November 26, 2020

David Cornwell: I Love to Tell the Story


Leaves against the Sky, by David Cornwell

Note from CM: I’m thrilled to have our regular commenter and resident sage David Cornwell contributing today. Dave, with his experience, insight, and encouraging manner, adds depth to our discussions on a regular basis. He also takes amazing photographs, samples of which you can see here. Enjoy more at his Flickr page.

* * *

Uncle John would come visit us when we were growing up. He was my father’s uncle, thus being my great uncle. He was from out of town, and only came now and then, and in the summer. It was always a treat for us, because he was different. This was in the 1950’s, and he had an old bus of an even earlier date, that he had converted into a traveling home. He was an amateur photographer, had a large collection of cameras, and a darkroom in the bus. He would go to Florida for part of the year, or wherever else he might want to go. I think he had a “normal” home somewhere also,  but  I was never sure of its location.

When he would visit we would all stay up late, into the dark of  night and talk. Uncle John, my father, and us four boys would go into the front yard. There we would sit on the glider on the porch, the stairs, and the big swing under the Catalpa tree. Then we would talk. Or rather Uncle John and my father would talk. And they would tell stories about the people they knew, some from  years ago. Most of them were family, or those who touched the family one way or another. And my brothers and I would listen.

My mother’s side of the family would visit also. And we would hear news of births, deaths, troubles, and whatever else was new.  So it was a world of uncles and aunts and cousins, talk and fun. This was family life back then. The story became part of us and thus we became part of the story.

Being a Christian is not about following a particular brand of theology, being a member of a certain denomination, or a local church. Often we have turned it into arguments about all these things, and in so doing are missing the real point. Rather being a Christian is about being part of a story, the most important story, and the only entirely truthful story ever told. And if we are not part of it, then it calls out to us to become a part.

Paul J. Wadell, Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Norbert College writes in Christology and the Christian Life that  “a fitting way to understand the Christian life in light of Christ is to see it as being initiated into, and remaining faithful to, the story of God that is Jesus.” He goes on to point out that we as fledgling Christians become part of that story at baptism.

Of course this story’s beginning is not one we write as we step into it, for its first chapters are what we find in biblical accounts. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon point out in Resident Aliens the bible is, at its most basic, the “story of a people’s journey with God.”

The story had its beginning with ancient Israel, who would learn it mostly by heart, and then come together for the retelling. And in the telling “Israel comes to see itself as a people on a journey, and adventure.”

And thus we begin to see that “story is the fundamental means of talking about and listening to God, the only human means available to us that is complex and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to live with God.”


Fall on a Cloudy Day, by David Cornwell

Early Christians did not begin telling about being a follower of Christ in the manner of creeds or logical propositions, but simply by telling stories about Jesus. And in so doing they began to shape their lives like his life. They, were, quite literally, following Jesus. Wadell states it like this:

“To become a Christian is to find one’s place in the story of Jesus and to carry it forward. It is to become part of a community that has been entrusted with that story…. That’s why Christians can fittingly be described as storytellers who narrate the story of Jesus through their lives.”

Incorporated into that story we begin to discover what it means to be virtuous persons, shaped through new habits and practices of heart and life. Being “in the story” means life “in Christ.” A great reversal is happening, everything is part of a “new creation.” From now on a virtue becomes something that orients our lives toward God. And thus the foundation for a true Christian ethic is born (another subject).

N. T. Wright in After You Believe, speaking of these virtues, sees them as both something we as humans do, and something God does for us. He says “Christian virtue, including the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit, is both the gift of God and the result of the person of faith making conscious decisions to cultivate this way of life and these habits of heart and mind.”

As with many stories, and especially this one because of its nature, a retelling is called for. Thus through our lives we become the storytellers who once again narrate the story of Jesus. This retelling, or reenactment very significantly, happens in church. We hear it again and again, but we also reenact it through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

In my own life I have never been able to separate the story from church. In the times when I have separated myself from the church, I became a lost character in the story, and a person in danger of having no story.

I can still remember my earliest Sunday School teachers telling the old bible stories illustrated in little pamphlets that all the children received. As important as the stories, was the character of my teachers who embodied the virtuous life. They themselves, in their persons,  were once again acting out the story.

