Narrative Theology

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Narrative theology adopts the hermeneutical principle that the key to the meaning of a text is found in its literary genre and style. Narrative theology's own genre, as it has come to be understood by practitioners in the late 20th century, is that of story or narratio. As old as religious literature itself, and used as a clearly defined form in classical rhetoric, narratio has become the subject of recent efforts at analysis and systemization. Appreciation of the usefulness of story as a vehicle for theology has grown apace with modern hermeneutical theory (see hermeneutics; hermeneutics, biblical).

In narrative theology, Biblical stories are commonly held up as paradigms. Though they vary from fully developed scenes with dialogue to brief and sometimes cryptic summaries, Biblical narratives center on action and movement, making verbal forms very prominent. Description (nouns, adjectives) plays a subordinate part in Biblical narrative; nothing, whether character, inner feelings or scenery which does not contribute to the action has a place in the story, and in this the Biblical style differs from the Homeric. The narratornot an actor in the dramatells the story from an outsider's point of view; thus he appears as a reliable, authoritative and objective interpreter of events, able to provide the reader access to privileged information and a correct interpretation of their meaning.

This relatively new approach to theological exploration has proven to be a fruitful endeavor on several counts: first, it challenges head on the traditional view that religious truths are necessarily best expressed in propositional form; second, it lends force to the claim that religion can never be a purely personal quest; and third, it promises to make theology far more accessible to the laity than it has been heretofore. Advocates of narrative theology argue that not only is the Church's faith fundamentally narrative in structure, but that human experience itself reflects a "storied" character. It therefore follows that full participation in the ecclesial community and the formation of Christian identity assumes access to and knowledge of the Church's own "story" of salvation.

Narrative Theology. Few if any art forms can be considered more ancient or satisfying than that of the craft of good narrative, but scholarly interest in it seems to wax and wane with the currents of culture. The present very positive attention it is receiving as an important theological category appears to be due to a number of converging cultural and academic factors, particularly a resurgence of interest in Biblical studies, disenchantment with rationalistic and abstract forms of thought, and a corresponding renewed interest in subjectivity, symbol, imagination, and the arts. A further and perhaps even more significant factor has been an increased awareness of historical relativism. A growing historical awareness and sophistication has resulted in the recognition that narrative structure is an appropriate form for expressing an historically-rooted faith such as Christianity. Narrative permits us to understand "truth" in existential rather than absolute terms. The telling of a story, in effect, suggests a confessional commitment and not (necessarily) universal truth claims.

Interest in narrative theology has blossomed in the last two decades. A general understanding of its special contribution to theology can be indicated by mention of a few seminal works. H. Richard niebuhr's The Meaning of Revelation (1941) is often cited as having provided the initial conceptual groundwork for narrative theology. Niebuhr distinguished between history proper as a factual, potentially verifiable account of events, and a subjective "internal" historyby which he meant personal identity. Niebuhr claimed that in the encounter with the Church's story, an individual's "internal" history underwent reinterpretation.

Thirty years later religious philosopher Steven Crites produced a brilliant essay that proved seminal to the development of this approach. In "The Narrative Quality of Experience" (1971) Crites claimed that, far from being ephemeral, cultural forms of expression are neither historical accidents, products of culture, nor the consequence of individual ingenuity. While it is true that cultural forms are still culturally particular, certain persistent cultural forms, such as language, are the mark of what it means to be human and serve as the necessary condition of historical existence. He maintained therefore that in speaking of experience one speaks of a movement through time. Human consciousness grasps its objects in an inherently temporal way insofar as it anticipates the future, attends to the present, and remembers the past. For this reason narrative is not a contrived or foreign form imposed on human experience but an accurate reflection or symbol of the time-bound nature of that experience. This means that stories are not just a human possibility; they are a human inevitability.

Uniquely important experiences occasion the holding of festal celebrations and the telling of "sacred" stories (myths) which are in fact world-creating, i.e., in the first instance they shape consciousness; in the second, they function "not like monuments that men behold, but like dwelling places. People live in them" (Crites 1971). In written form, such stories function as "Scripture."

