Faithfulness Beyond Instruction

Yesterday’s post contrasted narrative theology with the “owners manual” view of the Bible. I know that once this conversation wanders too far people will lose patience. But here’s why I think it’s important to have at least a basic idea of what the Bible is:

What we think the Bible is will deeply impact how we read it and what we try to do with it.

To be clear: even if you don’t have a clear answer to the question, “What is the Bible?” there are Christian-cultural markers that have created assumptions for you (either by acceptance of them or rejection of them) concerning what the Bible is and, therefore, what we should do with it.

What I want to make clear today, if it wasn’t clear yesterday, is that narrative theology can carry a strong imperatival force–it can issue a summons to act in certain ways. But it does so by a different route than the instruction manual approach.

Narrative theology takes the overarching story as the key to what the Bible is. Not key in the sense that it opens some other door, but key in the sense that even the parts of scripture that are not, themselves, stories nonetheless find their coherence and interpretive framework from the larger story in which they are embedded.

More than that, narrative theology recognizes the inherently storied nature of all human life.

“Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories… narrative imagining is our fundamental form of predicting [and our] fundamental cognitive instrument for explanation.” (Mark Turner, The Literary Mind [v, 20])

So here’s where narrative theology strikes pay dirt: it provides a way of thinking and talking about the Bible and the Christian story using the category by which we are making sense of all reality.

We tell stories about our Christian communities: where we came from, what we believe, what we do. Narrative theology says: the Story of your community is the story of the crucified and risen Christ–how does your story retell the Story that defines it?

Narrative theology draws in our sacramental practices. What are we doing when we take the bread and cup? We are enacting the story that not only founds us, but that we are called to be living illustrations of in our life together. It is not some “other” thing we tack on, the sacrament is the thing that we are, in a different mode.

As individuals we have stories, too. Often these are stories shaped by loss, by shame, by guilt, by pain. And I wonder if having those stories both embraced within and at the same time relativized by a greater defining story of a crucified and risen Christ isn’t part of the narrative reframing that God intends for God’s people when we are joined to the story of Israel that has its climax in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

Narrative theology is about (to borrow a phrase from Richard Hays) “conversion of the imagination,” or, to take the language of Rom 12, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is a much harder business than turning to the Bible as a reference manual for correct behavior. It involves a lifetime’s depth of familiarity with the story and a commitment to make that story not only our own as persons but also our own as a people.

The story defines who we are. And as we learn that identity, we acquire the wisdom of knowing what we should do so as to be living enactments of that story in the corners of the world to which God has called us.

13 thoughts on “Faithfulness Beyond Instruction”

  1. I really, really like this. I’ve been contemplating life and faith as a story lately, and the power of that story to transform who we are and what we do. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I would like to draw out a point of application that comes to mind. It is that the stories we possess also include flawed or misguided stories that remain hidden behind the veneer of being biblical. When we treat the Scripture as a “reference manual for good behavior” – those stories shape our reading in misguided ways. A good example is the culture war. Everyone is shaped by stories as Mark Turner notes above. If we are not consciously pursuing the biblical narrative (to let our minds be “transformed” – Rom. 12:1; our “imagination be converted”), we are more susceptible to be shaped by hidden stories – stories of our heritage. Stories of our culture. Many are shaped by the story of the culture war and their experience in it, and bring that to bear on the Bible – laying it over the Scriptures as a grid (without realizing it is the driving force, rather than in reverse). Whatever that story is (in this case, “culture war”), one can easily find glowing texts on the pages of Scripture that support our story. But, the story of the crucified messiah dying for his enemies (and all the richness of that – including all the stories Jesus told that fit into that: the father and two sons; the good Samaritan; the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18; Simon the Pharisee and the prostitute in Luke 7), transforms us – when it sinks in. We can – through the lens of the messiah’s story – see more clearly the ways that the present culture war (on both sides) is twisted and distorted and often misguided. We can see that the way of the cross does not negate sin (indeed, the problem of sin is central to the cross), but it shows us a way of dealing with people that is different from the culture wars many modern American Christians (like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell in the past) are engaged in. It shows us that the path we must take is one of humble, sacrificial service. The license we have to influence is drawn not from huddling in our own enclaves and slinging bibles at others – it is rather in humility, sacrifice and service for all humanity – no matter their condition; no matter what sin or sins they have committed. It does not single out a group.

    The irony of the modern religious culture war is that the one group of people Jesus chose to publically chastise were not the immoral outsiders, but the “insiders,” the believers who were doing just what many in the culture war are doing today (the Pharisees were the original culture warriors). They were slinging mud on the “bad sinners.” This is not to eliminate or overlook sin – but the remedy to it is not the way the story has been shaped by modern culture warriors. Both the sins we tend to highlight and the ones we tend to overlook (from a biblical perspective) and the way we handle those is problematic as a result, in part, of not reading and seeing the grand narrative force of Scripture – with the humiliated, shamed, crucified Messiah at the heart of who we are (1 Pet.2:21-25 – Peter is taking that great story and doing just this) and allowing that to transform us.

  3. Thank you! Loved it.

    How does your story retell the story?

    I think this is what I have been trying to get at for a while. That is a super helpful way of describing it. AND I love the “conversion of the imagination.”

    PS. I met your brother at an IVCF staff training time a few years ago. Just made the connection!

  4. I’m reminded how this past fall, I was working through a lesson with my 4-year-old daughter for a kids’ church program. This program requires parents to do a short lesson from a booklet each week with their child. This particular lesson was on the Bible, and how it is God’s Word. As I began to read the teaching from the booklet, I became very frustrated. The entire lesson was how the Bible contains rules for us to follow and honor God. There was NOTHING in there about how it is the story of God and his relationship with and redemption of the world–just how the Bible contains rules. Needless to say, Daddy went a bit off-topic in the lesson that day.

  5. One possible problem with ‘story’ gospel is that the story can become systematic theology – that is, that the story expounded from the Bible is God’s eternal plan that had to happen that way.

    But, what if it were taken, rather, that the story in the Bible emerged from God’s interactions with the various people of the Bible. So, it is the story of what those particular people were doing and God’s initiatives towards them and their reactions to that. If they had been different people or reacted differently, as may have been the case, God also would have done things differently and the story would have developed differently. So, whereas it is instructive for us to consider how things went, we don’t need to feel those things had to be, and whilst taking into account lessons to be learned from the story that did emerge, we should be engaged in our own interactions with the living God.

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