More than Story?

Leslie Leyland Fields, at CT, has an article that pushes back against reading the Bible as Story — the title is “The Gospel is more than a Story”. She knows the importance of narrative but wonders aloud if our narrative age has led to the Bible as narrative. She pokes against a number of bad examples of narrowed stories, but includes Chris Wright’s brilliant book on the Bible’s missional story … she sees the turn to narrative to be about a modern world that is rejecting the one grand narrative … she then says we have get back to the Bible’s major story, which now seems to mean the gospel is a story and she suggests instead of “narrative theology” we need to see the Bible as an anthology and embrace “literary theology” and the conclusion, which is the last clip below, created for me a false dichotomy (story vs. Christ [and, yes, I agree that it has to be the Person] but if “Christ” as a title doesn’t imply a story I don’t know what does). And the title made me hope that she was going to talk about the gospel, but the article is really not about gospel but reading the whole Bible. But what do you think?

I am halfway through a new version of the Bible, a much-hyped story version that’s streamlined to highlight the overall plot: God’s story of redemption. I’m so busy trying to follow the narrative, I hardly miss the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and all the non-narrative books that have been largely excised. But as a university teacher of narrative, I find the plot too slow and convoluted.

I’m disappointed until I remember: Oh yes! There are already novelized versions! Many of their narratives are better!

Just 18 years ago, Robert Weathers noted that most evangelicals were “baffled” by the growing literary interest in the Bible. The bafflement is over. Journals are abuzz with narrative theology. Church mission statements are increasingly presented as “narratives.”

In the past ten years, especially in the past five, dozens of authors have called for readers to see the Scriptures as narrative and particularly to read the Bible as a single story. Their books include The StoryThe Heart of the StoryThe Bible in Brief: The Story from Adam to ArmageddonThe True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical DramaThe Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, and many others. A growing number of pastors and theologians attack doctrinal and propositional readings of Scripture. Derek Flood, in his 2011 Huffington Post article “Why Faith Is a Story, Not Doctrine,” sums up for many the new slant on Christianity: “Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God’s grace become our story and shape our lives.”

How have we traveled so far and so fast into narrative, from bafflement to bestsellers, to urgent call, and to replacing doctrine? What’s behind the sudden and unprecedented swoon into narrative? And, most important: Will the church survive it?…

But the evangelical church’s discovery of narrative has a more direct and immediate source: our narrative age. Our culture is saturated with “the power of story.”… And why not? In the broadest terms, narrative—specifically personal narrative, “this-is-my-story” that is its prime expression—restores the value of the personal in the face of impersonal science and technology, as well as the gods of our age, which privilege reason and fact over the personal and experiential. Narrative is quintessentially democratic. It insists that everyone has a story and that all are valued….

Yet the rise of narrative in our culture and our churches, for all its good, has a dark understory.

At the risk of oversimplifying what is both familiar and hopelessly complex, here’s a thumbnail: Our culture’s love affair with story corresponds to its dismissal of the One Story. Western society has rejected both the God of the Scriptures and his master narrative. In the absence of a universal storyline, we must make one up. No, we must make many up, because no single story can contain all that is real and true for all people, or so it’s believed. Language and narrative now are used not to discover meaning imbedded in creation by an omnipotent Creator. Instead, they are used to create personal and subjective meanings in the face of non-meaning….

Despite what I hope are good intentions, some of the one-story Bibles are in danger of committing the same reductionistic error mentioned above. Using Peter Leithart’s metaphor, many of these story versions treat the language of Scripture as simply a “husk” that can be disposed of to access the “kernel” of meaning. Whether the kernel is a point of theology, a poetic image of God, or an event that does indeed advance the narrative, the language and figures of speech God inspired appear to be dispensable. In his brilliant book Deep Exegesis, Leithart warns that “Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency.”

Somehow, in pursuit of the larger story, we’ve empowered ourselves to reorganize, distill, edit, and rewrite the actual Scriptures. We have failed to recognize that each of these activities not only interprets but also reduces Scripture.

In pursuit of Story, we’ve abridged the Bible. We’ve edited out the non-narrative parts. We’ve reworded the text. We in the church have been committing such acts of revision comfortably for some time. And for postmodern churches and pastors who are calling for a “new kind of Christianity,” this is not enough. Some high-profile pastors are forming a Christianity defined purely by Story. “Story” is a near-exclusive category that rejects traditional formulations of the Christian faith: apologetics, doctrine, systematic theology, propositional truths. The Christian faith is first, last, and always a story. And we’ve not been telling the story right, say Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and other leaders in the emergent church. All are looking to tell a “better story” than the one they accuse evangelicals of telling….

