Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning

In practicing a narrative theology, the overarching conviction is that the revelation of God is a story: the story of the creator God, at work in Israel, to redeem and reconcile the world through the story of Jesus.

Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

This is one point at which I differ from N. T. Wright.

Regularly in Wright’s writing we will find statements such as, “This is what God was up to all along.” I don’t disagree here. But what often goes unspoken, and where I think we need to be more clear, is that one only knows “this is what God was up to all along” once one is already convinced that “this new thing is actually what God is up to.”

The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

Image courtesy of The Open Fiction Project tofp.org

This brings me to a point at which my version of narrative theology differs from the work of some practitioners of what is sometimes called “theological interpretation of scripture.” Here the specific example who comes to mind is Kevin Vanhoozer.

Confronted with the incongruity between “behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son” as it is used in Isaiah and in Matthew, Vanhoozer appeals to authorial intention to say that the Matthew meaning was, in a sense, the meaning intended for Isaiah as well. Of course, by “authorial intention,” Vanhoozer means God as author.

This, it seems to me, is cheating.

Instead, I propose a multiple-reading strategy. Allow the text to mean what it meant in its first context, as much as we can determine this. Do the historical critical work that sheds light on why, for example, an eighth century BC audience would formulate matters just so–and then recognize the freedom of later readers to reread those texts differently in light of later events.

Reading Vahoozer or Dan Treier, I sometimes fear that theological readings become a way to circumvent critical issues. But even if the demands of the church push us toward a final, post-critical reading, where we reincorporate the difficult message of an earlier day into the story of the church by a dramatic rereading of the text, I want to contend that we must still be first critical in order to be post-critical.

To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier. We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

Reading a book on theological interpretation by a scholar across the pond, I was struck by a claim that we are to read the Bible as a book addressed to us–that the ideal audience is those who proclaim and profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

This, it seemed, to me, was half right.

Yes, we are like the first and ideal audience: those expected to respond in faithful following of Jesus.

But we are also not like them: we are not first-century Romans; we are not first-century Jews; we are not fifth century Jews in Babylon. There is a specificity to the particular audience that sets us apart from them. To the writer, there would have been a hope that first-century Galatians would respond by “kicking out the slave woman and her son,” even as Abraham did. That word is not directly addressed to us in the same way.

What I propose for reading the Bible itself also pertains to reading it for our communities. We are part of a long story. This means that the retellings will involve some measure of transformation.

And this is, itself, faithful and living renarration of the story of God.

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