When A History of God hit the New York Times bestseller list, Karen Armstrong suddenly became the go-to commentator on religion. Bill Moyers calls her “one of the foremost, and most original, thinkers on religion in our modern world.” Why is she so widely read? The answer is not immediately clear. Her prose is often maddeningly dense and her points elusive. Her drive to comprehend religion leads her to be constantly comparing elements of different religious traditions, but the connections she draws are not always illuminating.
Several years ago, my daughter, who is a Methodist pastor, received an appointment to a small charge in North Carolina’s tobacco country. One day a parishioner informed her that Francis Asbury had preached at a camp meeting at a nearby lake.
When a lawyer asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer, and the lawyer answers, citing scripture (Deuteronomy and Leviticus). The lawyer circles around one more time, this time asking a question with a history of interpretation: who is one’s neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.
The challenge of telling other people’s stories is an occupational hazard for journalists, historians, memoirists, conflict mediators and even preachers. Getting the facts accurate is only part of the challenge. Storytellers have to grapple with the most effective way to tell the story and what perspective to take or interpretive remarks to include.
While out of town on a recent Sunday morning I found my way to a
Lutheran church for worship. After the sermon, when it was time to say
the Apostle’s Creed, the pastor began with a question: “Who are you
people? A secular world, jaded and weary, wonders why you are gathered
Josephine Finda Sellu, a nurse supervisor, is on the front line of the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. She lost 15 of her nurses in rapid succession. As other workers left the hospital, her family begged her to quit her job. Some of her colleagues have been abandoned by their families due to fear of the disease. Usually a tower of strength, Sellu cries when she talks about the nurses she’s lost to the disease. She sometimes wishes she had become a secretary instead, but she sees her job as a healer as a calling from God (New York Times, August 23).