We must return to these stories and events to remember not just the Bible stories, but the story that contains them all—the One Story of God’s incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name. Here in its pages appear fierce and unlikely heroes, terrifying battles, pilloried prophets, resistant saints, miraculous healings, a foot-washing King, a bloodied God on a cross, a hollow tomb, the final wrath and glory judgment, and a denouement that ends more miraculously than anything we could imagine: the coming of a new city with open gates and a purified people now called sons and daughters who, needing no other light, will enter and walk by the light of the Lamb….

When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures’ narrative unity to resist our culture’s counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story….

For reasons we will likely never know, God, who could have placed in our hands any kind of book he wanted, chose to give us a plurivocal, polyphonic, multilinear anthology, a magnificently irreducible book that contains as many rhetorical forms and voices as we have temperaments and experience. God knew—of course!—that we need them all. It’s time, then, to replace the term “narrative theology” with “literary theology” to include all the literary genres God chose to speak through….

Finally, following the concern of Edith Humphrey, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: All of us must examine ourselves, that our human love for God’s story does not obscure the God of the Story, that our love for the written word does not displace our love for the Word of God himself. We can be so distracted and dazzled by narrative theology that we neglect the living, indwelling presence within and beyond the story. “We don’t participate in a story,” she writes, “we participate in him.”

It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • nathan

    I can see how this would be a problem for a stream of Christianity that is woefully ignorant of the story of the Church. The history of the Church (post-Acts to present Day) is important to flesh out and balance her concerns. It will show how part of our story is the formulation of doctrines too.

    Furthermore, doesn’t her concerns reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of narrative theology as “a method”. Does narrative theology really demand or result in the obliteration of sound doctrine, or is it a method that seeks to illuminate those doctrines as more than an abstracted data set to which we give assent?

  • nathan

    “the One Story of God’s incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name.”

    Isn’t this precisely what Scot, Wright, and others write about?
    I’m baffled…what’s the problem here?

  • SCP

    Speaking of Acts, it seems to me that is precisely what Luke was doing as a historian/theologian. He was telling a story which in and of itself is full of doctrine. I do agree with her that we must allow the doctrine within to guide the story, but it seems to me that the best way to “embrace literary theology” is to do so from a bird’s-eye-view which looks down upon the entire story as a whole.

  • Ben

    I don’t really understand who she is writing for.

    In a lot of ways she seems to be saying the same thing as “emergent” or “narrative” writers but using stand alone quotes from popular authors (writing to the mainstream) to try to create an alternative way of saying the same thing as they and others like them.

    She seems to be accusing narrative of being overly simple by offering a very simplified version of it and then presenting a more truthful version of it as something else, “literary theology”.

    Maybe I’m just struggling to find out who she’s trying to talk to.

  • Marshall

    This is confused. Is the problem that the narrative approach is excessively polyphonic … “everyone has a story” …. or is it that that one-story (lower case) Bibles are reductionist … or is it that they choose the wrong “One Story” (upper case).

    Personally I think pervasive pluralism is a good thing, and we should stretch our minds to fit the text, not the other way around.

  • Paul

    There will always be good and bad means of using “gospel as story” to communicate the truth of God. I felt she critiqued some poor examples of gospel as story, and thus created a little bit of a strawman. I agree with her that the examples she critiqued (in her article) are really poorly constructed, but they also don’t seem to communicate the depth of gospel as story either.

  • Rick

    Nathan-

    I may have overlooked it, but I don’t think she is calling out Scot, Wright, others. Nor is she against story. She is more concerned with everything being limited to just story.

    As she wrote:
    “How have believers failed to grasp and articulate the overarching story of Scripture, God’s redemptive plan from Eden to the New Jerusalem?… But narrative—even a larger literary approach—cannot right all ills. It’s past time to identify what narrative cannot and should not do.”

    I think she brings up a good point.

  • D. Foster

    I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t see one grand narrative in the OT. I think the OT has multiple narratives that evolve through the Intertestamental period until Jesus, who refines/creates a narrative that is more fixed and clear from the Christians onward.

    Is this anyone else’s impression?

    –Derek

  • Kristin

    There is a big difference between using narrative as an overarching paradigm for reading and understanding the whole of scripture, vs simply abridging or paraphrasing the scriptures into a narrative literary format. I think this is a good critique of the latter but really has little to do with the former.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Kristen, if that is the distinction then I am onboard. But do others agree?

  • scotmcknight

    Kristin, isn’t the article’s proposal the former?

  • Rob

    I have the same response to this as I did to Piper’s comment about God vs. theology. Both seem to be making distinctions with very little difference (or at least extremely nuanced). Ok, I get it, Christ is the point not “his story” (Fields) and God is the point not “theology” (Piper). Of course in the extreme these distinctions do make a difference (in cases of really bizarre stories and/or theology), but for most of us aren’t story and theology the necessary way(s) we “participate” in and “think about” God/Christ. Am I being to picky? Or am I missing something?

