The Myth of Narrative

The Myth of Narrative October 12, 2019

So here’s the thing. Lots of people seem to be talking story and narrative these days. Many of my own colleagues are using a Narrative Lectionary, under the assumption that the Scriptures can be presented in worship in a way that gives a sense of a grand narrative. And I would say even in my own approach to preaching series and other work, the move towards “narrative” is implicit in at least some of what I do as pastor.

Similarly, many biblical commentators try to make grand sweeping arguments for a metanarrative of Scripture. Examples include Mike Breen and N.T. Wright.

In my own denomination, the charge for this narrative theology and reclamation of a metanarrative or master narrative is is led by David Lose, previously of Luther Seminary and now pastor of Mt. Olivet in Minneapolis.

In his Preaching at the Crossroads, he writes:

I am not confident that we can live long without some grand narrative. Indeed, it’s remarkably difficult to avoid offering grand narratives and making truth claims. For this reason, I think we live not in an era that has seen the end of metanarratives, but rather during an age that is simply saturated by grand stories, none of which, as Lyotard suggests, reigns self-evidently supreme… Let me be clear: the challenge I name is not primarily the need to bolster biblical literacy, as if knowledge of biblical quotations, places, and names were the issue. Rather, we need to develop in our congregations a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story such that it can inform, shape, and assist our daily living. We struggle, that is, not simply with a lack of biblical knowledge but rather with an impoverished biblical imagination.

The basic argument seems straightforward. If we equip people with a grand story, it can inspire their imaginations, gain a biblical imagination, and make more sense of their lives than prior to their having such an imagination.

I admit. I remain deeply skeptical of this argument.

I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I highly doubt that even a majority of people are seeking a story for themselves. I am guessing the desire for a story is a very class-conditioned phenomenon. Second, I doubt that giving anyone a story to inspire their imaginations actually helps. In fact, it might hurt, both because it misrepresents Scripture, which is itself more compendium or pastiche than grand narrative; and because it misrepresents what can be accomplished in this life as far as getting a story that is indelibly us.

I am much more convinced by Frank Bascombe, a fictional character Richard Ford follows through his great trilogy of novels beginning with The Sportswriter, and which he has brought back for one last read in his collection of four stories, Let Me Be Frank With You.

Frank, while visiting his ex-wife in a long-term care facility, muses as he arrives:

Being an essentialist, Ann believes we have selves, characters we can’t do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believes the same. “… A man should give us a sense of mass…,” etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else–nothing hard or kernel-like. I’ve never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I’ve seen quite the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end…

The vision of a Default Self is one we’ve all wrestled with even if we’ve failed to find it and gone away frustrated. We’ve eyed it hungrily, wishing we could figure it out and install it in our lives, like a hair shirt we could get cozy in. (145-146)

In other words, the myth of a narrative offers the myth of a default self. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are typically many selves, fragmented and diverse. To bring them all into one Default Self may even be a disservice to who we are “essentially,” and also a disservice to who we are in the image of God, who is also unlikely to be best represented as a being with some type of essential character. God beyond God is also God beyond character, God beyond story.

Consider also the essays of Montaigne.

In Montaigne’s “Of the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” he writes:

“Even good authors do ill and take a wrong course, willfully to opinionate themselves about framing a constant and solid contexture for us. [Humans are in reality programmatically inconsistent.] We float and waver between diverse opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.” (xv)

The humorous thing about this quote is its irony. Montaigne, who experiences himself this way, has a kind of authorial cohesion because of his essays. He wrote himself into being to such a degree that we all experience a “self” there. But if we are to take that self at his word, it is a floating and wavering self.

So too Frank Bascombe, a character one comes to know very intimately over the course of Richard Ford’s novels, is simply a fictional character. To serve as one, Ford has to write him into existence. But reading the novels, you realize the trajectory lacks a trajectory, the character lacks a character, the self is no self, and this is Frank’s beauty and strength. He is frustrating in being consistently elusive.

Much the same could be said of Scripture. Almost all claims to depict Scripture as having a master narrative, or functioning as a metanarrative, collapse because they overtake and replace the actual Scriptures we have. It’s no longer about the text, but about the narrative or story one draws out of the text.

But once there is a story, that’s no longer Scripture. That’s an interpretation. We are talking hermeneutics. The text remains the text, and the actual text in front of us is a text that takes a wrong course, willfully opinionated itself. The text we actually have floats and wavers between diverse opinions: it wills nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.

This does not negate its status as Scripture. This is precisely what makes it Scripture! The attempt to make a narrative out of it is like capturing a snipe. If you succeed in catching it, and show it to me, that will simply prove what we already know, that snipes don’t exist.

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