rendering “the human community lean and without resources, unprotected from the past with the need to invent and reinvent endlessly.”6 In order to understand the nature of true discipleship in the 21st century, then, it is vital that the text be recovered and revalued as essential for all those who wish to follow Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas asserts, “Scripture is the means the church uses to constantly test its memory;” true disciples “must struggle day in and day out with the full text. For the story the church must tell as well as embody is a many-sided tale that constantly calls us from complacency and conventions.”7 The Bible presents the story of the origins of discipleship, of the first followers of Jesus – the story of “the happy news that God has called people together to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord of this world.”8

Furthermore, as Hauerwas argues in this strong statement, “there is no ‘real Jesus’ except as he is known through the kind of life he demanded of his disciples,” and it is within the pages of Holy Scripture that we find “the grammar of such a life.”9 Not only does the text remind us of how and through whom God has worked in order to bring about his redemptive work in the world, it also enables us to understand our place within God’s grand story and how all those that wish to follow him today may resist the trap of being absorbed into another story.

If the text is indeed a reminder that God has always been calling people to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord over all creation, that he is deeply interested and involved in the present realities of the world and is calling a people together to embody his redemptive purposes for it, then knowledge of and participation in the text must be seen as essential to discipleship. The task at hand, then, is to attempt to create a sense of a biblical story of discipleship by directly examining the Old and New Testaments with a view to articulating the nature of discipleship in today’s context.

1 Walter Brueggemann, “A Text That Redescribes,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 5.

2 Ibid., 5.

3 Ibid., 6.

4 Ibid., 6.

5 Ibid., 6.

6 Ibid., 10.

7 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 373.

8 Stanley Hauerwas, “Character, Narrative and Growth in the Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 251.

9 Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 41-42.

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