By Chris West
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing former CBF Moderator Dr. Keith Herron about his book Living A Narrative Life. What truly impressed me about Dr. Herron’s writing was his ability to relate to the reader, a gift that has so evidently come by way of thorough self-examination and time spent sitting with those in moments of crisis, transition, and suffering.
As I read through this book and completed the guided self-reflection exercises, I found myself constantly challenged to better claim my take hold of my story. Through this long form guided reflection, readers will feel challenged and better equipped to own the narrative of their lives and better make sense of their decisions; both the huge, life altering decisions and the small, seemingly insignificant choices.
Recently, my church was able to host Dr. Herron on our Speaking in Parables podcast on and he shared these words, “Luke is a narrative writer. He understands the nature of the story.” I realized in putting both my conversation with Dr. Herron and this message together that the hope of this project is that by participating in this book, readers will learn to sit not only with their own story but with how God shows up in that story and are able to better articulate when we see God in the small moments.
I am very excited that Dr. Herron’s work is the August 2022 selection for the CBF Book Club. You can learn more about how to read along with others and share in our community stories here: www.cbf.net/books
Hello there. I’m speaking today with Keith Herron, who lives in Kansas, and teaches and writes at the intersection of spirituality and psychology, about his new book, Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Stories. Keith, thanks so much for being on with us today.
Keith has a doctorate of pastoral counseling and psychotherapy and has worked in this field for many years now. And I’m excited to have you on to talk about your new book, Keith. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to write this?
Sure. I did the doctoral work because I figured out I wanted to do something in an area that had particularity to it. As a pastor, people come speak to you no matter what. Whether you know zip, they come and ask you things. And so I wanted to be able to talk to people particularly about those in-depth things that they bring and lay at my doorstep, wanting to know what I think about that. Or maybe even engage them in some level of counseling. I don’t do the in-depth stuff because, as a pastor, there are dual boundaries that I have to be aware of. And so when I recognize that someone needs some really good therapy, I begin to think about recommending them to go see a particular counselor or two, and then I try to help them get ready for therapy—the action of therapy, the reflection of therapy, I should say. So that’s my background. I am a working pastor. That’s been my life’s work.
I did retire, but I’ve stayed busy doing… In fact, yesterday I did my preaching gig at another church. I don’t know if I can say what it is. It’s First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. And I’m going to go there to be their intentional interim, which is a unique extension of the life of a pastor and the work of a pastor. I have a foot in two worlds, both the Cooperative Baptist and the United Church of Christ. I have taken my ordination over into the UCC and for about the last seven or eight years, I’ve been operating in the UCC world. But I still have connections with people and still have a place in the moderate Baptist world, the Alliance, the CBF, Baptist Peace Fellowship, those kinds of things. It’s sort of a rich playground that someone like me gets to play in because I have friends in all of those realms.
Nice. Well, we’re glad to have you in our realm and thank you for sharing some of your story with us. Your book, of course, is about the power of stories and how stories shape our lives and identities and decisions and things like that. What initially inspired you to write on this subject and to explore this?
Sure. About a decade ago, Steve Graham and I began holding narrative leadership workshops around different parts of the country, wherever we could pull together a group. Typically, it’s pastors or leaders of organizations, lots of connections, lots of friendships, but to bring people together to work in a narrative process. And I say that with sincerity, that out of the world of narrative psychology, there are some processes that really can be followed at almost any level you wish to engage them. But it’s an exploration into the particular stories. In this case, we were doing leadership and so my assumption with ministers is everybody’s a leader, whether you feel like one or not. You and I are talking on a Monday. On a Monday, I don’t particularly feel like a leader; but yesterday I was living into my leader side.
And in these workshops that Steve Graham and I would do, we would do explorations into how people become leaders. You don’t just flip a switch. The narrative process gave us some ways in which people could explore their earliest stories, their developmental stories, the processes that they went through to consider themselves as leaders. And then in the midst of all of those stories, we typically would pull off into the side lane and handle something called a problem-saturated story. That absolutely has particularity for ministers. It’s wonderful when it’s wonderful and it is holy hell when it is not wonderful as a leader. We would take an opportunity to do group experience in the narrative process of helping to listen to and to help someone explore their own story that is problem-laden, that is just filled with anxiety or angst or complications.
And that’s the dark side of ministry. They don’t really tell you anything about this until you actually get into the situation and then you see it happen. And you’re a part of it. You don’t know what to do. And you honestly don’t really know how to think in those occasions. So this narrative process with leaders and leadership as a topic was really a wonderful way to get started.
