I recently attended the Catherwood lecture hosted by Contemporary Christianity and with around 130  others enjoyed and benefitted from David Porter’s beautifully crafted address. Alongside the mainstream, my mind was drawn to a back eddy of musing on the number of times the word ‘story’ was used and how this seems to have become a preferred metaphor in Christian circles. This had echoes for me of a workshop I attended two weeks previously at the wonderfully encouraging Down and Connor Diocesan ‘Living Church’ Congress in the Waterfront Hall, when I heard in one of the workshops how “the story”, had to become my story and then our story. Perhaps this is a shorthand for learning about the Gospel, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, understanding and appropriating the saving work of Jesus, thus becoming part of the church invisible with the privilege and duty of promoting the Kingdom of God on earth.

As in most other things metaphors have trends. For a number of years now I have been feeling a little mentally exhausted by always being on a journey (formerly thinking I was in a process of sanctification), but now perhaps I am beginning to recover through the somewhat less kinetic being in a story. Apart from the tiresome repetition the more substantive issue is what do we gain and what do we lose? what do we and others understand, or subconsciously intuit, through the metaphors we choose? I am closely associated with the Systemic approach to psychotherapy, which has a strong narrative stream in which story is a dominant construct. A therapist thanking a client for telling their story was interrupted by the client who impressed on the therapist that, “It is not a ****ing story, it’s true!”

This takes us potentially to the thorny related issues of a post-modern view in which no ultimate truths or meta-narratives are permitted (there are only situated stories) and a social constructionist view which holds that reality is created through our ‘languaging’ together. If we speak and act from various positions we occupy/negotiate within a shifting relational web, and it is (only) within these contexts that what we do and say has meaning, then a greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit could be helpful to coherence. As I think of it, a relational triune God communicates with me in my culture and time, mediating my reading and hearing of the biblical text through the activity of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit enlivens my mind through other people and experiences, and all of these elements guide me to serve God in particular ways. If this way of thinking takes greater hold in the Christian community then  I might predict ‘position’, ‘situatedness’ and ‘relational context’ to be our next (emergent) metaphors, which  each in their turn, may be flogged to death!

Don’t misunderstand me, metaphors are powerful means of communication, combining digital and analogic elements. Jesus was surely a master of the form and he clearly attuned his choice of metaphor to his audience. So to follow his example, we too will seek to use metaphors relevant to a changing culture; but my appeal is to not be like children playing football – all rushing together to contest maximum usage of the latest (trendy) metaphor. For the sake of discipline and rigour I, for one, would like to see a conference in which participants were banned from using the words story and journey just to make sure we have not lost the ability to articulate in alternative language – any takers?.

Anyway, my wife has arrived home so for now I must go and share the story of my day to enhance our lived experience as we journey together  (and to think we just used to talk) …… is it just me?

Stephen Coulter

Dr. Stephen Coulter is  Director of Systemic Psychotherapy training at Queens University Belfast and a member of Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church in Ballyhackamore.