Monday, January 9, 2017

Different Kinds of "Narrative"

I mentioned in my last post that I was drawn back into Christianity by re-reading the Scriptures through the lens of early Friends (Quakers) and their way of seeing the Scripture story as a spiritual "narrative" that all who seek God pass through in some way. Their approach was never called "narrative theology" - that term apparently arose in the late 20th century as a kind of reaction to the theological liberalism that arose in the 19th century among Christian thinkers who sought to integrate their theological approach with the scientific thinking of that era. A thinker and theologian who was very influential in my own journey was Stanley Hauerwas. It is from him that I actually learned the term narrative theology. And I understood his approach to be that the scriptures set forth a story that people, over history, incorporated themselves into in some way. How you did that was personal, but it played a large role in shaping the lives of those who "bought into it" - who decided how they would live their lives by buying in to the story and modeling their lives after those who were part of that story.

This is certainly one way to approach the Scriptures narratively. But as I've studied the Scriptures more over the years, I've come to see things a little differently. I think it is a little off to ascribe the idea of a narrative approach to the Christian message to modern times. When I read the Scriptures, I am constantly reminded that all of the writers who contributed to the creation of the Scriptures were "narrative" theologians at some level. All of them were adding on to the contributions of earlier writers or editors, and they "added on" in ways that brilliantly interwove their ideas with the ideas and images of earlier writers. That is what is so miraculous about the text of the Bible - Old and New Testaments. This "book" - this compilation of oral traditions, myths, poetry, hymnology, history, critique - is not the work of one creative mind or pen. It is the creation of probably hundreds or thousands if we add in the editors, compilers and translators. They (It) is not the Word of God, but the words of those in close communion with God [and with each other] since the beginning. So how can it possibly be that the themes and images and metaphors and story lines weave together as if they came from one creative genius? I DON'T KNOW, but I am in awe before it as I am before the glories of nature when I open my eyes to them.

So, when I talk about "narrative theology," I am not really speaking of 20th century theologians, I am speaking of all those believers who brought the writings together and those who wrote them, like the writers of the gospels, the disciples and especially the writer of John's gospel - and, of course, the letters of Paul. They filled the gospels with allusions and direct references to the narrative they saw Jesus fulfilling. I am not sure - there is no way anyone can really know - if some of the story they told was historically true or just inserted to assert a theological truth they saw. Did Mary and Joseph really go to Egypt to escape a slaughter of infants they believed Herod was going to carry out? Or were they simply trying to link Jesus and Moses together in the narrative web. In Hosea 11 it is made clear that God's people -- and his "son" - would be called out of Egypt, and Deuteronomy 18:15 also contained words of prophecy: "Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself [Moses], from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen." The context of Jesus being threatened with death at the hands of a tyrant like Moses in his youth; and the bringing of the anticipated prophet out of Egypt, these are details that interweave Jesus' story with Moses' in a way that cannot be just happenstance. Did they happen historically? This I doubt. The two more "historically based" gospels - Matthew and Luke - do not agree on these details; but clearly the addition of these details helped readers to see who it was the gospel writer believed he was writing about.



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