Roman Catholic scholar John Shea makes the same point when he observes that the "ambition of myth is not to be one more interesting but forgettable account but to become the structure of consciousness through which human situations will be appropriated" (Shea 1978). The question, according to Shea, is not whether we, as humans, "have" myths but always what kind of myths do we have? A careful probing of autobiographies always reveals a root metaphor that gives unity and coherence to a person's life. The arguments of Crites and Shea about the fundamental power of myth to shape consciousness and world view lend credence to the claim of narrative theologians that the individual self is best understood as a "story"a story which must be interpreted by and ultimately "owned" by the community of faith and its Scripture.

The Communal Story. Given the claims made about the inherently narrative structure of human experience and consciousness, it follows that the essential identity of a human community must necessarily be a kind of narration. A connected narrative is at once the most efficient and effective way of remembering; and this common memory is essential to the continued existence of any historical community, including the Church. Theologian George Stroup explains the vital function of narrative in the life of the individual believer and the Christian community. In an ecclesial context, the story of salvation functions as a kind of "glue": To be a true participant, one must be able to recite the community's stories and allow those stories to shape personal identity.

The Church has always been concerned to tell its story, first in the context of catechetical instruction, as a means of inviting and inducting newcomers into the community, and second, in liturgical celebration as a means of sustaining Christian identity and faithful witness to God's word. One of the tasks of narrative theology is to understand the process by which the community's story is grasped and appropriated by individuals. At what point does the Christian narrative shape consciousness and construct or reconstruct personal history? And does "knowing" the story entail living it? Is it possible for the individual to claim a living faith and not know the community's story? Stroup argues that the genre of narrative is indispensible to the communication, explication, and personal appropriation of the Christian faith.

Christians have learned the significance of story and its personal appropriation from the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures. As an historical, time-bound faith, Christianity has often been referred to as a "religion of the Book." This is true not only because Scripture contains the authoritative versions of the Church's sacred stories of origin; it is also true in the sense that Scripture provides the normative model for how, when, and why the stories are to be retold. According to contemporary Biblical scholars, the earliest expressions of Hebrew worship entailed the retelling or recital of past eventsevents that witness to a history of deliverance and blessing.

This ritual of remembering was not simply a matter of promoting conservative interests or maintaining a romanticized, heroic vision of the past. For Israel, to recount the mighty acts of God was to invoke that same redemptive power as a transforming force in the lives of those who remember. The ritual recital in effect "contemporized" the saving event for each new generation: "The lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today " (Dt 5:23). For centuries Jews celebrating the Passover have reminded themselves that it was they and not merely their ancestors who were delivered at the sea by the mighty hand of Yahweh.

This direct and dramatic form of appropriating the communal story (which scholars term "actualization") implies a release of power and is therefore best understood as a sacramental action. The Christian Eucharist is likewise a ritual remembering in which a new generation is permitted to participate in the definitive "saving" event, and today the Church is seeking to recover the narrative structure of worship and doctrinal formulations. For example, the category of "story" has become particularly attractive to political and liberation theologians who see in the plight of the Third World and other marginalized classes all the elements of the Exodus drama (see liberation theology). They recognize that Biblical narrative is really the only form of theology that is accessible and therefore compelling to the unlettered.

Furthermore, the abstraction of Biblical narrative into formal doctrine blunts the "bite" of these stories. The effect (inevitably) is to rob the Gospel of its potential power to subvert long-established, institutionalized injustices. German theologian, Johann Baptist Metz (1980) argues that all doctrine should have an obvious narrative and "practical" structure. Recognizing that stories, like Sacraments, are "efficacious" and thus able to transform the hearer, he warns against repeated abstractions that eviscerate the performative power of the Church's stories of salvation. The Church must consciously begin to stress the narrative quality of the Sacraments, to recognize that what Sacraments signify are stories, and that these saving stories reveal truths that would otherwise not be known. The Church, therefore, does not tell stories in order to teach doctrine. The real function of doctrine is to "protect the narrative memory of salvation in a scientific world, to allow it to be at stake and to prepare a way for a renewal of this narrative, without which the experience of salvation is silenced" (Metz 213).

