Personal stories a can be compelling. Biographies and autobiographies of the famous usually sell well and TV chat shows where celebrity guests appear and share some of their own stories remain popular. We like to know what makes other people “tick” and if a story is interesting enough, it doesn’t even need to belong to a “celebrity.” Even people who may be thought of as quite ordinary often have some aspect that stirs interest. As a vicar I am often privileged to hear the most amazing stories about people you might not give a second glance of you passed them in the street.
In many of the evangelical churches I have been associated with over the years, personal testimony – the ability to share one’s faith story with others – has been highly valued. One doesn’t need to present a host of philosophical, scientific or theological answers to life’s big questions. Simply tell your own story – it’s difficult to argue with personal experience.
This works well in such churches – provided the story goes along predictable lines. By this I don’t mean that the stories and experiences are all clones of each other. I think it is fair to say, though, that the resolutions of such stories (partial though they may often be) tend to be within a range of “normal” for the evangelical communities in which they are told. They can be seen to “fit” the expected pattern.
The difficulties come with those stories that don’t fit the pattern. For example, the testimony of those women who sense a vocation to public ministry in churches where this is (still) not seen as valid. Or of someone who realises they experience attraction to members of their own sex. In many evangelical churches these stories don’t fit the accepted patterns of testimony. Common responses may be to ignore the stories altogether, or else to try to harmonise them with the norm by explaining away the bits that don’t fit.
Both of these responses, I would suggest, can be harmful in that they fail to take seriously the experience of those telling the story. This has been borne in on me recently by my reading of two books. The first of these is The Cross in the Closet by Timothy Kurek. Tim grew up as a middle-American conservative evangelical Christian, convinced that homosexuality was always wrong, that it was a “lifestyle choice.” However, after an encounter with a gay Christian campaigning group, he decided that the least he could do was to discover what it would be like to live within his local gay community. This is not the place to review the whole book. Suffice it to say, that after the initial culture shock, what Tim found surprised him and was far from the stereotypes that his own church upbringing had painted. The real story as he discovered it did not fit his church’s narrative.
The second book I read was Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate (published in the States as Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate) by Justin Lee. Justin comes across as someone who is conservative on his theology, yet finds that his own experience does not for well with his church’s theological expectations.
For me, the key challenge is to decide what to do with these stories. For many conservatives, the first response is to explain them away by reiterating the party line e.g. being gay is a “lifestyle choice”, “gayness can be prayed away” etc. But I think this does a great disservice both to people’s experience and to the Gospel. With our own testimonies we insist that others’ explaining away or trivialising our experience is not valid (especially when done by sceptical atheists), yet we do the same ourselves.
So I want to make a plea for evangelicals in particular, when someone shares their experience – and it make take courage for them to do so – let’s not dismiss that experience. Let’s not jump on with our prepared explanations. And let’s acknowledge that a person’s experience is their experience, not ours, and we should take it very seriously indeed for we tread on holy ground.