From the fourth grade on up until I was a junior in college we attended a small town Methodist Church. Many times on Sunday our first hymn was “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty.” This was not only a hymn of praise, but one from which the basic catechus was taught and became part of me. And not only this but most Sundays also sang “Glory be to the Father….”

Of another part of our worship, the Apostle’s Creed, Hauerwas, in The Gesture of a Truthful Story, says of the Creed that it “is not simply a statement of faith that can stand independent of the context in which we affirm it. We must learn to say in the context of worship if we are to understand how it works to rule our belief and school our faith. The Creed is not some deposit or sum of the story; rather it is a series of reminders about how best to tell the story that we find enacted through the entire liturgy.” And he continues, “ baptism and the Eucharist stand as crucial gestures that are meant to shape us rightly to hear as well as enact the story.”

As Christians we are a people with a story that began with the heroes of faith as recounted by the writer of Hebrews. Jesus is called “the author and finisher of our faith.”  For us the story begins at baptism and, continues through a life of participation and growth into the life of Christ, and loving service to our neighbors. As Wadell so ably states “to give to others the life, mercy, goodness, love, peace and joy we have received is the heart of the Christian life.”

And because we trust in the “finisher of our faith,” the promise of his cross, and  hope of resurrection, we also have knowledge of the ending plot the resolution.  However even then, when we tend to view the ending with the finality of death, it is in reality a new chapter still veiled in mystery which awaits its revelation.

Maybe the title should be something a little different, such as “I Love Being in the Story.”


  1. Stunning photography! Thank you for sharing.

    • David Cornwell says

      Thank you Christiane. I have always loved taking photographs. In fact Uncle John, who I refer to above helped kindle my interest. He took me into his bus, showed me some of his old cameras and his tiny darkroom. I was fascinated. And from that point on started taking pictures.

  2. Great thoughts on how our “family” hangs together. It also explains many of the variations of emphasis and detail that different Christian faith expressions manifest…..

    “It was a Thursday”…..”NO, I am certain it was a TUESDAY and that there were 9 sheep and 7 goats, not 7 sheep and 9 goats…” The sort of disagreement over details that happens as stories are retold, and presented by different family members who were all there but noticed different things! The central story is what is important, and Uncle Melvin and Great-Aunt Mabel will argue every Thanksgiving over whether it was Tuesday or Thursday….not that it matters, what matters is what actually happened to the family tree that day!!

  3. Wonderful thoughts for today. The biggest struggle in the modern world is staying connected to those around us and to those who have one before. My biggest challeng is having a connection to those around me.

    • David Cornwell says

      In this ‘time called modern” there are huge tendencies to disconnection, which makes more and more difficult. And this in spite of Facebook.

  4. David Cornwell says

    “Great thoughts on how our “family” hangs together. It also explains many of the variations of emphasis and detail that different Christian faith expressions manifest…..”

    Exactly. And narrative structure may help to explain the final selection of the biblical canon by the Church. Luke Timothy Johnson, in “The Real Jesus” talks about the fact that narrative structure inevitably involves materiality. Writings that did not include such materiality, such as the Gnostic gospels were always rejected.

    He says:
    “Narrativity…inevitably involves materiality. To have the good news revealed in a human story represents an affirmation of the body and of time, which are intrinsically attached to materiality. No matter how diverse in detail… the narrative Gospels implicitly assert the compatibility of the material and spiritual orders, and therefore that God could work for salvation within the material world.”

    So, even though the detail ends up being of a diverse nature, the story gets the point across.

  5. Beautiful, David! Thanks.

  6. David
    What would you have to say about the connections between storytelling and family in respect to being a Christian to those of us who have come out of broken and dysfunctional families; those for whom the stories we heard were imprisoning lies and manipulations that we had to escape; who as a result of all this are both very suspicious and wary of the family and its mythologies as an analogy for the church and its faith, and very cautious in trusting ourselves to any relational network and its binding claims, including the church?