Biography as Theology. The Church's story is told in yet another context, indirectly yet powerfully, and that is in the lives of faithful Christians. The lives of the saints (hagiography) has always been a popular narrative genre for communicating the faith. The current resurgence of interest in personal life histories as a form of theologizing presents more than a subjectivist preoccupation with psychology and psychotherapy. It is probably best understood as a new variety of hagiography. Liberation theologians such as James Cone (1975) or Robert McAfee Brown (1975) claim that oppressed people have "true" stories to tell and that giving voice to these stories is a form of empowerment. Feminists maintain that as the faith experience of women is not popularly recognized, the Church's story has not yet been fully told. Theologians such as George Stroup (1981) and James W. McClendon (1974), on the other hand, are more interested in linking theological and ethical themes with the genre of biography and attendant hermeneutical issues. They want to know what happens when an individual life story intersects or "collides" with the communal story. In what sense are people's lives governed by root metaphors supplied by Christian tradition? Do the lives of holy people modify or enlarge our understanding of traditional doctrines? Whose story changes and how?

Implications for Liturgy and Catechesis. Although some argue that narrative theologians are not really saying anything new, their message carries a force by virtue of the technical support supplied by their study of literary criticism, linguistics, the philosophy of history, depth psychology, ethics, and social criticism. What this relatively untested enterprise lacks in precision, it more than makes up for in energy and enthusiasm. If what it says about the formative power of the Church's communal narrative is taken seriously, there are several obvious implications for liturgical and catechetical practice.

First, narrative should form the core of both preaching and teaching. Biblical and traditional materials are most effectively presented in narrative rather than propositional form.

Second, the Church has the responsibility to preserve the story faithfully. Faithful preservation implies that the full, and not an idealized, truncated or emasculated version of the Church's story should be told. Biblical material should not be watered down or mercilessly clipped as a strategy for protecting the community from its own mortifying failures or its great successes. Faithfulness further implies that the Bible be permitted to address the community as an objective, history-like story. To allow the Biblical stories to mean whatever the reader wants them to mean is poor Biblical stewardship. It becomes a form of domestication which robs Biblical narrative of its efficacy and transformative power.

Third, the Church needs to recognize and respect the sacramental efficacy of its own narrative. Stewards of the wordpreachers, teachers, and theologiansneed to tell these stories as expectantly as they pray, and to teach them as intentionally as they teach the Christian creed which itself tells the story of creation and salvation. Stories are channels of power and grace, the rock on which sound doctrine rests.

Fourth and finally, the Church needs to become much more adept and consciously active in the task of supporting the telling or revisioning of personal faith histories. Clergy and laity alike need help in developing the skills necessary to reinterpret the experiences of daily life in terms of the Church's collective story of salvation.

Bibliography: e. auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton, N.J. 1957). r. mca. brown, "My Story and 'The Story'." Theology Today 32 (1975) 166173. j. h. cone, "The Story Context of Black Theology," Theology Today 32 (1975) 144150. s. crites, "The Narrative Quality of Experience," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 34 (1971) 219311, j. crossan, The Dark Interval (Niles, Ill. 1976). g. fackre, The Christian Story (Grand Rapids, Mich.1978). h. frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven 1974). m. goldberg, Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight (Nashville 1985); Theology and Narrative (Nashville 1981). j. b. metz, Faith in History and Society (New York 1980). j. w. mcclendon, Biography as Theology (Nashville 1974). j. navone and t. cooper, Tellers of the Word (New York 1981). h. r. niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York 1941). p. ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago 1984). j. shea, Stories of God (Chicago 1978). g. stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology (Atlanta, Ga. 1981).

[r. maas]