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More than Story?

More than Story? August 8, 2012

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.


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