“Narratology”, “narratological”

“Narratology”, “narratological” June 28, 2012

I learned a new word this week during my meetings in Cambridge. The noun form of the word is “narratology” with the adjective “narratological”. Daniel Kirk used this word and it’s the first time I heard it. At first, I assumed he coined it because he’s such a creative thinker and knows how to turn a phrase. Well, he is very sharp tool – I knew that going in, but I am more firmly convinced now, but alas narratology is a recognized modern literary theory . . . I’m sure Daniel knew this but didn’t let on! Here’s a description I found online from a course at Purdue:

NARRATOLOGY EXAMINES THE WAYS that narrative structures our perception of both cultural artifacts and the world around us. The study of narrative is particularly important since our ordering of time and space in narrative forms constitutes one of the primary ways we construct meaning in general. As Hayden White puts it, “far from being one code among many that a culture may utilize for endowing experience with meaning, narrative is a meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted” (Content 1).

While I’m not well informed on the application of this theory in the field of literature more broadly, it does provide a way to talk about the importance of the story of Israel in shaping a readers “perception of the cultural artifacts and world” within the New Testament. The ordering or sequencing of the narrative contained within the Jewish scriptures, which was most likely quite similar to the scriptures of Jesus and Paul and John, is an essential component for interpretation. We don’t read the scripture’s story from  front to back – from Genesis to Chronicles (or Malachi), at least not theologically. Theologically we should allow the later parts of the story to interpret the earlier parts. To say it another way, the later parts indelibly shape the earlier parts.

Let me give you a few suggestions on how narratology might work. One example might be to see the story of creation in light of Israel’s story. I read Gen 1-2 through the story of Israel. In this way, the story is not only or even primarily about the story of humanity (although it can be used for this- see Paul in Acts 17) but a story of God’s creation of Israel. Related to this then would be to understand also that the story of Adam is being carried on through the subsequent stories of Abraham – Moses – David – and, ultimately, Jesus. For Paul to speak of Adam (e.g. Rom 5), in my view, is to speak of the David-Israel-Adam. Jesus as the eschatological Messiah is the Davidic Messiah-Israel-Adam one.

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  • But in my defense, the particular phrase, “absolute narratological necessity” doesn’t show up on a Google search. That much might have been my cool genes shining through!

    • Patrick

      If there were any ancient Jewish writings indicating any of them had this view of Gen 1-11 or the OT in general, I’d be more serious about it. Unless we find something like that, I just have a hard time thinking we know more than them about their cultural literary writing genres, etc.

  • Samuel

    I’m finally learning ways to describe my hermeneutical approach! What you wrote reminds me of the contribution of Peter Enns and John Walton on OT theology.

  • I like the story(ied) approach, though I’m not sure about framing it primarily as “the later parts shape the earlier parts”, since there are significant Scriptural moments where the earlier bits explain the later bits. I say, I’m “not sure”, because I’m willing to be persuaded!
    By and large I think the way Israel and the early church read the Bible was organically, which, actually, doesn’t necessitate a front to back approach either; it just, to me anyways, implies a certain unity and a certain entry point into the grand narrative of God and Israel.
    Having said this, I do like your point on Gen 1-2, though I wonder if it is Israel’s present story (at the time Gen was penned – redaction/documentary/critical issues aside) refracted back through creation events? In other words, Gen 1-2 is the bedrock upon which Israel is looking and building…Just some thoughts. Thanks for the great post – very narratologically informative =)

  • Andreas

    I’ve learned that word some months ago, when I listened to a paper given by this guy (http://www.mohr.de/theologie/fachgebiete/alle-buecher/buch/narratologie-und-biblische-exegese.html). As a mere historian I was amazed and bewildered at the same time ;-).

  • Michael McGowan

    I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of the field. It’s not only useful in biblical studies, it’s also helpful in systematic theology and philosophy of religion (as my dissertation is arguing… I’ll be finished in a couple weeks).

    Specific to biblical studies, here are some older sources to check out: James Crenshaw, Samson: A Secret Betrayed, A Vow Ignored (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978); Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts (New York: Schocken Books, 1979); David Gunn, The Story of King David: Genre and Interpretation (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 6, 1978); David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul: An Interpretaiton of a Biblical Story (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplment Series 14: 1980); Jack Sasson, Ruth: A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and a Formalist-Folklorist Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

    Newer treatments: D. F. Tolmie, Narratology and Biblical Narratives: A Practical Guide (San Francisco: International Scholars, 1999) and Mark Stibbe, John as Storyteller (SNTSMS 73: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).