    • David Cornwell says

      I see what you mean. I didn’t really intend for my family to be an example of a story that was in any way a perfect comparison to the Christian story. We had our share of dysfunction also, but not to the extent you are describing. I just meant for my family to be an example of “story.” I have some very sad memories of home and of some of the things that went on. I will say that in retrospect my memories are good ones however.

      What I really meant to get across, and probably not all that well, is that using “story” as a category (not sure that’s the right word) is one of the best ways of understanding our journey with God. It comes to us, in its most basic form, as story. And contained in that story are all forms of brokenness, lies, and manipulations. Thus satan, the master manipulator, lier, distortionist, etc.

      What we do in church is a retelling and reenactment of that story through worship and liturgy. And after baptism that this continues to transform us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

      Hmm, I have the feeling I still am not getting my point across that well. But I think the malfunctions in all our families become part of this story.

      I do know that after I left the Methodist ministry I had a dark period during which I felt a lot of betrayal, depression, and agnosticism. I quit attending church and couldn’t pray. I really can’t totally explain what brought me back from that, except to say it was the work of God. I do know that I began to feel that I was outside the story during that period. Sometimes I still have the same “feelings” but they can’t be considered trustworthy for their description of reality.

    • David Cornwell says

      I can’t get this out of my mind, so have been thinking about this:

      “those of us who have come out of broken and dysfunctional families; those for whom the stories we heard were imprisoning lies and manipulations that we had to escape; ”

      We have to let this into the Story as well, because this is what the cross is all about. All the broken parts we have, our families, our bodies, the abuse, the lies we have been told, and the lies we have told, the tears, and the staying awake.

      By His stripes we are healed.

      • Yes, by his stripes we are healed.

        Everything can go into the Story, I do know that and agree. The narration through which we receive the gospel is truer than facts, although facts have their place. I have read some Hauerwas, and much of what he has to say is compelling.

        But there is also a non-narrative reality to the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about facts or logical propositions; all those have their place but break on the cross of Jesus, because the cross is truer and more substantial than they are.

        I mean that there is an immediacy in Jesus’ cross that breaks into the heart and soul like the sharp real as rock metaphor of a surrealistic poem, and that for some of us, this bracing non-narrative dimension of the cross is the way that Jesus reveals himself to us makes a point of entry for the Story to move through.

        And even when, as we learned to do with our false familial stories, we find ourselves almost involuntarily seeing through elements of the narrative that the gospel comes to us in, we may still find ourselves confronted by the Crucified One in the stark, sweet image of his suffering love, wordless, broken, powerful, complete.

        And then an amazing thing happens: we may begin to see his resurrection in the depths of his cross, and with this seeing we may begin to hear the old Story in a new way as if for the first time.

        And hearing this Story as if for the first time, we may begin to believe.

        • David Cornwell says

          Yes, I love the way you put it. The cross is there regardless of narrative and stands in judgement of the narrative itself. And so if the cross isn’t present the narrative is a false one.

          You’ve given me a lot to think about here.

  7. Brianthedad says

    Thanks to David Cornwell and to internet monk for getting him on the writer rotation. David, your writing is irenic and thoughtful and good for us to hear. Your comments on other’s writing is insightful and useful and wise. Thanks again, and, oh yeah, by the way, great photographs!

  8. The importance of story, as you well expressed it, is why I have recently started a blog to tell our family stories, or re-tell that which has shaped my family, as well as my faith stories which hopefully will help others on the way. Shared experiences, when told and re-told develop meaning that is stronger than the original events. We are at once the actors and spectators of an ongoing drama. Thank you for this thoughtful look at the story in which we believers all have a part.

    • David Cornwell says

      “We are at once the actors and spectators of an ongoing drama. Thank you for this thoughtful look at the story in which we believers all have a part.”

      Hauerwas in a sermon called “Witness,” preached at Duke Divinity School, says this, speaking of the gospel story of Jesus:

      “…it is a story known only because it has been told and retold through witnesses across time and space. These witnesses, moreover, actually become part of the story such that teller and the tale become one.

      “Indeed the witnesses become so much a part of the story that the retelling must incorporate an account of their lives if the story is to be truthfully told.”

      So, keep on doing what you are doing. And blessings with your blog work. Tell the truth!