A Polytheist Twist on Narrative Theology

A Polytheist Twist on Narrative Theology July 7, 2014

Narrative theology (also known as postliberal theology, which I just found out) is a recent theological development where the overarching narrative of the Christian story takes on central importance, over/against ideas of systematic theology. One of its main points is that individuals are part of a community and that community’s history, which is the focus of Christian narrative theology. I like the idea of being part of a story that is bigger than myself. That seems to take into account the reality that no matter our individual practices or beliefs we are part of a larger system of beliefs, practices, and histories. I studied a little bit of this in graduate school and I thought it was helpful in many ways, though I didn’t adopt it as my preferred theological model.

This narrative model of theology makes sense in a polytheist context as well. We might be solitary practitioners, yet we are part of a larger narrative, whether or not it is our particular narrative. For some this narrative, even as undeveloped as it may be, means more; for others, it means less. I am thinking particularly of the backlash Ronald Hutton faced when he published Triumph of the Moon, in which he rained on a lot of people’s historical parade. Clearly, there was a narrative that held meaning for a lot of people, shaping their practices and the stories they told about their lineages. Even non-Wiccans have stories they are part of – whether it’s communal narratives spanning only the last five years, participating in creating the world, or even just the story of their own lives.

And this is one of the many gifts that polytheism has given me. I have yet to feel that I am part of an overarching communal narrative, but finally I have been able to embrace my own narrative: I am the hero of my own story.

Joan of Arc by Harold Piffard, c. 1895

I get to be the hero and author of my own story, my own life, my own narrative. As a Christian, Jesus was supposed to the be the hero and God was the author of my story. Now, I might join up with other heroes and characters along the way, I may add my story to the grand narrative, but I get to be the hero of my own story. No one else does. This is not selfish, though it is self-centered – and appropriately so.

Don’t children and young folk (when is that cut off again?) want to be the hero of the story? Whether that’s the knight or the princess, we want to be the focus. I wanted the hero’s journey. I wanted the hermit’s freedom and enlightenment. I wanted the witch’s confidence and power and autonomy. No one raises their hand to be the pageboy or the slave or the scullery maid. Sure, in feudal metaphors, which are deeply problematic on many levels, we are most of us more like the servants and peasants than the knights and princesses. Myth was a sacred guide. I wish I’d read more of it!

There are several ways one can take narrative theology. We can weave it into the narrative of our pantheons. We can tell the story/ies of our community: where we’ve come from, where we’re headed. We can lose ourselves in myths and stories in delusional ways, like people who lose their lives in gaming consoles, never taking their stories out into their ‘real worlds.’ Narrative theology can inform our experience whether we’re polytheists, monists, dualists, or humanistic Pagans.

If I am the author of my life then I relate to the gods and spirits however the relationship requires, rather than in a one-size-fits-all way. Sometimes I am battling demons, usually my own. Sometimes I am engaging with land spirits. Sometimes I am worshiping the gods, other times listening as a student, or acting as ambassador to or for them.

What is the story I am telling? Often times when I read interviews with authors they say that characters evolve and the stories tell themselves. I have an idea of what I want for my life and who I want to be; I aim for some consistency, but I don’t restrict myself to the ‘genre’ I think I am. Sometimes my life is a melodrama, sometimes a comedy, occasionally with tragic moments. Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. Sometimes the hermit.

But I’m still not exactly sure what it is I’m looking for, I’m still not exactly weaving a new narrative. What is my ‘grail’? Am I the knight, the witch, the monk, the lady? Likely I’m all of them, depending on what day it is. Paganism, in the broadest sense, best allows me to be who I need to be. Its language and vocabulary best expresses what I’ve experienced. But sometimes I find myself continuing to seek out the same story and characters I was looking for when I was a Christian.

by Alison Rawson via Wikimedia Commons

If I may mix metaphors for a bit, it’s like sailing on the sea in a boat. By leaving behind Christianity I thought I’d gotten into an entirely new mode of transportation, except it’s the same style of boat, only with a new paint job. I am looking for a god to fill my gaps, give my life order and meaning, help me feel special. I see that this new story I think I’m living is a lot like my time in Christianity. I still keep thinking of things in Christian-ish terms: personal relationship (am I supposed to have these with the gods?), prayers, worthiness (I struggle with never feeling quite ‘enough’). I’m still sailing in a monotheistic boat, only with polytheist paint. Paganism, of any kind, ought to be like diving in to the waters and swimming. Me, I find myself still clinging to the rudder of some boat. That’s not the story I thought I was writing!

I have to remind myself to let go, to swim and bob in uncharted waters, even though much of the seas have been sailed and swum by countless adventurers before me. I can read their stories and look at their maps, but I have to swim this magical, polytheist sea for myself. There’s no one to save me, at least not in my narrative.

