A Review of
Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape our Faith
Jennifer L. Holberg
Reviewed by Nathan Geeting
For those touched by the stories and songs of Rich Mullins, September 19th was a difficult day: It marked the 26th anniversary of the car accident that killed him. On that night, above my home in North Carolina, the moon hung slivered in the sky—“like a shaving that fell from the floor of a carpenter’s shop.” And in the sky above Ohio, the stars undoubtedly flickered, candle-like, as they burned. Mullins’s legacy, too, continues to burn—seemingly brighter and brighter each year. While his songs continue to encourage, surprise, and challenge listeners, it’s the story of his life that has gotten the most attention in the last decade, with multiple documentaries (and a feature length film) retelling the complex, difficult journey of a broken but faithful man. In the Christian landscape of practiced, performative, and political tales, Mullins’s life stands out as a counter-cultural force. It is a rare kind of story indeed—or rarely told—which speaks to one of the issues that Jennifer Holberg raises in her new book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith.
In the first chapter, Holberg notes how “we are presented with a limited number of available narratives—or at least narratives we can allow ourselves.” This matters because, as Holberg explains with clarity and conviction, stories are the currency of our time. In her own words, “We live in a world that… most often seems to process through narrative, not facts.” Said differently, stories are powerful and consequential forces within our culture, politics, churches, and lives. However, the stories Christians most frequently tell tend to skew towards the sentimental, the trite, and the platitudinal. This creates a problem for people of “the Book,” lovers of “the Word.” Simply put, this lack of complex, imaginative, and wide-ranging stories can lead to a simple, insufficient, and closed-minded faith. Something smaller than a creative, story-telling God would intend.
Thankfully, Holberg approaches this concept with hope; she refuses to simply speak of a lack. If the subtitle is any indication, she spends most of the book presenting a different way to engage with faith-shaping narratives. Drawing on the thoughts, stories, and poems of Flannery O’Connor, Jane Kenyon, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, and many (many) more, Holberg demonstrates how rich stories paired with careful, thoughtful readers can encourage and enliven every aspect of our faith. Specifically, she spends chapters two through six addressing some of the narratives Christians currently hold—ultimately guiding us through the various ways we might see these stories anew. Stories remind us of God’s abundance, for example, and our worthiness of that lavishness through Christ. Holberg highlights metaphors that display a picture of daily faithfulness over a long period of time, unglamorous though it may be: like brittle and broken shards that come together to create a beautiful work of stained glass, or honeyguides (a kind of bird), helping others find their way to the sweet sustenance God provides.
Importantly, even the most difficult narratives aren’t off limits for Holberg, who assesses the flawed ways Christians often handle failures, tragedy, and death with a painful, almost surgical precision. She takes seriously some of the most sensitive (read: touchy) narratives of the day. For example, in chapter four, she reviews various stories and poems that center friendship as the greatest form of love (echoing Christ’s words in John 15). Though a topic like that might seem innocuous—Christ himself said it, after all—a narrative that centers friendship directly challenges the “general American-Christian idolatry of the family,” to borrow Holberg’s phrase. And it is the right phrase. In fact, not too long ago, Twitter’s “Theobros” argued for the importance of marriage and the family, with some claiming that singleness “is closer to a curse than a gift.” They went on to state that being single “isn’t ideal or normative,” and they expressed shock “that churches would teach it.” But as the “loneliness epidemic” has spread throughout the last decade, a reorientation towards friendship as a greater love seems almost medicinal; and Nourishing Narratives is all the better for addressing it head on, along with other topics that would be easy to shy away from.
Insightfully, the subtext of Holberg’s book is unity. She spends a great deal of effort explaining how nourishing narratives can reorient Christians within God’s greater narrative, making them gracious to the wounds of those inside and outside of the church and moving us “toward more Christlike ways of viewing the world.” She even spends an entire chapter urging believers to be thoughtful with the language we use when discussing community, pushing for language of self-sacrifice, duty, and team. Holberg continues, reminding Christians of our ultimate hope within the biggest story, using the last chapter to assess how we might train others to nurture nourishing narratives—learning from the text in the process.
Granted, some readers won’t agree with all of her narrative lenses, but that’s beside the point. The real power of Holberg’s book is its call to read well and read broadly so that, in all things, Christians might be more like our story-telling God. To avoid stagnation, to avoid distraction, to avoid “a skewed sense of virtue and an equally skewed sense of sin,” and to understand how our own stories fit within God’s overarching story, Christians must attune themselves to the narrative assumptions and expectations of this time in which we’re living. We must think critically about the stories we are told, and embrace more complex, human stories (even the complicated, confusing stories in the Bible). The goal: a heightened gaze towards the overlooked and struggling, and a desire to live out our part in God’s story of redemption by addressing the needs before us. Clearly, the call to engage critically with stories isn’t an easy task, but Holberg—an English professor with a “story-shaped” life—guides readers with grace, clarity, and wisdom.
Nathan Geeting has a B.A. in secondary education and a B.S. in biblical studies. He currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his lovely wife and red-headed poodle. You can find his book reviews here, at the Englewood Review of Books, and his "sobering" fiction can be read in Vita Poetica's journal.
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