From there, I delved into a study of narrative psychology and really began to try and figure it out. It’s a fairly modern version of psychology. It’s a type of psychology that deals with the way in which people construct stories. I like to imagine that we are filled with stories from our toes all the way up to our heads. We’re totally filled with stories. You have story upon story upon story in you, and you give thought to most of them or some of them, and others just exist, waiting to be remembered. Some little thread will be pulled and suddenly you realize you’re in the midst of a story again. Aristotle talks about stories having a beginning, a middle and an end, that Aristotelian dramatic structure. And our brains translate experience into stories. And that’s the way in which we think about them and we categorize them. Your brain does all of this. It is hardwired to take the story and actually in the brain, it deconstructs the story into aspects. So maybe there’s a dog that gets into a dog category in your brain and maybe the sun is shining. I don’t know what it is; but the brain deconstructs and fragments the story, and then categorizes them that way apparently. And then we pull them back together again through memory.
I’m just assured that there are tons of stories that we have lost access to, but then all of a sudden when you don’t realize it, you’ve just pulled one up for some reason. So the brain helps us to figure out what our stories are. And then from there, it is the try to explore what the meaning of a story is. What does it mean? Memory doesn’t do an absolute recall. You have a version of your story. If there are other people in your story, they’ll have a version too. And it may be radically different from yours. Your recall can be quite different from someone else’s.
I was at a high school reunion this summer, and one of the guys came up to me and we were in college together. We were students together in the university and we had taken a car ride home. And it was the approach of winter. There was sleet and snow everywhere, and it was freezing. And we came upon a car wreck, two big Cadillacs in the middle of the road, one in the ditch. And he started recalling this. And I said, “I know that story. I was in the car.” He had thought my older brother was in there. I was in the story. I remember being there. I don’t remember him being there. It’s just the weird configuration of two memories about the same event that was so startling. I’ve never forgotten just the horror of it. And 10 people were dead and mangled. And that’s just a simple illustration about the fact that my memory is not rock solid. My memory has ways in which I’ve retold the story in different ways and adapted it. And so the experience itself is quite amazing.
Yeah, there’s a line in the book that I really love, around page 44, that you say, “Our minds create memory from our experience and also go so far as to construct those memories into narratives we use to justify our self-stories. Thus, our brains weave these memories into a plot to drive the self-story forward.” I don’t think I’ve ever thought of stories that way or our memories that way. There are tools for constructing and weaving these stories forward. I think at another point you say we’re all painting stories on our cave walls. I love that image of constructing narratives.
In writing this book, you didn’t just write it as a psychological study or something like that. It seemed very much for people like myself who don’t have a lot of background in psychology or psychotherapy or narrative analysis or anything like that. And you included journal sections in it for folks to actually take time to stop, reflect and to think deeply. What went into writing it with that format in mind?
Twenty-five years ago, in my first church to be the pastor, the preaching pastor, I noticed the old habit that the minister would go the back door and then people would file by and they’d have to say something to you. What I noticed was if I told a story, maybe a personal story in my sermon as illustration, someone would come up and say, “When you told that story, it made me think about this.” Then they would tell me their story. And it made me realize that that’s the nature of stories and narratives. If I tell a piece of my story and it’s captivating enough, maybe if it’s universal enough, you’re going to think of your experience that’s maybe similar, or it brings it to mind for you. We get into this thing, and the joke in the book is that if I tell my story right, you’ll interrupt me to tell me your story. And I like that, the wistfulness that people have to be able to explore their lives and explore their experience and then to share them.
It did seem like this was incredibly communal. I think when I picture story, I started reading the book, The Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Stories, I was like, oh, this is going to be all about me; but it really wasn’t. It was largely about community and the people around me and the way I’ve been formed by others and by places and people, and by stories. Did you picture this being a communal exercise? Or how does this help us live better into community?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s that. It can be read and experienced individually. If you were on a desert island, you could recall stories and it might be healthy to do so; but you could do this with two. Let’s say you have a really great friendship with someone and you two get together and you do like to talk, and maybe this is a way to organize some of your time together. You could do it in a small group, a narrative group, a book club. One guy talked to me a week ago or so about maybe doing this in his Sunday school class. The ability to explore, perhaps to recognize that our own stories run on a parallel track with the narratives even in scripture. I think about that in preaching. I think about the story that’s involved and I try to find `the universal aspect of it, and to explore that, not in a declarative way, but in the form of curious questions or trying to understand how the story operates. So this can be done in multiple settings, depending on what you have available.