    It sounds like Fields is pushing against the use of Scripture as the sole source of revelation, and relying more on the Holy Spirit in community? Did I read her right? If so, I don’t disagree, but this is sure to make many very nervous.

  • Chris

    Her article seems reductionist at best. To use a simple metaphor, it is as if she is looking at the worst players of baseball and using them to critique the whole of the sport. And now I’m being reductionist.

  • Steve Sherwood

    I would tend to agree with Chris #13. It seems to me that her beef is with these abridged story Bibles and the theology of Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and “The Shack” and she expresses this by blaming everything she takes issue with upon narrative or narrative theology. I would agree with her that in looking for “the story of scripture” we run the risk of just finding “our story mirrored back to us.” But, doesn’t every generation run that same risk, and often fail to recognize that? Whether it be affirmation of Empire, or Enlightenment rationality hasn’t every era of history looked at the Bible and tended to find, “What do you know, it looks like us?” The article seems to suggest this is unique to people who like “The Shack.”

  • nathan

    @Rick,

    yeah, I don’t think she’s calling anyone out.

    It’s like she’s saying ‘WE NEED TO DO THIS! We need to talk about the Gospel this way….’
    And I’m sitting here looking at things and saying, “It’s already being done. Why the article? Why the handwringing concern? Where’s the fire?”

    Maybe I’m just not getting her point. It seems I’m not alone when it comes to wondering who she is writing to and what problem she is addressing.

  • Phil Miller

    I get lost towards the end of the article. She spends the whole article telling us that we need to be careful not to over-emphasize the narrative or story aspect of reading Scripture, but then she says this:

    We must return to these stories and events to remember not just the Bible stories, but the story that contains them all—the One Story of God’s incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name.

    I guess her point is that we can’t focus too much on the individual narratives at the expense of the meta-narrative? Or am I missing something?

  • Jeff Martin

    I agree with Dr. McKnight in that she talks about CHrist being the story within the BIble, the very thing she is trying to eschew!!!?

    But I think if she would have just stuck to the person of God and Christ instead of their story within the Bible she would be right on point. I agree with her. Dr. McKnight’s Blue Parakeet does not do a good enough job of explaining how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes fit in with his theme of “oneness”. I do think seeing as a literary anthology is much better

  • Phillip

    If I am reading her correctly, I see the point of the danger of losing the complexity of Scripture, interbiblical dialogue or differing “testimonies”, and multiple genres revealing aspects of the story. That is, some narrative retellings can flatten the Bible. While summaries of faith are helpful and appear within the Bible itself (e.g., Deut 26:5-9; Acts 7), and while these can help keep the forrest in view, I think growth requies us also to see, meditate upon, and hear the trees, branches, and leaves, the parts within the whole, in all their beautiful diversity.

    I don’t know if this contributes to the discussion much, but I also find it interesting that the church canonized four stories of Jesus – complementary but distinct – instead of one synthesized one. We find similar situations with the Law and OT historical narratives (Samuel-Kings and Chronicles).

  • scotmcknight

    Jeff, you are right and I have said the same of Goheen’s book … we need space somehow to include the wisdom literature, which isn’t part of the narrative most of the times. But it is still within the overarching story somehow, and that’s what we need to do … show how the sage fits in the Story.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    Can you unpack that some more? (how the sage fits in the story). It sounds good but I am not sure how this is to be done? Can you expound this some more or point me to an article or book. Thanks in advance!

  • scotmcknight

    The Story is formed through narratives of events and people.
    The sage is one of those people but the sage is not an event, so in many narratival readings of the Bible, which amounts to stringing together a history of the events of the Bible, the sage is omitted.

    What we have to do is stop at events, say those in the life of David or Solomon, sit a spell, and talk prayer and wisdom and love and despair, and then get up and go on in our journey with the events.

    Teaching the Bible for 17 years, mostly through the grid of the Bible’s history/story line, I sensed this on an ongoing basis, so what I did was stop to talk about David and Solomon.

    That help?

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I see what you are saying but I was more thinking about how wisdom material in general fits into the overall story of the Bible. For example, I remember reading Walter Kaiser’s “Promise Theology” and really liking it but it seemed whether with Kaiser or other systematic theologies of the Bible, the Wisdom material simply did not fit in very well to some central theme or meta-narrative very easily.

  • JKG

    Perhaps the wisdom stories do not fit our model of story because they are themselves commentaries on and applications of the stories. The Psalms distill Israel’s rejection of and longing for God, or tell of David’s heartaches. Proverbs reiterates the collective wisdom derived from Israelite experience. We might say the same even of James or the closing sections of Paul’s epistles.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I’ve been thinking about the parallels here between narrative and researching my family history. When researching the family history I have census records, land records, and other official documents that give factual data, including military pension files or an application to be counted in the Choctaw nation that include affidavits about ancestors. There are photographs. There are letters and diaries written about the author. There are letters and diary entries written about others. With some ancestors there are poems, songs, or other writings that have survived. There are published news stories. There are family heirlooms. Their are local histories about the places where ancestors lived.

