The Problem with Narrative Theology

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against narrative. I can definitely see the value of highlighting the narrative form as significant for theology. It is an essential corrective to theology that relies too heavily on proposition as its primary form and on biblical interpretation that attempts to extract such propositions and discard the story.

Narrative theology argues that the propositions in scripture serve its narrative – the dramatic story of God’s activity. The story is the interpretive framework for understanding the propositions and so all theology must be formed by referring back to this story. Christians, in turn, think of themselves as actors in the story. The most well-known, concise, and perhaps best-articulated version is that of N T Wright’s appeal to the five-act play. At bottom, this is an attempt to do justice to the nature of scripture, and the church’s relationship to it. I applaud this, as well as its attempt to do theology from within the creaturely perspective, instead of as if from nowhere.

But here is the problem: narrative theology, as with propositional theology, tends to reduce scripture and theology to a single form. While it acknowledges many other forms in scripture, these are all contained within the story-form. But it is not clear that the primary, grand form of scripture is story. Scripture arguably involves just as much instruction, prophecy, and poetry as narrative. This is not to say that these other forms of scripture can be interpreted independently of the narrative. But the same could be said for narrative as well. It cannot be properly interpreted without the other components.

For example, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are an oscillation between narrative form and other, more formal text like poetry and genealogy. Generally, the narrative components depict violence and disaster, while the more formal articulations represent God’s continued blessing and order amongst the chaos. This is a function of the form itself, not of information contained within the narrative. To get the full picture of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is to move between narrative and poetry. Narrative is not a master-form, but one form in an inter-dependent web.

Narrative is certainly indispensable, but this does not mean that it should be allowed to organize all other forms according to its structure. I can see at least two dangers of such an approach:

  1. Narrative can represent just as much an attempt to tame scripture as proposition. If we can fold everything into a single neat form, this makes us feel more in control. But this is precisely what ought to be resisted. The power of other forms, like poetry, is precisely their capacity to be a counter-voice, a disruption to any settled narrative or propositional system. Many of the voices in scripture don’t fit a particular narrative (think of Ecclesiastes) but this is precisely what enables them to confront and unsettle. Attempts to make all forms submit to a single narrative or even attempts to interpret all forms according to a single narrative may cause us to overlook large swaths of scripture that don’t fit the pattern or to twist parts of scripture to fit that pattern. Poetry must be allowed to tear at the fabric of narratives a little, to unsettle our certainties.
  2. The primarily linear approach to time implied by the narrative form is insufficient to  the human experience of reality. It is true that the narrative that N T Wright and others have identified shows how all acts of the drama are in fact involved in all the others, so that motions of recapitulation, memory, and expectation are part of the drama. Nevertheless, the nature of narrative as we now understand it is based in a modern idea of history, in which we are encouraged to see ourselves as moving forward and the events of the Old Testament, for example, however much they inform our movement, are past. Again, this is not in itself problematic. It is only worrisome if it becomes too dominant a way of thinking about scripture. Is this really enough to allow scripture to become alive for us? I worry that the historicism implied in narrative does not encourage us to confess with David, to be confronted by Jeremiah. These are merely past examples from an earlier point in the story. We see the same tendency in the Protestant fear of the veneration of saints. We have lost our capacity to be with the past. We prefer to castigate it from the present since we now know more of the story than they did. Narrative then becomes an opportunity for hubris.
  3. Contrary to appearances, narrative theology does not pay enough attention to form. The narrative-form is one that is farily intuitive and transparent for us moderns. Narrative directs our attention to content – to the events of what happened. To really focus on form is to attend not only to the events, the plot of a story, but to illuminate the significance and contribution of various forms. What does the narrative form itself give us? What does this do well, and where does it fail? What is the significance of the poetic form? The propositional form? And how should these various forms relate to one another? Too exclusive a focus on narrative ignores these questions about form more broadly.

Am I suggesting that narrative is unimportant? Not at all. I am suggesting that to really do theology from a creaturely perspective requires moving between different forms since the nature of temporality and of our encounter with God cannot be reduced to any one of them.

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