The communal aspect, I love. I just think it’s important that we do this kind of conversation with one another. Now the book is built on that possibility. So at the end of each essay, I provide questions that a group can go through and work on together. The book makes a shift after about a third of the way into it, and it begins to follow the Arc of Life. Essentially, what I’ve done is taken Erik Erikson’s Arc of Life, his stages of life. I’ve looked at others as well.
Now, Erikson’s very Freudian, and so there are the three stages in your first year of life—genital, oral and anal. Well, there are no stories that come out of that. You have no experience with that. Then, I adapted Donald Miller’s approach that was didactic. Childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle adults, and older adults. And that’s been my approach. When John Claypool was the pastor of Broadway in Fort Worth, he and his staff conspired to use the Erikson Arc of Life for a season-long approach of exploring the stages of life. And so the sermons that came out of that, to me, were deeply moving and formative. One, I love Claypool. I think he was an absolutely brilliant pastor and preacher and thinker. But he’s also the first one that I saw that took the Arc of Life and adapted it for congregational thinking for conversation.
After that, I break down each one of the five stages and I do some things with them to explore what the story life at that stage might be like. Childhood, adolescence, et cetera. And then finally, there are two extra essays. One is on prologue stories at the beginning. And then at the end, after the five stages, I do a section called the epilogue stories. The prologue stories are all about the way in which it was implied that you were there. These are the stories that you accept at your birth. They’re family stories. They might be community. They might be neighborhood stories; but your life doesn’t just begin on the day that you’re born. Your life is actually being formed through all of those relationships that happened before your birth.
Then you step onto the stage and you assume your place. It’s like the family has been waiting for you. And of course, you’ve been nine months in the womb. So there’s some knowledge that you’re coming, but you step into their stories. This is a communal act as well, that your family has stories. I tell a story in my book about the day that my father was walking down the street. No, my mother was walking down the street. My father was up on his mother’s roof, fixing some loose shingles. And my mother lived across the street from him. That was their first recall of ever seeing one another. I’m just really fascinated by that one. There’s the implication of three lives, my two brothers and myself. We’re all implied in that meeting. And so I love the extension of that.
On the back end, you don’t just disappear when you die. There are epilogues stories. These are the stories about you that you’re in that continue to have a vibrant life. They continue to exist. You have some sense of being operative in the lives of others. Now that has a limited timeframe to it. And I’m thinking of generations, unless you are an extraordinary human being. And you’ve done something to deserve remembering. Typically, people disappear after about three generations. There’s just not much evidence about you unless someone goes looking.
I thought that the prologue story, was really powerful, that section, and you deal with things like lament and forgiveness and reconciliation and death stories. And those things are not things we commonly talk about so I wanted to leave the reader with ideas about who should read this book. And what’s your hope for those that read this book? What do you hope they accomplish through reading it?
From a conversation you and I had earlier, before we started recording, you mentioned you were intrigued with it. I think there is a stage in life where the importance of stories increases. When I was 22, I was living an experience and wasn’t doing much reflection and I didn’t have context. I was grappling with whatever was left over from adolescence. And I was thinking about my future, who would I marry? What would I do? What would the future be and look like? And so it wasn’t very thoughtful. It wasn’t very reflective. But when you get in your mid-30s or so, you become curious as a kitten about some stories. It may not hit you like a tsunami, but you become more aware of the way in which the events of your life are packed into memory and they’re more definitive. They define who you are and what you’re about, which is a characteristic of narratives. That it is a way of expressing who you are, but you want to go on an exploration. You hit your 40s and 50s and, oh my gosh, everybody wants to talk about something that has happened. But that’s that curiosity about understanding. It’s all about exploration and the aptitude for that, I think is a middle-age thing. I think that’s a stage in which that becomes abundantly more clear. Clearer, my English teacher would say.
Well, thank you so much for being on and thank you for writing this book, Living a Narrative Life: The Essays on Power of Stories. It’s an incredible work and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. And like I told you before, I think I’m going to go back through it again and do some more reflection with it myself. And thank you for being on and talking to us today and sharing your story.
Thanks, Chris. I enjoyed it.
Download the free discussion guide for Living a Narrative Life and learn more about the 2022-2023 CBF Book Club at www.cbf.net/books.