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.
Marketplace Ministries, based in Plano, Texas, is the nation’s largest provider of workplace chaplains, a growing service industry. It has an annual budget of $14 million and sends thousands of chaplains into workplaces around the world. Although almost all workplace chaplains are Christian, their job is not to proselytize, and they relate to employees of any or no faith. Their job is more to listen than to speak. Company executives are discovering that productivity goes up when stress goes down (NPR, December 11).