    None of this is narrative but if you “live with” the data long enough, a narrative emerges. It is impossible to do the research and not have some rudimentary narrative develop.

    I tend to think of Scripture as God’s family history collection. It isn’t really a narrative but it is impossible not to discern a narrative if you “live with” the pieces long enough. And in this case, what we have are not serendipitous documents that managed to survive but documents that were preserved to give authoritative witness to the family history narrative.

    Someone will likely poke holes in this but it is where my mind goes when I think of the difference between narrative and systematic theology. They are both appropriate response to the anthology we have received.

  • http://Www.priestfield.org.uk Jared H

    Leslie is right in that it is not the story that saves us but the living Christ, but Scripture in both its narrative and its non-narrative sections are about what it means to find our place in Christ’s story and to live in it with him. She is in danger of creating a false dichotomy between Christ and his story.

  • Mijk V

    I may be off track here, but the way I appropriated narrative theology was not to simply recognize the overarching narrative of scripture as a better approach among many, but to recognize that all theologies are narrative. Narrative theology is simply more self-reflective in that regard. The abstracted systematized doctrines of Ryrie or Guder rely on story (and tell an authoritative story) just as every bit as Lindbeck.

    My understanding is that human beings cannot help but to think in narrative. Thus Leyland’s implication that narrative theology is optional makes me think she doesn’t really get it. It’s all narrative, it’s only a matter of sorting them out.

  • http://matthartke.wordpress.com/ Matt

    The main problem I have with this article is that the author fails to distinguish between ‘story’ as a literary genre and ‘story’ as a more fundamental constituent of human life, a key element of every worldview. Of course the Bible cannot be reduced to the one genre of ‘story’, but I find that the more basic category of ‘story’ as the narrative element of every worldview does much more justice to the intention of the biblical authors than ‘doctrine’, which is too often regarded as the ‘real thing’ within modernist evangelicalism.

  • http://www.leslieleylandfields.com leslie Leyland Fields

    Thanks for the thought and conversation! I wouldn’t normally barge in, but I would like to point people to the entire article, beyond the excerpt included here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/july-august/the-gospel-is-more-than-a-story.html

  • John W Frye

    I don’t like the artificial distinction is this highlighted statement: ““We don’t participate in a story,” she writes, “we participate in him.” I beg to strongly differ. We DO participate in God’s Story and it is only because of Jesus ( the CHRIST, term which assumes a previous and ongoing story) that we’re invited to do so. To say we participate in Christ allegedly apart from story assumes God is a storyless God, above story, etc. This just ain’t right.

    If Fields is warning us of pendulum swinging too far away from doctrine, propositions to narrative and story, then, that’s good (I guess). But like many others who have commented, I don’t see what this dust up is all about. People in my church don’t live daily on doctrinal statements, “Oh, am I remembering the Trinity?”…Oh, am I remembering penal substitutionary atonement?”, “Oh,am I remembering perspicuity?” They are learning to live in a new kingdom which requires an amazing, in-breaking Story (yes, through Jesus the Christ).

  • John W Frye

    One another note: the sapiential writings (*hokmah* wiki-stories) presuppose the Torah stories, and raise for contemplation, discussion and decision about the uncomfortable realities that all of life does not fit absolutely and tidily within the seemingly air-tight categories of Deuteronomy 28 (the blessings and curses formula). For Qoheleth (in Ecclesiastes) to write, “I see the righteous get what the wicked deserve and the wicked get what the righteous deserve” was an atomic blast on the Deut. 28 template. I think the wisdom writings are fascinating; the most ‘post-modern’ of the biblical genres…with the collapse of bomb-proof certainty.

  • Jeff Martin

    Mike Kruse #24 –

    Thanks for your thoughts. I like your analogy of God’s family history. I will have to digest your thought for a while. It makes the most sense to me of the Bible.

    Of course it becomes a little more difficult to get the clearest picture since we do not know much about when many of the books were composed and by who

  • Nathan

    With Kristin, I thought Leslie was talking about reducing the Bible to a narrative literary format at the expense of undervaluing the other genres. Hence, the comprehensive “literary theology” approach as opposed to elevating “narrative theology” to such a position.

    FYI – She has an interview with Trevin Wax over at TGC about the article, if you want to hear more from her on this. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/08/09/the-gospel-is-more-than-a-story-a-conversation-with-leslie-leyland-fields/

  • scotmcknight

    Nathan, thanks for the link to TGC’s interview, where we see less exaggeration and more balance.


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