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  • One possible application of the notion of narrative theology to (some) Pagan practice is the Wheel of the Year as a repeating myth cycle. This also suggests that part of the reason that Wiccan-esque tropes have such power in Pagan circles…to the point of being overbearing at times…is that they DO have an internally consistent narrative, both in terms of a mythic history and a myth-story that rituals follow. Even if we know that some elements of the history could be charitably described as wishful thinking, the power of the story is still there.

    • Absolutely! It’s also why the ‘Burning Times’ narratives pack such meaning too.

  • Sarah Sadie

    Niki have you read The Sound of the Silver Horn? It’s about women and the hero’s journey–highly recommend, and a pretty quick read. Also, of course, Women Who Run with the Wolves.

    I’m also interested in how we can question or re-frame “hero,” question the dominant model of narrative, how subvert, interrupt, challenge…and how realize that the reader writes us as much as we write ourselves in these blogs, and what does that mean…

    Thanks for this one.

    • I haven’t read either of those books! Can you unpack that second paragraph for me?

      • Sarah Sadie

        Yeah, I wasn’t exactly clear was I…

        What I struggle with is the tension between wanting to become the hero of my own journey and the belief that the archetypal shape of the hero’s journey has been over the eons largely imagined, created, and in accordance with a traditionally male/masculine/boy/man experience. So–I want to own my story, be the hero, yes. But–what would that mean, truly? Here is where my language dries up and I must invent. It’s not enough to dress the princess or the goosegirl in britches and give her a sword, insist she can be CEO if she wants to be…what other shapes could there be for stories to take? Is it always linear? Does the climax always come at the end and then do we roll over and fall asleep after a cigarette? Could it branch? Spiral? Form a snowflake crystal? Dance in fractals? Decay? How do we talk about the truths of our own (female) lives, centering our stories on those lives? Not on our lives as we perceive them through the lens/mirrors of our media, our stories, our inherited versions of ourselves? How do we re-wild without hurting anyone we love?

        These are the questions that crowd my head–as much in response to the books I mentioned as to your essay, I suppose. But anytime we talk about narrative, about the protagonist/hero, I am very aware of the patterns we inherit and how they don’t always fit.

        for all of that, I may not have unpacked so much as just shoved more into the suitcase. :/

        • The Descent of Inanna and the Persephone story are heroic journeys, and notably the protagonist doesn’t slay the “monster” (who is also Death) but rather reaches some kind of detante or alliance with it (and gains power thereby). She then returns to the surface world, bringing her newfound power and knowledge back to the people, but in both cases this isn’t a tidy ending but the beginning of a cycle.

          • Sarah Sadie

            Yes–one aspect of the Persephone story I wish we heard more about (maybe I should go write it, right?) is how she becomes Queen of the Underworld, as well as getting to visit her mother above ground for half of each year. I’ve read there are parallels between her and Aphrodite–Light Queen, Dark Queen, sort of (NOT good/evil, mind you)…but I don’t see much about that anywhere.

            I’m not saying there aren’t any heroic stories that feature females–I’m saying there aren’t enough. And I think we have to write them, if we want to see them.

            I especially like the idea of the “untidy” ending–the best kind, imo.

        • Yes, I suspected this is what you were meaning! And I agree! The one thing I want from original hero journeys is the freedom to have my adventure unfold as it will, not according to some one’s idea of what it means to be male or female or even human.

          • Sarah Sadie

            Also…I love the idea that someone who is a regular-seeming, ordinary enough person can wake to discover they have powers they didn’t previously dream of, awake to worlds they knew nothing about. This seems like an important part of a lot of heroic journeys…and very important to me personally as I go on a quest to match the socks from the dryer. 😉

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      Have also read “The Heroine’s Journey” and can state that it is NOT a womanly revision of Campbell’s “Hero with 1000 faces”

      • Guest

        Did not mean to imply it was. I love the book.

      • Sarah Sadie

        Are you talking about Sound of the Silver Horn? I did not mean to imply it was –I think she addresses some of the same points I’m thinking about, which is why I recommended the book in the first place. Along with Wolves.

  • I love this: “I’m still not exactly sure what it is I’m looking for, I’m still not
    exactly weaving a new narrative. What is my ‘grail’? Am I the knight,
    the witch, the monk, the lady? Likely I’m all of them, depending on what
    day it is. Paganism, in the broadest sense, best allows me to be who I
    need to be. Its language and vocabulary best expresses what I’ve

    I also love the fact that you are clear that there are Christian habits and patterns of story that crop up for you still–still finding yourself at times in a monotheistic boat instead of swimming (at sea in?) new stories. We are all the product of all the stories that we have been touched by, even as we slowly learn to alter them to fit new understandings.

    For me, at least, the acid test is life: going out and living it, and then learning which are the stories that best “speak to our condition.”