Jennifer Holberg is a professor, chair of the English department, and the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. She has spent over 30 years teaching in college and community settings. In her newest book, Nourishing Narratives, Holberg writes about the power of story to shape our relationships to self, others, and God.
Spark: What inspired you to write Nourishing Narratives?
Holberg: It really grew out of my 30-plus years of teaching. I believe deeply in the significance and power of words—and in the theological imperative to use them carefully, graciously, truthfully, well.
In fact, I think one of the most compelling reasons that Christians should engage literature today is because stories have become the fundamental way our culture processes information. It’s a primary way for us to pay attention and call attention to what we believe is important.
Spark: What can readers expect to discover in its pages?
Holberg: Across its nine chapters, Nourishing Narratives invites readers to consider how both the conventions of narrative (that is, how stories are put together or how readerly expectations work) and the content of particular stories lead Christians to a deeper understanding of key theological concepts, including God’s plentitude, faithfulness, and providential care. At the same time, the book examines how story shapes our sense of our own responsibilities, such as our call to God’s work, our duties as friends, our obligation to speak truth and reconciliation, and our responses to challenges, including loss. Finally, it asks how we can use story to equip others to deal with their own narratives, good and bad. As the psalmist reminds us, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story,” for it is within stories that we see glimpses of the Author behind them all.
Spark: You write, “Every one of us is a storyteller and a story interpreter.” What do you mean by that?
Holberg: We are constantly narrating a story to ourselves, based on the other stories in our lives that come from outside of ourselves. The key is to have the interpretive tools to understand which of those narratives is nourishing and which is toxic. Thus, the book is not about what to read or consume, but rather how to read and why.
Spark: You also write that we are all “story-shaped people.” How do stories shape us?
Holberg: Stories are a key way for us to understand God’s work in our lives. After all, Jesus’ pedagogical method was story: “a man went on a journey, a woman lost a coin, the kingdom of heaven is like a….” But how often we act like the Bible is primarily a list of rules and regulations, instead of an astonishing true story about a God who loves humanity and wants to redeem it.
There’s an old book by English professor emeritus Henry Zylstra, Testament of Vision, that contains an assertion that I come back to again and again: literature, he says, should give us “more to be Christian with.” How, then, do the stories we tell, the stories we listen to, the stories we honor or reject—how do these make us more capacious in our faith, more gracious in our lives?
Spark: Nourishing Narratives explores the ways storytelling can constrain our lives or free us. Talk about that a little.
Holberg: We have a saying, “I can’t imagine.” And actually, that’s true. Often, we find ourselves stuck because we can’t imagine a way out of a situation or can’t imagine ourselves differently than what we’ve been told we are. Sometimes we tell ourselves pretty limiting stories about other people—and about God. But one of the consistent themes of the book is how to live into a world loved by a God who does “more than we can ask or imagine.” Ours is a big God who welcomes a plentitude of stories!
Spark: You share a lot of personal history in your book, yet Nourishing Narratives is not exactly a memoir. How do you hope readers will receive the stories you share with them?
Holberg: Ah, thanks for noticing! Yes, it’s definitely a hybrid genre. I wanted to use stories to explore the concept of story. Most importantly, I wanted the book to be very accessible, so I wanted to be in conversation with the reader. Since I’m hoping readers will be encouraged to think about their own lives, it made sense to be vulnerable enough to share from my own life. Still, it really isn’t all about me!