Once upon a text…

Once upon a text… November 8, 2013

This week’s From the Shepherd’s Nook is by John Frye.

Once Upon a Time in a Text Far, Far Away

I was raised and trained in a social network that prized doctrinal intelligence. A person’s ability to learn and repeat precise “biblical” ideas was rewarded with praise, affirmation and advancement. The particular lives of some of the people and a few of the communities who valued doctrinal intelligence were factious, argumentative, judgmental, petty, gossipy and blinkered. The world of these otherwise fine people was limited to those who accepted and affirmed the prevailing doctrinal expressions. It was a ghetto of Bible-based ideas.

I have been discovering another perception for reality: narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence emphasizes the power of story. Narrative intelligence, from a Christian point of view, does not minimize doctrinal intelligence, as many evangelicals think who get real jumpy about “story.” Narrative intelligence gives doctrinal intelligence a home, a place where the energies of doctrine may flourish into actual life. No one lives a systematic life. Everyone lives in stories and connects to others who are living in stories. Reality is a story construct, not a technical, scientific or doctrinal construct. I think many believers have low narrative intelligence when it comes to the faith, and it is not their fault. They check their stories at the door when they walk into church. In that antiseptic evangelical environment they are treated to “principles,” “bullet points,” “definitions” (of this Greek or that Hebrew word), and the consequential “applications.” A high octane story of Jesus’ “the Good Samaritan” is simmered down to a few clear principles and convenient moralisms and is just another little piece of the puzzle labeled “the whole counsel of God.”

Think about it: Many films have been made about the life of Jesus, some mediocre and some compelling. To my knowledge no one has made a movie of Hendrik Berkhof’s or Wayne Grudem’s systematic theologies or Calvin’s Institutes. I wonder why. Even the Apostle Paul’s alleged “doctrinal” books (e.g., Romans) were created within the passionate context of his powerful, missional life and ministry. Paul’s writings are conversations with others about the Jesus he was serving and the Story he was living and gospelling.

Following Jesus is a way of life. His followers are attracted to and swept up into Jesus’ story. The last thing we need is to be smothered in words, words, words…more and more doctrinal words. Definition-making is not the essence of the faith. Life-making, story-making is.

Once upon a time in a text far, far away…

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  • Excellent, Scot. This needs to be said and it needs to be said repeatedly. You put it well here. This really had me chuckling – a movie of Waune Grudem’s systematic theology!

  • scotmcknight

    Chris, just a reminder … this is by John Frye.

  • So it is, my apologies to you both.

  • Rick

    I generally agree with you. But in regards to story v. principles, can it be a both/and, rather than an either/or, especially if the principles are pulled from stories?

  • Pat68

    “Reality is a story construct, not a technical, scientific or doctrinal construct. I think many believers have low narrative intelligence when it comes to the faith, and it is not their fault. They check their stories at the door when they walk into church. In that antiseptic evangelical environment they are treated to “principles,” “bullet points,” “definitions” (of this Greek or that Hebrew word), and the consequential “applications.”

    And that is why, in my opinion, so much of what gets taught in churches often fails to speak to some of the incredibly complex situations that people deal with because there is no getting to know their story and finding meaning from it in God’s story. Rather, let us give you a scripture as a cure-all.

  • I wrote down what a recenter commenter on this blog said about cognitive psychology, though I know nothing about the field. They said that narrative is good for realizing and reinforcing a network of related concepts. And that new concepts are generated from metaphors and analogies from experience. I love this sentence above–“Narrative intelligence gives doctrinal intelligence a home, a place where the energies of doctrine may flourish into actual life.” I believe humans need both story and principles. Ironically, this blog itself is a dialogue about doctrine/world-view/theology/principles, not our individual stories! It’s insight into how you put the world together.

  • Rick

    Good thoughts.
    I can’t help but think of a lecture I recently heard by Dr. Laniak at Gordon-Conwell. His wife has a degree in elementary education, so the two of them can tell how story/narrative works well for both the young and adults.
    However, he did mention that teenagers and college-aged students did not seem to respond as well. He did not elaborate. I wonder if they need more principle-heavy teaching during that stage.

  • Have you read any Alisdair MacIntyre—in particular, After Virtue? He makes the point that narrative is crucial for understanding and structuring virtue. Without narrative, virtues end up being vague means to some end—usually a nefarious end by someone who is merely manipulating others through insisting on certain virtues practiced in a certain way.

  • Bev Mitchell

    John,
    A very helpful post. As for “Narrative intelligence gives doctrinal intelligence a home…”, well, I for one am going to plagiarize it. 🙂 And this one too, “They check their stories at the door when they walk into church.”

  • Dianne P

    So God gave us a story – the greatest, grandest story ever – and we came up with systematic theology. Yikes. Guess I’m leaning more and more into the apophatic tradition.

    BTW, I too got a LOL out of a Grudem systematic theology movie. Great line, Pastor Frye.